This article was originally published in the Charlotte Observer on April 23, 1992.
Hillary Clinton, the high-profile wife of Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, visited Charlotte on Wednesday.
The would-be first lady talked to staff writer Tim Funk about everything from her role in a Clinton administration to women’s efforts to juggle family and career.
Q. I'm sure you've heard this quote, but I’d love to know what you think of it: “If the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp.” That was Richard Nixon, speaking about you and your husband.
A. Well, I think anybody who either knows my husband or has followed this campaign knows that he’s tough enough, strong enough and decisive enough not only to be president but to enjoy women who have contributions to make as well.
Q. Do you think a sizable percentage of the voters share Nixon’s sentiments?
A. I think that Nixon’s comment is a generational one, that it's understandable in the context of the times in which he grew up. But I don't think it is representative of what’s happening in the country today, where many women are taking leading roles in so many areas of our lives and are working closely with men to make life better in both the private and public sector.
Q. Do you think there are still unwritten rules about the conduct of wives of would-be presidents? And are you breaking those rules?
A. What I have tried to do – to be a wife, a mother, have my own profession, plus be active in the community – is a balancing act that millions and millions of women of my age and younger have engaged in. And so we don't know what to expect these days because, when my mother was growing up and making her choices, they were more limited than the choices available to women in America today.
And we have to understand that any woman who makes a responsible choice – whether it be to be a full-time homemaker and mother or to be a full-time professional or to do what most of us do, which is to juggle those roles – is exercising choices that were formerly not available.
Q. Let me ask you about that. You said that many women have had to juggle career and family. Few of them, though, have had to do it on as public a stage as you. I wonder how tough that’s been and whether you'd have any advice for people that may follow.
A. Well, I think it has been tough because it's been in the public arena. But I don’t think it's all that much different from what millions of women and men go through every day. So even though I may have more public attention focused on how I’m trying to do that – you know, fulfill my responsibilities as Chelsea's mother and Bill's wife as well as a lawyer – I think that it's really not all that much different from what’s happening in other women's lives. But when other people do things, they don’t get columns written about them or telegrams from Tammy Wynette or magazine articles.
Q. But when other people do things, they don’t get columns written about them or telegrams from Tammy Wynette or magazine articles.
A. (Laughs). That’s right.
Q. Were you ready for that glare?
A. I don’t know that anyone is ever ready for what happens in a presidential campaign because it is unlike anything that anyone has ever experienced. It's kind of like being a mother. You know, you can be around a lot of babies and have a lot of experience with them. But until you've had your own, it’s not like anything you've been through before. I remember when Chelsea was a little baby, one night when she was having a hard time going to sleep and I was rocking her, I just looked down at her and said, “Now Chelsea, we’re going to work this out. You've never been a baby before and I've never been a mother before. But we're going to figure this out together.”
During this presidential campaign, a couple of times my husband and I have kind of turned to each other and said (laughs), “Well, we've never done this before, you know. You've never run for president. I've never been the wife of somebody who's run for president. But we're gonna work this out.”
Q. Let me ask about your daughter, Chelsea, who's now 12. How has she held up under the barrage of stories and columns about her mother and her father? What do you tell her? What does she tell you?
A. Because she has always had a father in public life – she was born when we were living in the (Arkansas) governor's mansion in 1980 – this is not brand-new to her. Starting when she was about the age of 6, we began telling her that in politics people said mean things. They even told lies. I remember telling her this and her dad explaining to her and she just looked stunned. Her eyes got really big and she said, “Well, why would they do that?” And her daddy said, “Well, honey, I don't know, but that's the kind of thing that happens. And we just want you to understand that.”
When all of this began happening in the presidential campaign, we talked with her about it. We asked her how she felt and answered her questions. And, you know, she is so proud of her father and loves him so much and he's been such a wonderful father, that, like any challenge a family faces, if you face it honestly and you deal with it, you're much more likely to be strengthened by it. And I’m very proud of her and her support for her dad's decision.
Q. Let me shift to the political. Let's fast-forward to January 1993 and say that President Clinton is settling in. Are you sitting in cabinet meetings as attorney general? Are you his closest adviser? Or are you off pursuing your own agenda?
A. I am not going to have any kind of paid position. I'm not going to be in the cabinet. That's not how we've ever worked together. I have a set of issues that are of great interest to me that Bill knows about and we've worked on together, (issues) that I've cared about for more than two decades. What we've done in Arkansas is to focus on those issues that he was very committed to that I also had an interest in – primarily, children and family issues and public education and health-related issues – and then for him to ask me to take a role in trying to develop recommendations.
Or to travel around the state talking to people. For example, I’ve chaired two commissions that Bill appointed. One, in his first term, on access to rural health care. And the commission came up with recommendations, which he then reviewed and largely implemented. Then in 1983, I chaired a commission on reforming Arkansas education. Again, we worked very hard on the commission, made some recommendations to Bill. He then put together a legislative package. I testified for it. I talked with people.
That's the kind of role I feel comfortable playing. I think that children, particularly, in our country need a lot of support. Especially poor children. There are things that the government can do that would make a difference. There are many things that only families can do or schools can do. But at least we could set an agenda that would be aimed at trying to provide the basic supports for children that I think would strengthen families.
Q. I hear people say, “I wish SHE were running.” Do you hear that? And what do you tell those people?
A. Oh, sometimes I do. But I think that it's more because of the issues that Bill and I are trying to talk about. You know, there are millions of people in our country who know that the country is going in the wrong direction. And if they haven’t had a chance to meet Bill or hear him speak, if they hear me speak and I'm talking about issues that they've thought about but which have not been part of the presidential leadership for more than a decade, they are excited by it.
Q. Would you like to run for anything yourself at some point? An article in the May Vanity Affair hinted you were interested at some point in the governor's race in Arkansas.
A. No. What is true is that people have talked to me about running for office ever since I was a little girl. And I’ve never seriously entertained that. I'm very honored that people would talk to me about it. But it's not something that I have wanted to do to this point in my life, certainly.
Q. Vanity Fair also did a poll: 53 percent of those they interviewed said that it was their sense that your relationship with your husband was more of a “professional arrangement” than a “real marriage.” What would you say to that 53 percent?
A. I’d say they don't know my husband or me or they don’t know anything about our marriage. (laughs). So . . .
Q. You said on “60 Minutes” that the problems you and your husband had had actually strengthened your marriage.
A. That’s right.
Q. In what way?
A. Well, I think anyone who has ever been in a marriage that has overcome any challenges knows that if you stay committed and you are honest with each other, that it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. And you end up in a much different and better place than from where you started.
Q. One last question from Vanity Fair: The magazine suggested that, in 1982, you remade yourself. You took your husband’s name, got rid of the glasses, dyed your hair. All because, the article said, you and your husband wanted to be reelected in conservative Arkansas.
A. Well, only one of those things happened in 1982. In 1982, when Bill ran for office again, I made the decision I would use his name for all purposes because it was very difficult for a lot of the people in our state to understand. I thought it was the right decision at the time we were married (to use my maiden name) because I knew he was going to be in public life and I really didn't want people believing that, since I wanted to practice law, that I was in any way using my husband's position. And I didn't want him to be in any way burdened by what I was going to try to do in my profession. And then after I realized that it was confusing for a lot of people, I made the other decision.
Now on the other things, gosh, you know, I started trying to wear contact lens when I was 16 years old. Trying to stick those hard things in my eyes was torture. And I used to walk around when I was in college with one eye sqwunched-up and the other one tearing like crazy. And it wasn't until probably a year or two or three after ‘82 that I finally figured out how to wear soft contact lens, that I finally got the right solution to clean them and all that. And, gee, I think changing your hairstyle is half the fun of being a woman. (Laughs).
Q. Last year, most of us were riveted to the TV set during the Clarence Thomas hearings. It seemed like everybody took sides (siding with Thomas or his accuser, Anita Hill). Did you take sides?
A. I was sorry that President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas in the first place because I didn’t think he was the most qualified person for the position. And he was not someone who had shown in his career the kind of stature that I think a Supreme Court justice should have. And then the hearings were an unfortunate and disappointing experience for the whole country to have to go through. So I hope that if anything good came out of them, the recognition of the legitimacy of the issue of sexual harassment may have.
Q. You've been with the Children's Defense Fund for a long time. I'm hearing rumblings that the Republicans are going to make your views on some children’s issues an issue. They're saying you favor children suing their parents. Do you fear that this is going to enter the campaign in the fall? And what is your position?
A. Well, I hope it doesn’t become an issue because I think that anyone who sees what's happening with children in America today knows that there are many children suffering under tremendous burdens. And all of us need to be concerned. I have worked for more than 20 years to try to figure out ways to help strengthen families and to give families the support they needed to make good decisions for their children. But we have a lot of situations in which the family may not be able to do that. Oftentimes, when serious medical care is required and the family, for whatever reason, refuses to obtain that, the rest of us representing the community of adults have found it appropriate to represent that child's interest. That’s what I’m talking about. At some points in some children’s lives, there may be a need for someone else to help solve a problem of abuse or neglect or mistreatment or the denial of the opportunity to be treated fairly.
What I'm more interested in is the work the Children's Defense Fund has tried to do for 20 years: giving more of a priority to children’s needs than we have in this country, providing the kind of health care that pregnant women need, providing the immunizations that children need, making sure children are healthy when they start school, providing good, quality child care when children have to have that. And on and on. So if the Republicans want to make an issue of caring for our children and what we need to be thinking about and discussing as a nation, then I’ll be surprised.
Q. If your husband is elected, will you continue practicing law?
A. I don't think so.
Q. Any interest in the Supreme Court?
A. No, it’s never interested me. I’m too much of an activist to want to do that.
Q. Have you patched things up with Tammy Wynette (who objected to Hillary Clinton's statement on “60 Minutes” that she's not “some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”)?
A. I never thought it was very badly breached. I talked to her on the phone and she was more than gracious. So I never knew what all the big fuss was.
Q. Last question: Do you see your husband much? Do you talk about politics or are you so sick of it that you talk about anything else?
A. I don’t get to see him enough. We had a great couple of days over Easter. I’ll see him this weekend in Pennsylvania. That has been the hardest part of the campaign. Bill and I have never been separated that much. Neither of us have been separated as much from Chelsea as we have been. When we see each other, we catch up with our lives and how we’re feeling. I’ve been worried about his voice. So we just spend our time trying to just be together and find out what's going on with each other.