As Hillary Clinton appears in a new four-part documentary about her life, she speaks about the upcoming US presidential election, her hopes for the future of politics, and the most effective way to bring about change in society.
Why did you want to do this and was anything off limits in terms of interviews?
Hillary Rodham Clinton: There was nothing off limits. As Nanette [Burstein — director] will tell you, this did not start out as the film it ended up being. It really started out as, maybe, a campaign documentary because we had about 1,700 hours of behind-the-scenes footage, some of which is in the movie.
But Nanette, who I was very impressed with when we interviewed her as the person that was going to direct the film, came back — and she can tell you — came back and said: “Look, this is a bigger story. It needs to be told. It’s part of the arc of women’s history, advancement, choices that are made.”
So, I’m not running for anything. I’m not in office. So I said: “Sure, why don’t we give it a try?” And off we went.
We see you getting your makeup done or you’re miked for the documentary interviews where you are speaking a bit off the cuff. Did you know those scenes were going to be included in the documentary and how that part of the film came about?
HRC: No. [laughs]
The series opens up by exploring how polarising and extreme the reactions to you have been. At the end of four hours — and obviously many, many more hours making the series — did you come to any new conclusions about why reactions are so extreme on either end?
HRC: It’s really interesting. I think I did around 35 hours of interviewing with Nanette. And I have to say some of it was clear to me — and really she picked up on it early on — I became a kind of Rorschach test for women and women’s roles as soon as I burst onto the public scene when Bill was running for president. I’d lived more than 40 years before that, and I had no real understanding of what it meant to be thrust into this highest, brightest platform and try to live your life and kind of go along with what you’d always done. So, for example, when Bill asked me to lead our efforts on universal healthcare, it seemed pretty standard to me because I had done similar things in Arkansas on education. And so, little did I know that it would create the most extraordinary backlash that the First Lady would be involved in trying to make sure everybody had quality, affordable healthcare in our country. And there’s a scene in the movie, which I had forgotten until Nanette dug it up, of me being burned in effigy for wanting healthcare.
So part of it was the timing that I came on the national scene, what I chose to do — which was extremely controversial — the fact that I was the sort of ‘first First Lady’ of my generation and had been working ever since I was a young woman in the professional workforce. And you don’t have to like everybody in public life. You can not vote for them because of whatever reason you pick, so I’m sure there were personal reactions. But I think it was even more rooted in the time we were in and the kind of challenging impression that people had of me at that time and who I was and what I cared about and what I did.
You know probably better than anybody that you do a long interview or a debate or a public appearance and everything you say and do it usually gets boiled down to one moment, to one sentence, sometimes out of context. You do 35 hours of interviews here for a four-hour documentary. What do you expect the headline to be that everyone writes out of this and what do you hope the headline is?
HRC: Thank God it was only four hours. I don’t know.
I mean, the reaction that people who’ve seen it have already expressed is gratifying because there’s a lot of people who say “I didn’t know that”, or “that’s really interesting”, or “that put it into a historic context”.
By the time this airs, we’ll probably be much closer to knowing who our Democratic candidate will be for the presidency. What do you hope American voters can learn from this or take away from this that will help them making decisions going forward?
HRC: Wow. Actually, by the time this airs, it’ll be right in the thick of what’s called Super Tuesday. So you’ll have the first four contests behind us. So maybe by that time the field will have clarified, and we’ll have a better idea who’s likely to end up with enough delegates to be the nominee. I think the most important message is, we are — and I say ‘we’, because that’s the side that I’m on. I think I am on the side of an inclusive, generous, open-hearted country that faces up to the future, tries to bring people together to make difficult choices, of which we have many facing us, and that we’re in a real struggle with a form of politics that is incredibly negative, exclusive, mean-spirited. And it’s going to be up to every voter, not only people who vote in Democratic primaries, to recognise this is no ordinary time. This is an election that will have such profound impact.
You’re headed to Sundance with this documentary. How are you feeling about that?
HRC: Well, I’ve never been to Sundance. I hear it is the most amazing experience and you literally could stay up for two weeks straight and see incredible films from all over the world and all kinds.
So, I’m really looking forward to it. I’m excited about it. It’s like a new experience. I don’t know what to expect other than it’s supposed to be cold. So, I’m looking forward to being there. And I don’t know whether I will have time to see any other films, which would be really disappointing since I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Sundance. But I think showing it there — which is really an international audience, and then we go to the Berlin Film Festival, which is also an international audience — I don’t know what they’ll make of it, but they want it. I think it’s going to be, for me, a lot of fun. Trying to figure out how to explain the moment in history that we find ourselves is really difficult. So any hints that people can pick up — and I think there are some in this movie and there’s a lot of other places to go to get them — because we are living in such a transformational age. And whether it ends up on the high side or the low side, we’re not clear yet. I’m looking forward to the questions, to the experience, and everything that goes with being at Sundance.
Your contribution to the cultural narrative is immeasurable. What do you feel one person can do to make change?
HRC: I don’t mean to be overly simplistic or put on my rose-coloured glasses, but I would say a couple of things. One, vote, please vote. It is almost a truism to say that we can look at what’s happening politically in our country right now and be so discouraged, so frustrated, even disgusted, that it just turns you off.
And why, in any way, participate or contribute to that absolute craziness? It doesn’t have to be that way. It wasn’t so long ago that we actually had a president where we didn’t have to worry every morning when we woke up about what was going to happen that day. Or what crazy tweet would threaten war or some other awful outcome. So there is no substitute for voting. Second thing, you are in the media, you cover it, you are part of it, we’ve got to somehow understand that you can’t make good decisions in a democracy if we can’t even agree on basic facts. If we can’t have some understanding of what the evidence is on which we base our decision making. And even though the media has a great role in transporting us and challenging us and taking us out of our everyday reality, there does need to be a kind of base reality that people can tune into and feel they can rely on. And there’s a lot of good work that’s been done about how authoritarians rise up, because remember, historically, most authoritarians were elected to start with.
And when I was Secretary of State, I had a saying. I would go around to 112 countries and one of our missions was to try to embed democracy and democratic principles and rule of law and everything that goes with it, because too many elections were one-and-done.
And the final thing I would say is we’ve got to figure out how to have a more constructive relationship with social media.
It won’t surprise you to hear me say that I am worried because everything I’ve just said about what can happen in the political realm is amplified, exacerbated, in the realm of social media. I hope that voters, citizens, activists, everybody who knows you have a stake — which is everybody — in the kind of future we should build together, does speak out, does use whatever platform you have to say: “Wait a minute.” You can disagree with the facts, but there are facts. You can choose not to vaccinate your children, but there are facts. You can choose not to believe in climate change, but there are facts. And somehow, we’ve got to shoulder that responsibility, not only at the political leadership level, but literally at the citizen, activist, concerned human being level.
What element of this was the most humbling for you during the production and shooting?
HRC: There were a lot of humbling moments. One was the recognition that I have been often, in my view obviously, mischaracterised, misperceived, and I have to bear a lot of the responsibility for that. That whatever the combination of reasons might be, I certainly didn’t do a good enough job to break through a lot of the perceptions that were out there. So that was a constant recognition.
Because it was quite common for people who knew me, who worked with me, worked for me, were colleagues of all sorts, to shake their heads at the way I was portrayed. And I would just kind of blow it off, brush it off, and not think about it. But this process, which was so intense — I mean 35 hours is a lot of time to spend with somebody — and to realise that I’m not any different than I was, but perhaps I could have and should have found ways to better present myself or deal with some of the misperceptions that were out there.
What do you think you could’ve done on that?
HRC: I don’t know. That’s a very good question. I don’t know. I was constantly being surprised how things that I said that I did not think were that far out of the ordinary were taken. And I think that did cause me to get even more cautious and more careful and more guarded. It was like, oh, my gosh, if I say anything, it’s going to be be misinterpreted. And so it became a kind of vicious cycle, unfortunately. I think that that was really humbling because I looked at this film and, really, I don’t know where she got some of the footage. I didn’t know who she was interviewing.
I made suggestions, but it was up to her to decide who she wanted to interview and who she thought was good enough to put in the film or making a point that she wanted to make. And I just thought, wow, I wish that I could’ve figured out a better way to convey that. But I also know that I was this lightning rod and I was somebody who people were quick to judge, often having nothing to do with me but with the times and with the attitudes about women. And all of that was tied up together. So it was complicated.
Hillary is also going to the Berlin festival, which is fairly unusual for a docuseries. Can you say how you think it might be received there in light of how the rest of the world views American politics?
HRC: I love Berlin. I was shocked. I mean I was shocked when they said it was going to Sundance. This is not my field of expertise or experience, so it was very exciting. And then,obviously, for Berlin to accept it and invite us — and I’ll do the same thing in Berlin I’ll do in Sundance, answer questions, which I think will probably be far about what’s wrong with the United States. Look, it’s not a surprise to any of us that the rest of the world is either joyfully celebrating our divisiveness and our difficulties because it plays into their hands, and there are a number of such countries and leaders out there who could not be happier with what’s happening in the United States under this leadership.
And then there are our friends, our allies, our sympathetic watchers who know that without the United States kind of being the bulwark against all sorts of threats, that they themselves are more endangered. And the whole question about how we keep Western democracy going, even if it needs to be reformed as it does.
So, I think there’s a deep level of concern. I was in London a few weeks ago on a book that my daughter and I had written, doing that promotion, and every question, everywhere I went was: “What’s gonna happen in the United States? What are you going to do? And what can we expect next?” And it is a really fraught time right now. And so, I anticipate there will be a lot of questions about that that spring off of the film itself.
HRC: Thank you.
In conversation at the recent Television Critics’ Association winter press tour in California.