It only took 50 years in the spotlight, 2000 hours of behind-the-scenes footage from her 2016 Presidential Election campaign, and 35 hours of intensive one-on-one interviews to answer one of the most enduring mysteries of modern American history: Who is Hillary Clinton?
It turns out, she’s exactly who she said she was.
The specifics of why Clinton is perceived the way she is and how her interaction with the press and public has shaped her behavior — creating an ouroboros of feedback and adjustment that would haunt her entire political career — form the center of Nanette Burstein’s brilliant Hulu documentary series “Hillary.” The four-part series has done the heavy lifting for audiences. In candid conversations, Clinton herself unpacks her own life as framed by history.
But while it’s impossible to capture the full nuance of how Clinton’s life intersects with the course of American history, as well as how it has shaped public perception of her, there were a few specific concepts I kept returning to after watching the series; thoughts that I was able to explore further in a phone conversation with Burstein and Clinton in June.
An obvious question to ask first: How is it that a person as legendarily private as Clinton is purported to be — a sentiment echoed by the former Secretary of State’s closest friends and compatriots throughout the documentary — found themselves comfortable sitting down for an expansive series of interviews for a film that would document the whole of her life? Just as Clinton finally had an opportunity to step away from center stage and reorient her life toward private citizenship, why did she decide to do this?
These seeming contradictions likely lay at the heart of some critics’ feelings toward the longtime politician. “Hillary” might make it seem as though she is unable to let go of being a part of the larger conversation, in spite of her yen for privacy.
But for Clinton, the documentary was all about timing and opportunity. Originally conceptualized as a film about her failed 2016 campaign for president, Burstein flipped the script after viewing 2000 hours of behind-the-scenes footage, pitching to Clinton a much more expansive vision than originally imagined, one that would focus on the role of women in politics, the change that has taken place in the last 50 years, and Clinton’s own place in that particular narrative.
Clinton wasn’t running for anything. She had the time. And, heck, she thought it would be interesting to sit down with Burstein.
“Look, I liked her,” Clinton said during our call. “I liked her work. I liked her ethos. I understood that she could ask me anything, which, believe me, she did. I would be there as the person who was the subject of the documentary, but not the only reason for doing the documentary. That’s what I was interested in. I thought Nanette understood how my life was somewhat representative of the lives of women coming of age in the latter part of the 20th century. I thought that could be a very dramatic and effective story.”
For Burstein, the project was about Clinton in theory. In reality, she wanted to create a rumination on how the country had landed in such a tumultuous and fraught place, using Clinton’s life as a vehicle.
“We have these overriding themes of the arc of the women’s movement, the arc of partisan politics and how we ended up so divided in this country,” the director said. “How does Secretary Clinton, the arc of her life story, fit into that? Then within that, how do we see the  election play into that?”
Burstein told the story by weaving together three separate strands: Clinton (and the country’s) past, the progression of the 2016 campaign, and the present.
“It is a complicated structure,” Burstein said. “I wasn’t sure it ultimately would work. My plan B was, OK, I just tell it chronologically, and the last hour is just the 2016 election. Fortunately, it did play. It did work.”
She isn’t wrong. By choosing this complicated structure, Burstein allowed for pointed juxtaposition between how Clinton was perceived and treated when first appearing on the campaign trail as a promising young lawyer and First Lady of Arkansas, and how she was perceived and treated when she became the first woman to gain the presidential nomination of a major party and win the popular vote in an American presidential election. It’s a complicated maneuver — similar to that utilized in ESPN’s “The Last Dance” — that presents a complex narrative, as opposed to a dry timeline.
The documentary makes clear that one of the stumbling blocks for Clinton as her career progressed from lawyer, to First Lady, to United States Senator, to Secretary of State to, ultimately, presidential candidate is that (to borrow from the Batman universe) she lived long enough to see herself become the villain.
A major idea in political discourse is the Overton window. Also known as the window of discourse, the term quantifies the range of policies that are acceptable to the mainstream populace in any given moment. An idea’s political viability depends on falling within this range of public acceptance, as opposed to how politicians felt about that idea.
As an illustration, consider LGBTQ rights. In 1969, the Stonewall uprising was sparked after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn served as the tipping point against targeted harassment of the LGBTQ community. It’s a fundamental building block of the movement for LGBTQ rights. But from Stonewall, the Overton window on LGBTQ rights shifted. Things changed. In 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. And on the morning of my phone conversation with Burstein and Clinton, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights act of 1964 protected individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Those successes are a function of political activism and politicians’ support for LGBTQ rights, yes, but also thanks to how dramatically public attitudes about LGBTQ people have shifted in the last 50 years.
Now consider Clinton. When serving as First Lady — of Arkansas and then the country — her fundamental belief that women should be treated as equals and given equal rights to men meant that she was painted by then-nascent conservative media platforms (like talk radio) as a super-liberal, hyper-feminist — a danger when it came to traditional family values. If you were to believe her critics, she had been sent to Earth from the depths of hell to scandalize your children, force everyone to have quality health insurance, and maybe make everyone get a gay marriage. Needless to say, that wasn’t who Hillary Clinton was. But it didn’t matter. Some people believed it anyway.
By the time Clinton ran for president, first in 2008 and again in 2016, the Overton window had shifted in both directions. She was still far too liberal for conservatives, but many on the left saw her as too centrist. The left’s criticisms of Clinton were often fair, but Clinton’s concerns about appearing radical made sense when rooted in her own personal history. The world had changed underneath her, and she didn’t always seem to grasp that.
Except in all of the ways that world has stayed exactly the same. Early on in “Hillary,” Clinton said of the politically tumultuous summer of 1968, “As fraught as times are right now, you just felt like the end of the world was right around the corner, and you had to do everything you could to hold it together.” That quote might not seem to have aged particularly well in summer 2020, given the double whammy of coronavirus and the ongoing pushback against police brutality and systemic racism.
I asked about the similarities between now and then. Clinton agreed that she could see the parallels. But she remained hopeful that lasting cultural, political, economic, and legal change could be enacted, because it was “absolutely necessary.”
“An enormous amount of progress for civil rights and women’s rights and human rights were really incubated in the 1960s, but it is a disappointment that we keep repeating so many of the horrible actions that we’ve seen in the last several years,” she said.
“I talked a lot about it in my 2016 campaign. I traveled with women whose children had been killed by police action or by civilian gun violence. I just can’t believe that we are still at this deep level of pain that is manifest all over our country,” Clinton said. “I agree that there is a hopefulness and there is a resoluteness, a determination, on the part of the protestors, the advocates, and activists that this time will be different. Boy, I’m in favor of all that.”
Clinton is still a product of her time, however. When I asked her, point-blank, what was wrong with white women — who, in 2016, backed Donald Trump (who garnered 47 percent of white women’s votes) over Clinton (who garnered 45 percent) — Clinton seemed a bit taken aback. Burstein, for her part, let out a long, hearty laugh, either at my impertinence or at her recognition of what I was asking (or possibly both).
“There’s a lot of academic research that has gone into trying to answer that question about how different groups of voters vote,” Clinton said. “White voters haven’t voted for a Democrat in quite some time in a majority. That’s both white men and white women. It was certainly, in my experience, regrettable, but it’s just one of those things you have to learn from and try to do better next time, I guess.”
“I mean, for me, that was the most painful part of the immediate aftermath of the election,” Burstein said. “The biggest part was that Secretary Clinton lost and then Trump was the president. To know that 60-something percent of white women voted for him was devastating. Obviously, yes, there is research into it, but it is so upsetting.” [In 2018, Pew Research Center released validated voting numbers that reflected the 45/47 split between Clinton and Trump among white women.]
Clinton went on to explain that in reality, she did better with white women than recent Democrats, all of whom received less than 45 percent of the group’s vote.
“You’ve got to look at it in a broader context,” she said. “Hopefully now, with what we’re seeing in polling, I think, all hope held up, it’s going to change this November.”
But even beyond white women’s narrow support of Trump, second generation feminism — the wave of feminists Clinton belongs to — focused primarily on furthering the freedoms of straight, cis, white women, while overlooking the concerns of women of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups. Take, for instance, her missteps when addressing issues of trans rights. In a 2019 interview, Clinton said that trans issues were a generational divide, and that it was something that she never grew up with or saw and, in a later interview, speaking about women’s lived experiences vs self-identification in a fashion that seemed straight out of a trans-exclusionary feminist playbook. In contrast, Clinton’s daughter Chelsea was unequivocal about her support for trans identities. Later, Clinton would clarify her remarks, stating firmly that transgender people deserve nothing less than full equality.
And yet it’s not as if Clinton’s entire career hasn’t been marked by the fact that she’s a woman. A cis, straight, white woman of privilege, yes, but still a woman. And we, the public, the press, the culture, didn’t know what to make of Hillary Clinton because there’d never been a Hillary Clinton before. Our entire political system, down to the 44 people who have held the office of president, has been built around a conversation that deals almost exclusively with men. We didn’t have the language to speak about a legitimate female contender for president. We weren’t able to adapt to the idea that women’s charisma manifests differently or the idea that hormones don’t impact the burden of power.
Hillary Clinton has always been Hillary Clinton. She’s not faking it. She’s not trying to pull one over on you. The world muddled that message. Not her.
Burstein recalled a question she asked the Secretary at one point: “People don’t think they know who you really are even though you’ve been in the public life for years.”
Clinton’s response was straightforward: “I’ve always been the same person.”
“When you study her life, when I’ve been given the incredible opportunity to ask her all of her opinions about it for days on end, you see that it’s really true,” Burstein said. “What she just said about just trying to make change however possible, in whatever form she can, whether it’s the first lady of Arkansas or a lawyer or a senator, or first lady of the United States or a presidential candidate or Secretary of State, she really does have this incredible fire under her to create change. It keeps her going every day. I hope I’m accurate in describing this, Secretary Clinton, but I feel like I got the sense that people put all of these opinions on who she is, and it’s really not that complicated. She is someone that I admire so much.”
“Listen, one of the things I love about making this and getting to know her a bit — or getting to know her quite well, frankly, in the sense of the scope of her life — is even just the funny thing she says, like ‘Okey-dokey artichokey.’ I really did want to include that in the film because there’s a straightforward approach to who she is. Everyone tries to imagine all of these other things that are just entirely untrue.”
For all the confusion and controversy that follows in Clinton’s wake, she seems entirely clear on who she is, what she’s done, and what she wants to do moving forward. To close out our chat, I asked her what she hopes her legacy is; what she hopes a young girl 50 years from now hears when she learns about Hillary Clinton.
“She fought for equal rights for all people, but especially women and girls,” she said, after a moment of consideration. “She took on a lot of powerful forces in our society and around the world to give every single person a better shot at having a fulfilling and successful life.”
“That’s what I’ve tried to do. I think that’s a fair description of what I’ve done.”