On the campaign bus in September 1996.

Photographer: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton's First White House Record

Russell L. Riley is an associate professor at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, where he is co-chairman of the Presidential Oral History Program. He is the author, most recently, of "Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History," to be published by Oxford University Press in October.
Read More.
( Updated
)
a | A

Although First Ladies have been given important responsibilities in their husbands' presidencies, none has taken such an active part in policymaking as Hillary Rodham Clinton did. Here are excerpts from interviews my colleagues and I conducted with Clinton administration officials and others who discussed her personality and her role. 

Q: Did you get the impression that she may have been more liberal than her husband?

Peter Edelman, longtime friend of the Clintons: We always thought so. On the other hand, I put her on the board of something called the New World Foundation that I was on the board of in about 1983 or ’84. We served on that board together for four or five years. That was a very liberal foundation and compared to the rest of us she was the conservative voice on the board and very useful. Some of it was just being skeptical. Some of it was asking the hard questions that somebody ought to ask, just being smart. But I also knew from that, whether it was the consequence of having gone down to Arkansas and just having some of Arkansas rub off on her or whatever it was, I knew that she also was more conservative than I.

Alice Rivlin, director of Office of Management and Budget: I think for a good part of his career, [Bill] was probably rescued by Hillary -- by her being a more decisive, more disciplined kind of person who kept things moving. … I observed early on, when Hillary was still in the meetings, that she was often useful in moving things on. The president would let the talk go on forever. He would listen to arguments and get into the discussion. I remember at least one instance in Little Rock, where Hillary simply said, “We have to decide something here and get this moved on.” And the president would look sort of, “Well, all right.” ... She had more discipline than he in getting to a decision.

Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor: As much as he needs people, needs to draw from people, needs to bounce ideas, needs to validate them, or not validate them, needs to hear -- [Hillary is] just the opposite. She needs to think for herself. You can’t think of two more opposite people in the way they will take a problem and deal with it. ... She [once] said it just muddles your mind when you start listening to other people tell you what you ought to be doing.

Roger Altman, deputy treasury secretary: There’s an interesting difference that always has struck everybody who’s watched it up close, which is that she inspires fierce loyalty and he doesn’t. You look at the turnover that she had -- or in her case did not have -- on her staff, and the turnover that he had. …

She inspired, continues to inspire, fierce loyalty and he doesn’t. It’s quite a difference and I ascribe it to the fact that she does not look at the world as, or at least in my experience, as solely and only politically.

Leon Panetta, White House chief of staff: Look, there’s no question that she was smart, she was dedicated, she understood the issues and people were a little intimidated by her. There were several meetings where she basically walked in and let everybody have it, very different from what the president would do. If she thought something was going wrong, she’d say it. She was much more confrontational in that sense. …

When I became chief of staff, recognizing that she was an important factor, I went out of my way to make sure I briefed her on what was going on as chief of staff. But if she ultimately believed that you had the capacity to do a job, she backed off.

White House congressional liaison Patrick Griffin: She was very good [working with members of Congress]. She had a different set of strengths [from her husband]. I thought she was a great advocate for the concepts. She testified brilliantly. She could get a small room of folks convinced. She was very impressive. A lot of folks were looking to dislike her and to trip her up. She handled herself very well in the caucus and bipartisan meetings that I also attended. But in one-on-ones she had a different set of skills. You know how relationships balance each other. She would be able to talk directly to you, even if she hadn’t seen you in months -- and say, “How is your son doing? I hear that he likes getting letters. Do you want me to send him one -- ?” She would remember that. She carried that piece of the family with her. It was an interesting complement to her husband’s skill set. ...

Q: From the standpoint of a member of the White House staff, who would you rather give the bad news to, the president or the First Lady?

Griffin: Oh, no question about it. Neither one was fun to give bad news to, but the president, was easier, yes.

Q: People were afraid of the First Lady’s reaction to the bad news?

Griffin: Not afraid. It’s just -- would you rather punch a piece of wood or a brick wall? I mean, when she came back, she was tough. She’s like a four-wheel drive going right at you. Zoooom. If you didn’t lean back into your argument, she’d go right over you. It took more energy and focus.

* * *

Q: Can you tell us, because you were a witness to these things, a little bit about her operating style with the members?

Health policy adviser Christopher Jennings: [These] meetings had the feeling of history. In some ways, it couldn’t but help to feel that way when you have the House legislative titans in the room -- Dan Rostenkowski or John Dingell along with [Eleanor] Roosevelt’s heir apparent, Hillary Clinton. Here’s an anecdote for you.

We went into John Dingell’s office. He has around him all of his trophies of all the deer and moose he’s shot. He’s a lifelong NRA [National Rifle Association] member. Hillary Clinton has just been quoted as saying, “Frankly I think we should have some sort of tax on ammunition,” because there are all these people in hospitals who are being shot up and it’s costing us huge amounts of money, et cetera. She was briefed, I told her, and she still had the gumption to say, “John, I think this is something worth considering. We should think about doing this.” And he said, “Actually, Mrs. Clinton, I really think that’s not a very good idea.”

What was interesting about the exchange and the subsequent conversation I had with John Dingell about it was that he respected that she would bring up any issue directly to him, whether it was controversial or not, whether it would please him or not. He liked her spunk and her smarts.

* * *

Q: What does she have that Bill Clinton lacked?

White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum: The word that comes to my mind is strength. She has a certain kind of strength that he lacks. He has a certain kind of talent, political talent and speaking talent and communicating talent, that no one has. I mean, she’s pretty good at speaking and stuff like that, but she has a certain strength. She’s very tough. She’s very political too. She’s not this wild-eyed liberal or ’60s person. The reason she did so well in New York, in part, is that she went upstate a lot. Upstate in New York is not New York City. It’s not where I come from. Upstate is the Midwest. It’s like Chicago, and she’s a Chicago person. . . .

Hillary is not always right and she can be very difficult, but basically her judgments are pretty good. The problem is, she becomes so formidable, a lot of people are afraid of her. I’m not afraid of her and never was, because she worked for me. I could fight with her and if I didn’t agree with her I could disagree, and it would work out.

* * *

Q: When Bill Clinton initially said that he and Hillary were an item -- 

Susan Thomases, longtime friend of the Clintons: I said, “She’s too good for you.” He had a thing for her. I said, “You’ll be lucky if she talks to you. She’s so nice, and she’s so brilliant, and she’s so straight. It’s one thing to like her; it’s one thing to have hopes -- ” But the truth is she absolutely adored him and she still adores him. So it didn’t become an issue.

Q: So this wasn’t a match you thought was a natural?

Thomases: No, no. They were two very smart people, but it didn’t occur to me. But she was the one who was wildly crazy about him, and so that’s why it worked.

(This is the first of three excerpts from “Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History,” which will be published by Oxford University Press in October. The second excerpt of the book will appear on Aug. 25.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Russell L. Riley at rlr2p@virginia.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net