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Clio and the Clintons

June 2024
19min read

An Interview with the President and the First Lady

On a busy Wednesday morning last August, President and Mrs. Clinton found an hour to speak with me in the Oval Office of the White House. Defense Secretary William Perry and Attorney General Janet Reno were preparing for a live noontime conference in the West Wing press room to announce new legal policy regarding Cuban refugees; the taken-for-dead crime bill would finally pass the following day; the tumult over the future of the President’s health-care proposals was still very much in the air. We discussed none of these things, however, instead talking about history, its lessons and comforts, and what it has meant to the first couple.

When the editors at American Heritage magazine and I were talking and thinking about this article, we decided we wanted to look at the forces of history that may have influenced both of you, that may nourish you now, that may provide support and a sense of direction and perhaps a sense of comfort in difficult times.

So, particularly this complicated week, the first question I might ask you is, have you looked to other Presidents who have had difficulty getting legislation through Congress, Presidents like Woodrow Wilson, for example, with his particular dream for the League of Nations?

Yes, of course. Wilson didn’t actually live to see his dream fulfilled, because we mismanaged our affairs after World War I. Sometimes you can be too far ahead of your time. But after World War II we did have the United Nations. And for all its limitations and all its problems, it’s played a major role, I think, in making the world a more peaceful and more human place.

I think the period in modern American history most comparable to this is probably the one right after World War II. At the end of any era, people are called upon to look to the future, and yet there’s a tendency to look inward, to relax, to just be thankful that the old order is gone away without thinking about what the new world must look like.

At the end of World War I, we made the wrong choice. You know, we wound up with all kinds of problems, not only the Depression and World War II and all of that, but we gave in to some of our darker impulses. So we had the first big Red Scare, and the Ku Klux Klan was doing well.

And at the end of World War II, Truman took a terrible beating and didn’t get everything done he tried to do. He never did pass health care, for example, for all Americans. But he did lay the foundations for economic recovery at home and for a commitment to more racial equality and for the institutions that led to the recovery of Europe and Japan and the system that ultimately permitted us to win the Cold War.

But when you’re challenging people to make changes, changes that have a long-term future benefit against entrenched forces, you have to expect to be stoutly opposed, often misunderstood, and sometimes defeated. You just have to accept that. That’s a part of history. And you have to govern in the times in which you live and deal with it the best you can.


So for inspiration you look to Truman and what he went through?


Yes. Because I’m from Arkansas and Truman was from Missouri, and because a lot of the political people of my youth were big Truman supporters—you know our state voted for him in 1948, when a lot of the South abandoned him—I’ve always had an awareness of Truman’s legacy. And he’s always been one of my four or five favorite Presidents.


But I think that I must say I was never so aware of the similarities in our situation until I actually became President and realized that the sort of deep ambivalence the American people have now—wanting us to take charge and move forward into the future but still easily diverted because of their deep-seated suspicions about government and whether anybody in Washington can do anything right.


Is there a way to redirect history? Or do you think there are just cycles? There’s a theory that the American people go through general historical cycles in their response to change.


Yes, they do, but leaders and people can make a difference, and not just the President but the other great institutions of society. What kinds of leaders are in Congress? What do they do and say? What is the role of the American press? What does it do and say? Does it feed on the fears and cynicisms of the American people? Or does it basically proceed in challenging us to do better?


History proceeds in cycles to some extent, but also every time is different, and the outcome is not foreordained. I mean, it really does make a difference who’s there and what they do.


“I have always been, from childhood, captivated by the figure of Lincoln”








We mentioned Wilson earlier. One reason he lost his fight for the League of Nations was that he would not accept any compromises whatsoever.


The trick is to be firm on your principles and direction and flexible in dealing with people who have the power either to help you further that direction or to derail it. I mean, it’s interesting. Compromise is very often given a bad name in popular circles today. And yet our system was set up to mandate compromise in ways that most governmental democracies weren’t.


Parliamentary system, for example, where the President is the leader of the party in Congress, where if people want to stay in the party and have positions, then they have to vote party line.


I was reading a biography of George Washington the other day. I guess he came to the Presidency with the greatest amount of personal leverage and prestige of anybody in history, and the Senate rejected one of his major nominees, which is something I hadn’t known.


The whole essence of democracy is that people are given limited power, and others have power, and you have to work together to get something done. And the idea is that nobody is the sole repository of complete wisdom.


But in the world we’re living in—instantaneous news coverage, snap judgments, everybody looking for the angle —compromise is more difficult, because the minute you begin serious negotiation, there’s this the-sky-is-falling effect that sometimes takes over the reporting of it to imply that something dishonorable is going on.


But in our Constitution compromise is written in as a virtue, not a vice.


Are there moments in history that particularly fascinated both of you in your early years?



Well, when I grew up in the South at the beginning of the civil rights movement, all Southerners were still obsessed with the Civil War. I mean, really it was amazing. When I first ran for office, I was in the mountains of north Arkansas, which had been the dividing line in the war in the West between the North and the South. A lot of the hill people in the South had become Republicans because they supported Abraham Lincoln, they opposed secession, and they either opposed slavery or didn’t care about it. It wasn’t part of their life.


And there were poor people or people of modest incomes up there that had family books that traced their genealogy back to the Civil War, and they knew who fought for the North, who fought for the South. People were thinking a lot about the whole issue of race because civil rights had come in, but they were still obsessed with the Civil War, or the War Between the States, as the diehards always called it in the South.


And I remember as late as 1975, maybe, or ’76, something like that, I was up in one of those beautiful little mountain towns giving the high school commencement address on a gorgeous June night, and the Ozark Mountains were breathtaking. I was exhorting these kids to overcome adversity, and I was telling them about the terrible things Lincoln had been through in his life. And after it was over, all the guys who ran the county for me, all these great hill-country guys took me out, and we were looking at the mountains. And they said, “That was a very good speech, and you can give it down in Little Rock anytime, but don’t you ever come up here and brag on that Republican President again; if he’d been that good a President, we would have never had a Civil War.”


So these people were still replaying it in their minds over a hundred years later.


I have always been, from childhood, captivated by the figure of Lincoln, not only the historic significance of what he did but what kind of person he was and how he was able, under enormous pressure and frequent ridicule, to hold on to the simple idea that the Union had to be preserved, and then how he was able to move the country to the point where he could break his most famous campaign promise, which was not to free the slaves, and instead issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which obviously set in motion the processes that later led to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.


Did you read a lot of biographies of him?


Yes. And I also liked Jefferson a lot when I was a child, because another thing that Southerners were obsessed with was the poverty of the South at the end of the Second World War and the whole idea that the only way out of it individually and collectively was to dramatically increase the level of education. Since Jefferson had founded the University of Virginia and had basically advocated free public education, he had a big hold on my imagination from my childhood, and I read a lot of books about him.


They were the two historic figures in American life who had the biggest influence on my childhood.


Mrs. Clinton?


Well, I grew up in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, and spent enormous amounts of time as a child studying Illinois and American history, reading biographies of Lincoln, making field trips to Springfield and other places that had some association with Lincoln.


We had very significant celebrations of Lincoln’s birthday all during the time I was a child. So he had a very big place in my historical imagination. I mean, it was just an open-and-shut case that Abraham Lincoln was by far the greatest President, because he had saved the Union and came from Illinois.


I remember clearly one time traveling with my family—a trip to Florida, when I was nine, I think. We got to Vincennes, Indiana, which is very southern Indiana, and checked into a little motel that had a little tiny TV. For the first time I saw a TV series called “The Gray Ghost,” which was about a Confederate soldier. And I was just astonished that anybody would have a television series in which the hero was a Confederate soldier. And then as we traveled farther south, I remember being in Alabama and stopping at gas stations where they sold Confederate flags and things like that.


I always had just a strong personal feeling about Lincoln, but I also felt the same way to a lesser extent about Washington. And again, he was somebody who had a very large part in our imaginations because of the way the schools treated him. Every year I was in school, we did skits about Washington’s life, we wrote little books about him, we celebrated his birthday. Those two presidential birthdays were how we spent February. And both of them had a very strong appeal—as the father of the country and the savior of the country—to me as a little girl.


THE PRESIDENT : You know, it’s interesting; I confess that I think I underappreciated Washington until I became President. I did. Then I read Cincinnatus, Garry Wills’s book on Washington, and a book called Patriarch, by Richard Norton Smith. Wills is a person I greatly admire; he’s written a book on leaders called Certain Trumpets .


Anyway, I see now in a fundamental way what Washington did, and what he refused to do, in not seeking a third term and giving up power and overseeing orderly transition, and how he kept things together. But I don’t think as a child I appreciated him.


Hillary mentioned being surprised by the Confederate TV series. The flip side was true in our case. I mean, if you were a Southerner growing up, you had to be a big admirer of Robert E. Lee, and you had to know a lot about Robert E. Lee. You just did, you know? He was really still a folk figure in the South, all during the fifties and early sixties.


And it was interesting because I remember I was in a minority among young whites. I was in all the turmoil about the public school integration, and I thought Martin Luther King was great, even when I was a kid, very young. But to me, it was all part of the natural flow of history. I mean, I never thought whether there was a contradiction between admiring Robert E. Lee and admiring Abraham Lincoln.


It’s interesting to hear you speak about those school pageants about Washington and Lincoln, because American history has shifted in recent years, more toward social history. Do you think there is less emphasis today on heroes?


MRS. CLINTON: I do, and I think it’s a great loss for everyone, particularly for children. It is just easier as a child to relate to individuals than to social movements or historical trends.


It’s been important in the last few years that we have pulled out other heroes. People should know about Sojourner Truth and not just about the white men who were heroes when we were much younger. But I think it’s a shame that we lose sight of the heroic qualities of those people who made major impacts on our history and that we don’t use them more as examples and symbols for children.




I remember when I read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, I discovered things about Franklin’s personal life that at the age of fourteen I was shocked by. I remember going to see my English teacher and saying, “I just can’t believe it.” I felt I had been disillusioned about Benjamin Franklin. And I’ll never forget my teacher saying, “But why would you be disillusioned? He was a great man; he wasn’t a statue somewhere. Men have faults as well as virtues; the real challenge is to see people in their humanity and then admire them even more because of what they were able to accomplish.” And that was one of those lessons that you learn if you’re a person who cares about history. You keep encountering new information about people as you go through life.


So I would like to see a return to an emphasis on individuals—a broader range of individuals—with children being able to see everyone’s contributions but recognizing that there are certain people who stand out because of their roles in American history, and giving those people the attention again that I think they are due.


And even in mythology. I mean, it may not be true that George Washington cut down a cherry tree and said he couldn’t tell a lie, but there’s a lesson in that, and that is one of the ways you convey values to children— in the context of a historic figure who is great on his own. I think that a lot of that has been lost.


THE PRESIDENT: In terms of people in the present and recent past, whether they’re always being taken down, historically that changes. Jefferson was treated in an outrageous and vicious way when he was President. Roosevelt had a reasonably rough time, but not too bad. I noticed an article in The New Republic by a journalist who had covered the Roosevelts. She said that Franklin and Eleanor would not have served the country so well if they had had to deal with all the stuff that’s present today.


When I was a child, my grandfather, who raised me until I was four and was a great figure in my life until he died when I was still quite young, just loved Roosevelt, because FDR symbolized to him that the government of the United States cared about ordinary people like him and would try to help them.


It is only in the last twenty or thirty years that we’ve gotten two extreme views of government, I think, neither of which is very helpful. One is that government is evil and incompetent and always messes up. Well, the National Institutes of Health, the National Park Service, Social Security, and Medicare are evidence that that’s not necessarily true, right? And the other view is that government can solve all people’s problems. Well, if you look at the breakdown of the social fabric in America in the last thirty years, it’s obvious no government program can fix all that.


But the idea that the government was somehow the partner of the American people and its servant and that its role would change throughout time reached its apotheosis under Roosevelt—when the unemployment rate in the country was 25 percent and per capita income in a lot of the South was one-half the national average. My grandfather was a person who never did take vacations. He worked fifty, sixty, seventy, sometimes more hours a week when I knew him, even when he already had a grandchild.


Maybe it was mythology, but it was a positive thing that he thought that his President and his country cared about him and his small existence in a small town in Arkansas, when he was slaving away, doing the best he could for his family. There’s a very important linkage, and it’s something that we need to reestablish today.


“I was a junior in high school and ... I just made a decision that I would try to go into public service.”








I want to ask both of you about your own experiences as young people meeting historic figures. Of course, we know the great clip—the picture of the young Bill Clinton right here in the Rose Garden meeting President Kennedy. What did you feel as you were leaving the gate? What did you tell yourself?


Well, I don’t know what I told myself—there were a hundred of us here, and we were having a big time—but I remember very distinctly where I was standing and what I did. The fellow we elected president of Boys Nation gave him a T-shirt and something else, and Kennedy gave his little talk. Then he came down in the crowd and started shaking hands, and I was afraid he would just shake one or two hands and quit. I was at the head of the alphabet anyway, and I was bigger than anybody around me, so I just made sure I was there so I got to shake hands with him.


Because to me he represented the country’s caring about my generation. You know, he was a very future-oriented person. He said he would get the country moving again. I had the feeling that we were going to have a good future because he was seeking all those new frontiers. He gave us a sense of possibility that we could deal with things. And he finally began to deal with the civil rights issue in a somewhat more open way than President Eisenhower had, although Eisenhower had sent the troops to integrate Little Rock Central High School.


Eisenhower was a very important person for his time. We had gone through all this unsettling stuff; he settled the country down, and he gave the people a fairly high level of confidence and was willing to let some things happen. I think that history will judge him pretty kindly.


But when Kennedy came in, even though he won by the narrowest of victories—if you look at it, that shows the fear that the American people have of change; we always say we want it, we’re for it in general, but very often we’re against it in particular—I thought it was great. I saw him up there; he just was happy and loose and relaxed. And he seemed interested in kids, he seemed to relate well to young people. It made a big impression on people my age that the President and the people who were working for him were trying to throw us into the future in a positive way.


Your mother said that when you came back home after that experience, she knew you were going into public service. She could just tell.


Actually it was before that. I remember very clearly. I was a junior in high school and had been interested in being a physician and a musician and a couple of other things, but I just made a decision that I would try to go into public service because I thought I’d be good at it and I thought it would be interesting. I thought I’d never have to worry about getting up and going to work every day because it would always be different. I was interested in people and human nature.



And I must say—a lot of times what you think when you’re a kid is wrong, but that was one insight I had that I was right about. I mean, it is a fascinating life in its diversity and challenge. It can be a pain from time to time, but it’s fascinating.


What about you, Mrs. Clinton? I know that as a youth you met Martin Luther King. Was that similar to the President’s experience in meeting President Kennedy?



Well, I came from a very different point of view. I came from a very Republican family that was not particularly fond of the Roosevelts and not particularly fond of the Kennedys. They were strong supporters of President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon. So the feelings I had about the 1960 election were ones of great disappointment. All the excitement about change that seemed to sweep the country was viewed as quite threatening where I grew up—which gives me some insight into how people feel today about much of what this President is trying to do.


But starting when I was in high school, I had a series of experiences that began to pose different ideas for me to consider. And when my involvement with my church led to my going to a speech that Martin Luther King gave, that was a real eye-opening experience. I was very impressed by him.



I was intellectually resistant to much of the Kennedy administration’s agenda, but I was very supportive of civil rights. I can remember having my mother explain what happened when President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock and thinking it was just ridiculous that people wouldn’t go to school with different kinds of children.



And so I saw what Dr. King was doing as something that went beyond politics. I mean, it shouldn’t be Republican or Democrat or conservative or liberal; it was just the right thing to do. I felt much of that because of my strong feelings about Lincoln and my family’s feelings about what being a Republican really meant.


But in 1964 I was a very strong supporter of Barry Goldwater, because I liked what I saw as his true conservatism. I really did come from a background that was highly suspicious of government and very supportive of the individual and individual responsibility, and Goldwater seemed to stand for that. And I got to meet him. I went to a rally and enjoyed just being introduced to him.


But I also remember in 1965 being as impressed as I think I’ve ever been by a presidential speech, when President Johnson gave his speech on the Voting Rights Act. From that time on I supported a lot of the goals of the Johnson administration domestically, even though I became very concerned about the Vietnam War and very much opposed to it.


So there was a lot going on then that came from many different directions, which is why I always resist political labeling—because I think we are all much more complex in our political thoughts than the easy categories describe.


Let me ask you, are there any particular objects or paintings or rooms in the White House that have come to mean something special or important to both of you?


MRS. CLINTON: Oh, there are so many. One of the best parts about living here is feeling that every day you encounter another piece of American history. When we first came, we searched every nook and cranny to find memorabilia and portraits and other things to put on display, and we learned a lot about how the house had been used in the past and how it had been modified over time to fill its many functions. It is a museum; it is the house of the head of state; it is a public building; and it is a residence. There are so many aspects.



We have a lot of artwork that was formerly in storage now on display in the White House, and we are in the process of making sure we have somewhere depicted every President and First Lady who ever lived here, so that we have some kind of memory of their presence.



THE PRESIDENT: I like the picture of Lincoln that’s in the Treaty Room, with his military advisers planning the peace, not long before he was killed. He’s on a ship, with an admiral and General Grant and General Sherman, and there’s a rainbow in the background.


Lincoln had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do to heal the country after the war, and when he died and Johnson came in and was weakened, and Reconstruction took a far more draconian turn, I’ve often thought that was a sort of unexplored tragedy in American history. I think it hardened attitudes in the South and made it more difficult to work through the issues of race, and it also ratified the economic backwardness of the place for a long time. And a lot of that is still being played out today, sadly enough, in Southern politics— still being played out. Anyway, that picture’s very good.


There’s a picture in here in my dining room that I brought down from the Lincoln Bedroom so I could see it every day. It’s called Waiting for the Hour , and it shows slaves sitting in a dark room five minutes before midnight before the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation, which arguably is the most important document ever signed in the White House. Just seeing that every day reminds me of the enormous importance of the Presidency and trying to get it right at whatever point in history you happen to serve. Those two pictures mean a lot to me.


“We are ... making sure that we have somewhere depicted every President ... who ever lived here.”








I was wondering, Mrs. Clinton, if there were Presidents and First Ladies that you emulated or took hope from.


Oh, there are so many of them. And there are aspects of the personalities of many, as well as their accomplishments, that I find very important and supportive. I became a great admirer of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, much to the dismay of my father. And I’ve become a great admirer of both Trumans. We are particularly pleased to have had Margaret Truman Daniel visit us, which I found a great joy. I am a great admirer of the Kennedys; my friendship with Jackie Kennedy Onassis was one of the most extraordinary opportunities of my life. I am a great admirer of President Johnson’s domestic accomplishments. And I think Mrs. Johnson is one of the most effective women who ever lived here.


I admire greatly Betty Ford’s personal bravery and outspokenness on women’s issues—particularly on the ERA and breast cancer—when it was not at all easy. I think President and Mrs. Carter both made great contributions on a lot of the difficult issues that confronted the country. And I think Mrs. Carter’s work on behalf of mental health and President Carter’s continuing example after he left the White House are a great legacy.



I really appreciated the struggles that confronted Nan- cy Reagan when she was attempting to define herself and not be defined. And I always enjoyed being around both President and Mrs. Bush, whom we had some acquaintance with because of my husband’s time as governor. I’ve always found them very easy to talk to and very gracious and hospitable.


I met President Nixon only once, when he came to the White House to speak with the President about Russia prior to the meeting with Yeltsin. He came to the second floor, where my daughter and I were waiting to greet him, and he had prepared what he was going to say to both of us, so when he met Chelsea, he immediately began talking about her school, which both of his daughters had attended, and his memories of it. When he met me, he immediately talked about health care, and said, “You are attempting to do now what I tried to do.” President Nixon had proposed a national health care plan. I was very impressed by his discipline in the way he had prepared just to say hello to us.


So although I have grave political disagreements with many of the people who have been here, I think you do not get to this position without a lot of admirable personal characteristics that oftentimes get either overlooked or overshadowed by the pressures of the moment. And I must say one of the things I admire about my husband is his humility in the face of this responsibility and his willingness to understand that even though you are elected President, you are really a servant. That is sometimes misunderstood, because people are more comfortable with authoritarian symbols, if you will. But I think we all are better served if, whatever impressive credentials and strong personal characteristics people bring to the Presidency, they also bring a real dose of humility as well. Because these are problems at any time that demand answers that are not easy and are certainly not easily explained—except through some historical perspective.


THE PRESIDENT: I’ve got to go pass the crime bill. [Laughter.]




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