Clinton and I got together last week in one of the dining rooms at Crabtree’s Kittle House, not far from her home in Chappaqua, N.Y. Our conversation centered around “What Happened,” her book on the presidential election and how she coped with losing. During the 34-minute interview, there were three areas of raw honesty in her recounting that I zeroed in on. (Read the full transcript of our conversation below.)
For the first time, the former secretary of state talked openly about why she wanted to be president.
I’m a, by nature, a reserved person. I knew that I was ready to do the job, I felt I was qualified, that my experience really gave me the tools that were needed for our country at this point in our history, but I confess I’m not as sure that I conveyed that as strongly as I wish I had.
The former senator from New York addressed coming to terms with the fact that people don’t like her.
I had to accept that, and I wanted in this book to not only state that, but maybe unpack it a little bit. When I am in a job, people like me. I left the State Department with a 69 percent approval rating. … I was reelected resoundingly as senator from New York. I had the experience of being in service to others that corresponded with people accepting and approving of that, but as a woman, when you come out and say, okay, now I want to serve, all kinds of complex gender-linked attitudes start to generate.
This led to a discussion of sexism and misogyny. How the former is an attitude that can impact women in subtle ways. How the latter is a deep-seated hatred of women, “a very systemic denigrating of women,” Clinton said. The most interesting part of this conversation was when I tied it to the current national outrage over sexual assault and sexual harassment. Notice how quickly Clinton pivots when I ask her about the political names in the mix, including her husband, former president Bill Clinton, and how that will impact this important cultural moment.
Capehart: Does it help what you’re saying that it is now, one of the professions, it’s politics and it’s gotten very political, and there are lot of names in this hopper, whether it’s Franken or Moore, or Trump or Clinton, or who — you name it. Does that make it harder or easier to not have it be a blip? Just a cultural moment instead of a cultural change?Clinton: Well, I think it’s important to notice it’s also in the media. It’s in corporate America. We’ve had a number of stories come out in both those areas of our economy and society. So, I don’t think it’s — if you’re a high-profile person, whether you’re Bill O’Reilly [chuckle] in the media or a politician, it’s going to be a story. And it’s important that there be a recognition that this happens everywhere. Because right now, Jonathan, we’re still dealing with women who have some sense of empowerment. Think about all the women working the overnight shift in factories, or late-night in restaurants, or cocktail lounges, or just minding their own business in their own neighborhood. And those women don’t have household names. And that’s what we’re seeing with Roy Moore. These are not famous women. These are women who basically have said, “Hey, this is unacceptable. I wasn’t able to talk about it a long time ago, but now others are coming forward. I’m willing to do that.” The same with the large number of women accusing Trump of sexual assault and his own confession to it on the “Hollywood Access” tape.
The former first lady of the United States was withering in her opinions of Trump.
[W]hat he told people was a fraud. It’s in keeping with his bankruptcies and his Trump University. He is a con artist, and that’s what Mike Bloomberg called him at our convention and every day that goes by seems to prove that. So what is the tax reform meant to do? It’s meant to put money into the pockets of him and his family. It’s meant to save his estate and therefore his children from having to pay taxes on whatever it is he’s worth. It’s meant as a gift to billionaires who he pays more attention to than the folks who put their faith in him during this election.
And I asked Clinton why she felt it was important to address the issue of race head-on during the campaign.
I saw from the beginning of Trump’s campaign, really before, when he signed on to the “birther” lie about President Obama, that he was willing to use the dog whistle to attract people who had racial animosity, bigotry, prejudice. And throughout the campaign, he continued that. He was kind of an equal opportunity bigot. He went after immigrants and foreigners and he was very sexist and homophobic, and he was obviously Islamophobic. But he kept coming back to race and he was really stirring up a lot of feelings and rhetoric that you began to see online and as the Ku Klux Kan and white supremacy groups began throwing their support to him, I knew they were hearing that dog whistle. And I just didn’t think it was acceptable to stand by and hope for the best…
Listen to the podcast to hear Clinton discuss all these topics in full and to find out why we are going to continue to see a more assertive side to her. “Look, I always have been reserved and had my guard up, and those days are over,” she told me. “I’m not going anywhere.”
This transcript has been edited for readability.
Jonathan Capehart: Madam Secretary, it is great to have you on the podcast.
Hillary Clinton: Thank you so much, Jonathan. I’m delighted to be here.
Capehart: So in your book, “What Happened,” one of the things that jumped out at me, or was sort of powerful for me, was how honest you were about a couple of things. First, why you wanted to be president. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you state so clearly and forcefully why you wanted to be president. You write, “The most compelling argument is the hardest to say out loud. I was convinced that both Bill and Barack were right when they said I would be a better president than anyone else out there. I also thought I’d win.” And then a little bit earlier than that, you write, “I did not want to be president because I want power for power’s sake. I wanted power to do what I could to help solve problems and prepare the country for the future. It’s audacious for anyone to believe he or she should be president, but I did.”
Clinton: That’s right. I did. And Jonathan, I write that in part because I felt like I wasn’t as emphatic as I probably should have been in the campaign. Part of that is the double standard about gender, which we can talk about, but part of it also is just my nature. I’m a, by nature, a reserved person. I knew that I was ready to do the job, I felt I was qualified, that my experience really gave me the tools that were needed for our country at this point in our history, but I confess I’m not as sure that I conveyed that as strongly as I wish I had.
Capehart: How did it feel to put those words down on paper? Basically expose yourself to saying, look, yeah, absolutely I wanted to be president.
Clinton: Well, I note in the book that I was asked all the time, why do you want to be president? Or, what are you going to do as president? And I usually answered in policy terms, because I do think that it’s a job. I think that you’re asking the American people to hire you to do a job, and I wanted people to know what I would do if I were a president, but I was not as candid. I say in the book, and I’ve said this on the book tour, “Look, I always have been reserved and had my guard up, and those days are over,” and I tried in this book to pull the curtain back on one of the wildest elections in American history.
Capehart: The other area where you were honest is coming to terms with the fact that people don’t like you. Page 138, you write “I’ve come to terms with the fact that a lot of people, millions and millions of people, decided they just didn’t like me. Imagine what that feels like. It hurts, and it’s a hard thing to accept, but there’s no getting around it.”
Clinton: I had to accept that, and I wanted in this book to not only state that, but maybe unpack it a little bit. When I am in a job, people like me. I left the State Department with a 69 percent approval rating.
Capehart: I was gonna say, a 60-something percent approval rating.
Clinton: I was reelected resoundingly as senator from New York. I had the experience of being in service to others that corresponded with people accepting and approving of that, but as a woman, when you come out and say, okay, now I want to serve, all kinds of complex gender-linked attitudes start to generate. And I write about some of the research, there’s really reams of it. For example, professional success for a man goes hand in hand with likeability. In other words, the more successful you are as a man, the more likeable you are. It’s the exact opposite for women, and that’s not just in politics. That’s in business, in the media, in any walk of life. Or when a woman is advocating on behalf of someone else, then you are viewed favorably. If you advocate for yourself, all kinds of really deep-set feelings kick in. So I did want to say, look, I know people didn’t like me, a lot of them were convinced not to like me, but that’s still the same reality. A lot of them were bombarded with false claims about me, fraudulent attacks about me, which I encountered during the course of the campaign, and too many people believe that, and I didn’t do a good enough job in trying to not only refute that, but to set people’s minds at ease.
Capehart: Well, let’s talk about two things that you go into great detail in the book, the difference between sexism and misogyny. Let’s deal with sexism first, which you write, “Sexism is all the big and little ways that society draws a box around women and says, you stay in there.”
Clinton: Right. It is so common. Some of what I just said about likeability is part of that. And so many people don’t even notice it, but they are imposing expectations on little girls and teenagers. There are still very real differences between what’s expected of boys and girls and how they are treated even in school. And it’s not meant maliciously. It is a part of the social fabric, where we almost have to constantly be pointing it out, shining a spotlight, so that these comments or this behavior can be noticed and modified or repudiated, remedied even. Misogyny is different. Misogyny really is a hatred. It’s not just an expectation about women’s roles and the place they belong in society or how they’re supposed to dress, and behave, and all of the markers of likability and prettiness that go with being a girl or a woman. This is a hatred. This is a demeaning of women.
It’s a mistreatment of women across the board, and I used the example of how, if somebody is flirting with you in a bar, and they’re trying to come on to you, and all of a sudden you say, “Hey, wait a minute, I’m not interested, back off.” And then they turn on you, and they start
swearing at you and calling you foul names. There’s something deep about that. It’s not just being rejected by one woman in a bar. It’s how you view women. And we see too much of that. We see comments by people that are really dismissive of the role of being a woman or the attitude that somehow your looks are all that matter, or being a wife and mother is all that matters. It’s a very systemic denigrating of women.
Capehart: You had a really great line in your book where you said, “Something I wish every man across America understood is how much fear accompanies women throughout our lives.” And that gets to the example you just used in the bar. But that line speaks to all aspects of a woman’s life.
Clinton: Yes, I just saw a news story about a woman on the subway, here in New York. And a man sat down next to her, and it’s called man spreading, where basically just tried to take over her whole space, spreading out and relegating her to a smaller and smaller corner of the subway seat. And the woman said, “Excuse me, could you give me a little more room here?” And the man hauled off and hit her in the mouth, busted her lip. And there was a man on the subway who saw this and grabbed this guy. Basically said, “What are you doing?” And he was incoherent. He really had no explanation other than this woman had contradicted him, stood up to him. And I see a lot of that. I read about a lot of it. It certainly is prevalent in every part of the world, where the whole ecosystem, if you will, of where women fit in and where women should or shouldn’t go. And so when I wrote that, basically I was saying, I know what it’s like to hold my keys in my hand with the sharp points out while I’m trying to get to a car.
I know what it’s like to be at a party as a young woman and see guys getting drunker and drunker and more and more belligerent, and feel like I gotta get out of there, because I’m afraid of what might happen. So even though, as I write in the book, very few terrible things ever happened to me, I give two examples. I know what that feels like. I remember when I was a law professor at the University of Arkansas, and there had been a series of attacks on women. And I and a couple of the other professors went from dorm to dorm, talking to young women about being careful, traveling in groups, not going out alone. Well, we have those conversations all the time, and that is true today as it was all those years ago.
Capehart: One of the things we’re all talking about today is: You name the profession, there are now men who stand accused, who have lost their jobs, where women are coming forward and taking the power in their own hands to stand up to what’s happened to them. Now, I’d love to get your thoughts on what’s happening.
Clinton: I think what’s happening is a moment that we have to make sure becomes conventional wisdom, is accepted and causes changes in behavior. There is nothing new to these stories. They go back to the beginning of time, I suppose, but what is new is that women feel empowered and courageous enough to step forward with these stories. And it does take a lot of courage because very often in the past, it wasn’t even an option. And today, still, although there’s a more receptive audience, it’s not all that clear that there won’t be some form of disadvantage imposed upon those women who have spoken out. I think part of it is a new generation of women who have grown up with social media, have grown up with sharing their own experiences and who have had a lot of support from friends and family and now feel more comfortable speaking out. But it’s not something that we should stand by and applaud. It’s something we should say, “Okay, are we really gonna change behavior? And are men going to see themselves as others see them?” Because it’s very common for a man who is accused or confronted to say, “Oh, I thought it was mutual. I thought that she was with me on this.”
And you understand why somebody might believe that if you watch movies, and if you see how men often are very aggressive toward women who love it. The whole romance novel industry is about women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance. So there is a big cultural bias that we have to confront and get over, and that men have to understand that that’s just not going to cut it any longer. And I hope that it will be really more permanent than just a blurb on the news and another story.
Capehart: Does it help what you’re saying that it is now, one of the professions, it’s politics and it’s gotten very political, and there are lot of names in this hopper, whether it’s Franken or Moore, or Trump or Clinton, or who — you name it. Does that make it harder or easier to not have it be a blip? Just a cultural moment instead of a cultural change?
Clinton: Well, I think it’s important to notice it’s also in the media. It’s in corporate America. We’ve had a number of stories come out in both those areas of our economy and society. So I don’t think it’s — if you’re a high-profile person, whether you’re Bill O’Reilly [chuckle] in the media or a politician, it’s going to be a story. And it’s important that there be a recognition that this happens everywhere. Because right now, Jonathan, we’re still dealing with women who have some sense of empowerment. Think about all the women working the overnight shift in factories, or late-night in restaurants, or cocktail lounges, or just minding their own business in their own neighborhood. And those women don’t have household names. And that’s what we’re seeing with Roy Moore. These are not famous women. These are women who basically have said, “Hey, this is unacceptable. I wasn’t able to talk about it a long time ago, but now others are coming forward. I’m willing to do that.” The same with the large number of women accusing Trump of sexual assault and his own confession to it on the “Hollywood Access” tape.
Clinton: So there has to be a recognition that this cuts across all lines and all kinds of workplaces and all kinds of community settings, and therefore we have to work toward that cultural shift and empower the waitress on the late-night shift or the cocktail waitress or the nurse or whoever it might be. I still can’t get over the image of that law enforcement official going into a hospital and manhandling a nurse who would not let him take blood from an unconscious patient. Would he have done that to a male doctor? I don’t think so. But he felt perfectly free to literally drag her out of the hospital when she was not only doing what was professionally appropriate, but she had called and confirmed that with her supervisor. So the way women are treated has to be looked at in every part of our life.
Capehart: Another place where you were honest from beginning to end in the book throughout was on Donald Trump, on President Trump, unsparing in places. And I remember you and I had a phone call in July of 2016 because you were very concerned about what he was doing. In fact, you said to me that you thought he was a danger to our democracy. Has that view of him changed in the year and a half since we’ve had that phone conversation?
Clinton: No. In fact, it’s only been fortified by his behavior and his rhetoric in the months since. He was a very divisive candidate. He obviously spoke to the feelings and emotions of a big segment of the country. And even though I got more popular vote, he got—
Capehart: Three million.
Clinton: Yes, three million. He got enough electoral votes to win. I said in my concession speech that we needed to give him a chance. And I meant that, Jonathan. I really did. I wanted to believe that the campaign was one thing, governing would be different. And he would transition into being the president for everyone. That did not happen. I write in the book about his inauguration and the speech he gave there, which was so dark and divisive. But there are specifics that I think we need to focus on.
A lot of his policies are the exact opposite of what he said he would do and contrary to the needs and expectations of the very people who voted for him. He said he would never touch Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security. And indeed, if the Republicans get their way on
this tax policy they’re pushing, he will be cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security Disability Insurance. He said that he would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with something so much better, so perfect. Nonsense. He was willing to go along with a total repeal and still is if they stick major provisions of it into the tax plan. So even what he told people was a fraud. It’s in keeping with his bankruptcies and his Trump University. He is a con artist, and that’s what Mike Bloomberg called him at our convention and every day that goes by seems to prove that. So what is the tax reform meant to do? It’s meant to put money into the pockets of him and his family. It’s meant to save his estate and therefore his children from having to pay taxes on whatever it is he’s worth. It’s meant as a gift to billionaires who he pays more attention to than the folks who put their faith in him during this election.
And then there’s the whole Russia issue, which I believe is a clear and present danger to democracy, not only ours, but others. However, others seem better prepared to really stand against it and try to understand it and prevent it from rocking their democracies. He refuses to acknowledge the truth of what we know about the cooperation between his associates, both on the campaign and outside it, and Russia and Russian interests. He doesn’t really seem to be concerned about the true threat to our electoral system. Instead, he promotes this phony
theory about fraudulent voters, which is not a problem at all. The problem is that voters are being suppressed. Voters are being eliminated from the voting rolls and prevented from exercising their principal citizenship right. So he has ignored what is a national security threat to the stability of our democracy and the integrity of our electoral system. So across the board, he has been very disappointing. I did not wish him ill. I very clearly said let’s give him a chance and let’s hope he succeeds. But in the months since he’s been president, unfortunately, he’s not lived up to that promise.
Capehart: The primary reason you called me in July was to really, specifically, talk about race. We have that conversation on July 14th. On July 7th, five Dallas police officers had been killed in an ambush. Three days after we spoke, Baton Rouge police officers had been killed. At that point that we had that phone conversation, you had already given three speeches on race. And I’m out there, already written a piece about how that is, to my mind, one of the legacies of your campaign. That you directly addressed race when it clearly would not have been politically to your benefit. Why did you think it was so important to talk about race so directly, and also to try to hold Donald Trump accountable for what he was doing in terms of ginning up racial resentment?
Clinton: I write in the book about race and why I spoke out. I write about the mothers of the movement: Women I got to know and love during the campaign who had lost children predominantly, not exclusively, but predominantly African Americans.
Capehart: Lucy McBath is one of them and she’s been on the podcast.
Clinton: Yes. She’s an extraordinary person and she’s running for office. And I hope people give her the support she deserves. But I saw from the beginning of Trump’s campaign, really before, when he signed on to the “birther” lie about President Obama, that he was willing to use the dog whistle to attract people who had racial animosity, bigotry, prejudice. And throughout the campaign, he continued that. He was kind of an equal opportunity bigot. He went after immigrants and foreigners and he was very sexist and homophobic, and he was obviously Islamophobic. But he kept coming back to race and he was really stirring up a lot of feelings and rhetoric that you began to see online and as the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy groups began throwing their support to him, I knew they were hearing that dog whistle. And I just didn’t think it was acceptable to stand by and hope for the best about it or think, I’ll deal with that when I’m president, because I think it’s a slippery slope that we can find ourselves on, if you start normalizing racial animus. If you use the gutted Voting Rights Act opening to try to prevent African Americans from voting. If you go after black athletes for protesting racial injustice by kneeling, which is a position of reverence, when the anthem is played, you are playing with fire.
You are creating a lot of room for people who are more than willing to fill that space with what we saw in Charlottesville and other examples of racist behavior. I did speak out. I also tried to speak to white audiences about implicit bias and what it feels like to have to “have the talk” with your child because that child is a young black man or a young black woman, and I took a lot of what I’d been told and entrusted with by the mothers of the movement to hear and wanted to share that so that it was a human issue. Not a race or divisive one. And I think that Trump still plays that race card all the time. I really regret that, because I think he does it for opportunistic political purposes. When in trouble in the Congress or the Russian investigation, his go-to targets are President Obama and me, and African Americans. It just is part of how he responds.
Capehart: Is that surreal to you that we are a year out, away from the election, he’s president of the United States and he still tweets about you, talks about you, has you in his sights?
Clinton: Well, he’s a little obsessed with me, but I think it’s partly his own ego because he knows I got more votes and he knows that there are questions about the election that deserve answers. And he knows I’m still speaking out, I haven’t retreated under a rock somewhere. But, it’s also part of his political strategy. It is something that he knows his hard-core supporters will respond to, and he’s trying to keep them on board because he knows that much of the rest of the country, voters who said, “Well look, I want something different, I’m willing to take a chance on him. I saw him on television for years. He won’t be as bad as people say he is.” Or whatever their reason might have been. Those folks are having questions in their minds about him. So, he reverts to the tried and true strategy that got a lot of his support in the first place, and it’s strictly a political play that is in his playbook and he uses it when he thinks it to his advantage.
Capehart: So, before this interview I sent an email out to a small coterie of my friends, five women, one guy, and I got a terrific response from my friend Cheryl Pelicano in South Carolina: “One thing I’ve thought about a lot is this, what is the most encouraging, understanding thing that anyone has said to her to make her feel less disappointed about the election? Did President Clinton try to help right away or did he wait a bit before he tried to soothe the sting?” She writes, “I remember being so impressed by her ability to give a speech the day after the election, although I was so devastated I couldn’t listen to it. I actually watched a few moments on mute because I couldn’t stop crying. I don’t know how she mustered that courage to speak but that is what true leaders do, I imagine. They do what the rest of us think is impossible.” One more, “When, if ever, did she start to feel ‘normal’ again, when did the new routine off the campaign trail start to feel good?” And finally, she writes, “Please, Jonathan, make sure she knows that there are many moms out here who are ever grateful for her grace during what was a disgustingly dirty campaign. She went way high and her example was stellar for my daughters and granddaughters.”
Clinton: Oh wow, thank you. Thank you for having a friend like that and thank her for sharing those thoughts because she’s right on point. This book is really about resilience, it’s about personal resilience, everybody gets knocked down. How do you get back up? It’s also, I hope, about national resilience because as low as so many of us felt because of the outcome of the election, I’m seeing lots of signs of people getting back up ready to fight on, speak out, be part of not only the resistance, but of changing the outcome through the elections in 2018, and we had a great example of that in Virginia just awhile ago. I really relied on my family and my friends, both of whom rallied around, starting with my husband, and my daughter, and my amazing grandchildren. And my friends just started showing up, whether I wanted to see them or not. They were coming to see me. They insisted on taking me to the theater. A bunch of us went up to see Val-Kill, the home of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my favorite American historical figures. I took a lot of walks in the woods as people know from—
Capehart: Yes. [chuckles] And selfies.
Clinton: I kept running into people who took a lot of selfies and then posted them. I did do yoga. I write about alternate nostril breathing in the book. I cleaned my closets, which I find deeply satisfying. I read mystery novels, because the bad guy gets it in the end. I watched House and Garden TV which is sort of mindless for me, but I pick up some hints. I drank some Chardonnay when the occasion arose, and decided to write this book. And I decided to write it because the early takes on the election just didn’t square with what I saw and experienced. And I felt like I owed it to my supporters, who were scratching their heads and wondering what happened. And when I dove into it, and I try in the book to say, “Look. Here are my shortcomings. Here’s what the campaign missed. But here are some forces that were at work that are still with us. And we’ve got to pay attention to them.”
The most extraordinary experiences that I’ve had are on these book signings that I go to. So I will be somewhere in the country, and 1,000 people have bought books, because we end it at 1,000. And they come through, and so many of them bring their children. They bring their daughters dressed up in pantsuits or in Wonder Woman costumes. They hold their babies, and they say, “I took my son. I took my daughter in to vote for you.” They cry. There’s a lot of crying at my book signings, a lot of really tearful encounters, because people are still so emotional about how they feel. People tell me their stories, even in the short moments that I have with them, about what they’re now doing to try to be resilient themselves. I just can’t tell you what it’s meant to me.
People have been so generous, and the letters that I’ve gotten, hundreds of thousands of letters. We are trying to answer them, and we’ve set up an operation that will do as many as we can. And it really makes me feel good when somebody comes through a line and say, “I didn’t know what to say, but I wrote to you after the election. And I got your response. Thank you for reading it.” I read these letters, I don’t read all of them, but I read representative samples of them. I’ve had a young woman go through and say she’d had such a tough couple of years, and she didn’t wanna live. And she watched me after the election, and it gave her strength. And I grabbed her hands, and just looked into her eyes, and said, “Don’t give up on yourself.” A young man came through and said, “You gave me the courage to have the conversation with my parents that I’m gay.” And I said, “How did it go?” He goes, “Better than I thought, but I never would have done it this soon unless I felt like I had the strength to do it.” Stories like that, which just are so precious to me.
So the support that I’ve gotten has been everything. And I really made clear that I want to carry on my fight, use my voice, because I think there’s so many important matters that we have to confront as a nation. And I’m not going anywhere. And that’s the other thing people say to me, “Don’t go anywhere. We need you. We need to hear you.” And I’ve been doing these big events, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 people in sold-out venues across the country. And just the emotional release that we all feel that people are yelling, “We want you to keep going. Don’t give up on us.” And I’ll go, “Well, don’t give up on ourselves. Right?” It’s been very reinforcing. And I know what’s out there. I have a very direct, personal experience of how people feel. And I know that we’ve been knocked down, but we’re getting back up. And we’re not going to let this Congress take away the rights of people. We’re not going to let this president continue to undermine our values. We’re just not gonna let it happen. And that’s why I’m going to stay involved in politics.
Capehart: Hillary Rodham Clinton: 2016 presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, former secretary of state, former senator from the state of New York, former first lady of the United States, mother of Chelsea. Thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Clinton: Thank you, Jonathan.