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Hillary Clinton: First Lady of the United States

Updated on September 22, 2017
Hillary Rodham Clinton official White House portrait.
Hillary Rodham Clinton official White House portrait.

In 1992, Bill Clinton announced he would run as a Democrat for the presidency of the United States. During the early stages of the primary campaign, a tabloid publication printed accusations that Bill Clinton had engaged in an affair with Gennifer Flowers. In response to this scandalous story, both Bill and Hillary appeared on 60 Minutes, which was broadcast to a large television audience right after the Super Bowl football game. In the interview, Bill denied the affair and Hillary defended her husband. The national exposure squashed the Gennifer Flowers story and resurrected the Clinton campaign. Bill would finish the New Hampshire primary coming in a comfortable second.

Hillary’s high profile position in the campaign would make her just as much of a target as Bill for political mud-slinging. During the campaign, Hillary was involved in more than one controversy; the one that caught considerable attention was when she responded to an allegation from the Democratic contender, Jerry Brown, with, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do is fulfill my profession.” Her response was taken out of context and caused considerable media buzz with the assertion that Hillary was disparaging stay-at-home mothers. Brown’s and others’ attacks didn’t slow the Clinton campaign down and Bill kept winning primary elections. At the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden during his acceptance speech as the party’s nominee, Bill gave praise to Hillary, saying:

“I learned a lot from another person too: a person who for more than 20 years has worked hard to help our children, paying the price of time to make sure our schools don't fail them. Someone who traveled our state for a year, studying, learning, listening, going to PTA meetings, school board meetings, town hall meetings, putting together a package of school reforms recognized around the nation, and doing it all while building a distinguished legal career and being a wonderful, loving mother. That person is my wife.”

To dig up some dirt against Hillary, the opposition scoured her old political writings, some twenty years old and dating back to law school. In some of her earlier writings, she contended that the rights of children are often ignored by courts and that at one time in history women, much like slaves, had no legal rights. Her critics accused her of encouraging children to sue their parents and equating marriage to slavery.

The West Wing

Bill Clinton, along with his vice-presidential running mate, Al Gore, would go on to win the general election of 1992 over the incumbent George H.W. Bush by a narrow margin. Hillary was often quoted during the campaign as saying, “If you vote for him, you get me too,” and she wasn’t kidding. Just after Bill Clinton’s inauguration, Hillary wasted no time in setting up offices in the West Wing and East Wing of the White House. Normally, the First Lady would only have an office in the East Wing. Hillary staffed both offices, and her tight knit cadre became known as “Hillaryland” amongst the White House staff. Being situated in the policy making West Wing, she worked with her husband and the staff on vetting appointments to the new administration in top and lower level positions. This was unprecedented, as previous first ladies, with the possible exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, had not been involved directly in policy making and cabinet member selection.

Critics called it inappropriate for the First Lady to play a central role in setting public policy, while supporters pointed out that her role was no different from other White House advisors, and that voters were very aware of the campaign promise that they were getting “two for the price of one.” Since Hillary was not an employee of the government, she was not subject to the normal checks and balances that employees would be held to. This created a dilemma for those who worked with her—was she the voice of the president or someone with lesser power? The media started to take serious notice of Hillary and started to investigate the Clinton’s failed Whitewater real estate deal and her extravagant profits through trading cattle futures. These are just two of the controversies that would engulf the Clintons during Bill’s second term in office.

Video: First Lady Hillary Clinton on Leno (Aug 2000)

Chelsea Clinton

When the Clintons moved into the White House, their daughter Chelsea was almost a teenager at age 12. Even though Chelsea had lived much of her life at the governor’s mansion in Arkansas, moving to Washington, D.C., was still a big adjustment. Hillary was concerned about her daughter growing up in the cloistered bubble of the White House and not having a normal childhood. Hillary sought out one of the few women who had raised children in the White House, Jackie Kennedy. Hillary had met Jackie a few times during the 1992 campaign and flew to New York to visit with Jackie about her experiences in the White House. Jackie gave Hillary some helpful advice: “You’ve got to protect Chelsea at all costs,” Jackie said. “Surround her with friends and family, but don’t spoil her. Don’t let her think she’s someone special or entitled. Keep the press away from her if you can, and don’t let anyone use her.”

Where to send Chelsea to school in Washington was another problem. Since bolstering the public education in Arkansas was one of the key pillars of Bill’s platform as governor and Hillary led the charge to improve the schools, public school was the only choice for Chelsea while in Arkansas. Washington, D.C., was not Little Rock, however, and the difference between a president’s daughter and a governor’s daughter is a world apart. The Clintons put Chelsea in Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school. Being in a private institution, rather than a public school, the Clintons could limit who had access to Chelsea. The last thing they wanted was television cameras and a news crew following Chelsea throughout her school day, as they had when President Carter’s daughter, Amy, had attended public school. As much as possible, Hillary adjusted her schedule so she could have time in the residence to be with Chelsea when she got home from school.

Hillary, Chelsea, and Bill Clinton cira 1993.
Hillary, Chelsea, and Bill Clinton cira 1993.

Health Care Czar

When Bill Clinton came into office, the health care provided to Americans was sorely lacking. The rising cost of health care was sapping the nation’s economy, undermining American competitiveness globally, eroding workers’ wages, increasing personal bankruptcies, and inflating the national budget deficit. A big part of the Clinton agenda was to provide the nation with some form of universal affordable health care. This wasn’t a new topic; President Truman took up the cause of universal health care coverage as part of his Fair Deal and included it in his campaign platform in the 1948 election. Much like the Clintons, Truman was thwarted in his effort by powerful forces within the nation that opposed universal care for ideological or financial reasons.

The president announced that his wife would take the unpaid position of chairperson of a task force to produce a health care reform plan. The task force was a massive undertaking that took months to complete and had up to 500 paid consultants on staff. The final report was a complex plan of over 1,300 pages in length, designed to provide reasonable health care for the nation. The proposal produced by the task force required employers to provide health coverage to their employees through individual health maintenance organizations. Opposition to the new plan was enormous, with some Democrats in Congress backing away from the plan. Protest against the plan became so intense that during a July 1994 bus tour to rally support for the plan, Hillary wore a bulletproof vest at times. By September of 1994, the Clinton health care plan was virtually dead as it failed to gather enough support for a floor vote in either the Democratically controlled House or Senate. The defeat of health care reform was a major setback to the Clintons. Consequences of the failed health care plan were felt in the mid-term elections of 1994, with Democrats losing control of both the House and Senate.

A Traditional First Lady

After the defeat of the Clinton health care plan, Hillary started taking a more traditional role as first lady. Hillary and Chelsea completed a twelve-day goodwill tour of southern Asia, where they met with heads of states and toured the countrysides. In September 1995, she served as honorary chairperson of the American delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China. China had a dismal record on human rights in general, with a brutal policy of condoning forced abortions as a means of imposing its “one child policy.” At the conference, Hillary delivered an impassioned speech in which she said:

“I believe that on the eve of a new millennium, it is time to break our silence. It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights… For too long, the history of women has been a history of silence. Even today, there are those who are trying to silence our words…”

Bill Clinton’s popularity as president extended into a second term and Hillary was still very active as a first lady. Her many travels around the world would make her the most traveled first lady in the history of the United States.

Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Christmas 1997.
Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Christmas 1997.

Welfare Reform

One of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign promises was to "end welfare as we have come to know it” by requiring “more work” and “strict time limits.” However, it wouldn’t be until Bill’s second term that his plans to reform welfare would come to fruition, but not exactly as he had planned. Two pieces of legislation came out of the Republican controlled Congress that were vetoed by President Clinton. During the period when the bills were being debated in Washington and discussed throughout the nation, opposition arose to the welfare changes from the Democratic party. Two vocal opponents of the reform were Hillary’s longtime friends and associates, Peter and Marian Edelman. Hillary had known and worked with the Edelmans since the late 1960s. Hillary and Marian were “sisters in the best sense of sisterhood,” said David Hornbeck, a Children’s Defense Fund board chairman who has known both women for decades. Both were “policy wonks,” he said, who “fought many battles together, prayed together, and wept together.” The more senior Marian had been a trusted mentor to Hillary for years and the friction between the two over welfare reform had turned their long-term relationship sour.

A third version of the reform bill came up during the 1996 general election campaign; it restored some of the protections but cut the scope of benefits in other areas. Critics, including the Edelmans, urged Hillary to persuade Bill to veto the bill. Hillary had come to embrace the often quoted line, “Politics is the art of compromise,” and decided to support the bill, which became the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Later, Hillary acknowledged that she had put “pragmatic politics” ahead of her mentor’s principles. “In the painful aftermath [of the welfare debate], I realized I had crossed the line from advocate to policymaker,” she wrote in Living History. “I hadn’t altered my beliefs, but I respectfully disagreed with the convictions and passion of the Edelman’s and others who objected to the legislation.” It would take years before the fissure between the Clintons and Edelmans would heal.

The Monica Lewinsky Scandal

In late January 1998, speculation of Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, came to light, causing quite a stir in the news media and the general public. This immediately threw the Clinton’s personal relationship into the spotlight. Hillary initially denied the allegations on NBC’s Today Show and called it part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” orchestrated by Bill’s political enemies. Bill finally came clean with Hillary and admitted the affair. In his book, My Life, he recounts the event, “On Saturday morning, August 15, with the grand jury testimony looming and after a miserable, sleepless night, I woke up Hillary and told her the truth about what had happened between me and Monica Lewinsky. She looked at me as if I had punched her in the gut, almost as angry at me for lying to her in January as for what I had done.”

When incontrovertible evidence came out regarding the affair, Hillary issued a public statement reaffirming that their marriage was strong and would survive this dark period in their lives. In private, Hillary was furious with Bill and considered divorce. Their marital problems were apparent to the White House staff as there was a heightened level of tension between the couple. The Lewinsky scandal and charges of perjury eventually led to the impeachment of the president by the House of Representatives and subsequent acquittal by the Senate. The Lewinsky scandal and the associated legal entanglements nearly cost Bill Clinton the presidency and his marriage.

As the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings played out in the press and on nightly television, the public reactions to both of the Clintons was very mixed. Some viewed Bill as a lecherous pervert having an affair with a woman over twenty years his junior who worked for him, while others felt it was a private matter between two consenting adults. Reactions to Hillary’s conduct through the ordeal were very mixed as well. Some women admired her strength and poise in handling such a private matter that was made public, while others saw her as enabling her husband’s bad behavior, and still others believed she was staying in a failed marriage only to enhance her own political influence and career. Whatever one’s opinion of Hillary was on how she handled her husband’s affair, her public approval ratings increased dramatically to highest they had been during her time as first lady.

Like many people who have their lives thrown into chaos, Hillary sought spiritual guidance. She had stayed in contact with her childhood youth minister from Park Ridge, Don Jones. Don reminded her of a classic sermon by the theologian Paul Tillich, which Don had read to Hillary’s youth group when she was a teenager. Its premise is how sin and grace exist through life in constant interplay; neither is possible without the other. The mystery of grace is that you cannot look for it. “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness,” Tillich wrote. “It happens; or it does not happen.” As Hillary would soon find out, she would need a double helping of God’s Grace to navigate the turbulent waters that lay ahead for her and Bill.

Due to all the legal fees associated with the scandals during the White House years, the Clintons would leave Washington, D.C., deeply in debt.

Monica Lewinsky in 1997.
Monica Lewinsky in 1997.

References

Frances Stead Sellers. “The story of Hillary Clinton’s ‘totally confusing’ relationship with her liberal mentor.” The Washington Post. June 3, 2016. 7.

Clinton, H.R. Living History. Simon & Schuster. 2003.

Clinton, B. My Life. Alfred A. Knopf. 2004.

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