Hillary (2020) ★★★1/2
Director: Nanette Burstein
Streaming on Hulu
Ever since Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with her, reading interviews and post-mortems, as well as Clinton’s own memoir about the 2016 campaign, What Happened? I also read Amy Chozick’s memoir, Chasing Hillary, about covering both of Clinton’s presidential runs for the New York Times. When I heard that Nanette Burstein had made a 4-hour documentary about Clinton’s life, I didn’t think I’d be interested in revisiting material that I already knew so well. At the beginning of the quarantine, I gave the first episode a try, but it didn’t grab me, especially when I saw how reliant it was on first-person interviews with Clinton, as well as Amy Chozick. I felt like I’d already heard from both of them and I wanted a new perspective.
But then quarantine started to wear on me. I kept thinking about what this period would be like if Clinton were president. . .
It’s anyone’s guess if Clinton would have caught the spread of the coronavirus early, but she definitely wouldn’t have dismantled the pandemic team, or spent her first three years in office gutting all of the federal agencies. She also wouldn’t have ignored and trashed all of President Obama’s transition documents, some of which surely tracked the successes and failures of previous pandemic responses. (If you want a detailed description of what federal agencies do and why coordinated transitions between presidential administrations are important to national security and public health, please read The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis.)
I returned to Hillary because I craved Hillary’s particular authority: her practiced calm, her attention to detail, and her faith in institutions. Picking up where I left off in the first episode, I found myself riveted, staying up until midnight to finish it. Divided into four hour-long episodes, Hillary is anchored by a day-long interview with Clinton, conducted by Burstein in 2018. At first it seemed that Burstein’s interview would focus mainly on the 2016 election, but instead Burstein uses the story of Clinton’s loss — a story we all know well — to tell the larger, and more complicated story of Clinton’s life. Burstein’s knowledge of Clinton’s biography is extensive, and some of her questions were so far-reaching that even Clinton seemed surprised. Clinton’s point of view is fleshed out by interviews with Chelsea and Bill Clinton, her campaign aides, old friends from college and law school, and former colleagues, including Barack Obama. There is also new footage from the 2016 campaign trail, which shows how grueling and disappointing the campaign was for everyone involved — even before the loss. .
Hillary Clinton has taken on so many roles in life that it’s hard to know where to begin when writing about her. She’s been a pioneer in almost everything she’s done, whether as a law student, attorney, politician’s wife, first lady, senator, secretary of state, or presidential nominee for a major political party. Her life has been radically shaped by women’s liberation, starting with her undergraduate years at Wellesley, when she was hailed as the voice of a new generation of women, a group of feminist trailblazers knocking on the doors of traditionally male institutions.
Now, a younger generation finds her too conservative, which I find somewht maddening, not because they are wrong — many of her policies are on the conservative side — but because I think people forget just how long Hillary has been fighting these battles. If she has conservative or cautious tendencies, she comes by them honestly. She was born in 1947. Any woman who grew up in the 1950s had an incredibly strict childhood. Girls weren’t allowed to play sports, wear jeans to school, and in many households, there was no expectation of higher education. Girls who did perform beyond expectations were constantly put in their place. That’s the story of Hillary’s professional life, beginning in law school, when she was told that she was taking the place of a more well-deserving boy who would now probably die in Vietnam because of her ambition.
Despite living through truly revolutionary times, Hillary does not really dwell on her past, nor is she particularly introspective. There’s some part of her that seems repulsed by storytelling, I guess for the way that it flattens complexity. It’s ironic — or maybe it makes perfect sense — that she married such a charming storyteller. Throughout her interview with Burstein, Clinton often talks about her dislike of politics and political speechmaking. She hates telling people what they want to hear, hates over-promising, hates performing. She will only describe what she knows to be true, and what she can do. She loves getting into the minutiae of policy and accepts compromise as inevitable — a terrible thing for a presidential candidate to talk about on the stump!
Clinton also does not hide her contempt, a quality that I think could add to her authenticity if deployed properly, but she has never been good at communicating her values. A comment like “I could have stayed home and baked cookies” was taken out of context so repeatedly that people believed it referred to stay-at-home mothers. Burstein shows footage from the original press conference, so that viewers can see the full context of the quotation, which was to answer repeated questions about why she had decided to continue working as a lawyer after her husband became governor. What she was objecting to was the ceremonial position of First Lady, not staying at home to care for children. In fact, the majority of Hillary’s healthcare policies were designed to provide healthcare for those women and children who were not covered by private, employer-based insurance.
There’s something perpetually naïve about Hillary Clinton that I admire, even as I find it frustrating. She expects to be respected, expects to be trusted, expects to be judged on her own merits, and above all, she expects to have a private life. “I need to have a private life so that I can have a public one,” she explains to Burstein. Some of her expectations, I think, have to do with her Methodist faith, which seems to sustain and comfort her. In both her book and in Hillary, Amy Chozick talks about how Hillary went to church throughout her campaign, read the Bible, sang hymns, and relied on her faith to keep her sane. Voters rarely saw this side of her, in part because of the way the press covers her, but also because she doesn’t talk about it very much. I always read Clinton’s reticence to speak about her churchgoing as part of a Christian tradition of not bragging about your good deeds or piety. But maybe it’s just too personal for her to share, and she wants to protect it.
The other part of her naïveté has to do with Bill Clinton. A recurring theme in Hillary is the way Bill was always the best and worst partner for her: someone who saw and encouraged her brilliance, but whose actions ended up dimming her light. Her marriage to him is now legendary, and has been analyzed to death. I think it’s interesting that both Hillary and Bill have always emphasized the fact that she had doubts about him from the beginning, turning him down several time before finally saying yes to his proposal. (Her doubt is such an tantalizing part of her biography that the novelist Curtis Sittenfeld’s forthcoming Rodham is about what might have happened if Hillary hadn’t married Bill.) Hillary’s friends also had doubts about Bill, and it’s pretty heartbreaking to hear one of them say, when asked about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, “I always believed Monica.”
Although Hillary doesn’t offer any new insight into the Clinton marriage, the discussion of the Lewinsky affair was surprisingly raw. Bill seemed genuinely contrite, almost mournful, and Hillary was more emotional in answering questions about that time than she was when discussing Bill’s many other affairs. I got the sense that the Lewinsky affair was the moment when Hillary could no longer deny what she knew to be true. I have a lot of sympathy for her years of denial, and I think many women do. One campaign staffer told a revealing story about interviewing a group of female voters who said they hated Hillary for staying with Bill, but when the staffer delved deeper, she found that many of the woman had endured similar infidelities in their marriages. Relationships are complicated. As one of Hillary’s law school friends says: “Those two people love each other. If they didn’t, it would be so much easier.”
I’ve written more about this documentary than I expected to. It’s surprisingly capacious, and covers a lot of history. For me, the historical moments closely follow my own awareness of national politics, so I think it gave me a way to look back on my own life in this retrospective, quarantine moment. But Hillary also succeeds in conveying Hillary’s complexity as both a historical figure and as a human being with personal problems, just like the rest of us.