Hillary Clinton didn’t win the presidency in 2016, but the former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State learned quite a few lessons along the way. She made her Stern Show debut on Wednesday and opened up to Howard about a variety of subjects, from meeting Bill Clinton at Yale and encouraging President Obama to go after Osama bin Laden to the origins of the term “deep state” and what she believes awaits everyone after they die. Secretary Clinton also spoke candidly about the tribulations she endured during the last election as well as the advice she offered to every 2020 candidate who has bothered to seek her counsel.
“If you haven’t had your personal email stolen, it will be—but I bet it already has been, it’s banked somewhere—and they will use it to try and paint a picture of you that is totally untrue,” Hillary recounted telling the candidates. “Even if it’s nothing insidious, illegal, unethical … you can twist anything.”
The opposition’s dirty tricks wouldn’t end there, Clinton theorized. She warned candidates of everything from voter suppression tactics to the likely onslaught of fake news on social media.
“They’re going to lie about you repetitively on social media—particularly Facebook—and they’re going to target people who are susceptible to that,” Clinton said, explaining that after her own run she discovered many voters who cited Facebook as their primary news source had come to believe she was dying or had delivered arms to ISIS.
Hillary then sounded off on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who recently testified before Congress and said he wouldn’t change his platform’s policy on running misleading political ads. “For him to say, you know, ‘We’re not going to take down fake ads’ … is such an abdication of responsibility and I don’t understand what’s going through his head. I’ve heard him try to explain it. He doesn’t do a very good job,” she told Howard.
Secretary Clinton declined to endorse anyone specific in the 2020 primary but told Howard she’d have no trouble getting behind someone before next November: “I’ll support whomever the Democratic nominee is.”
“Why not support a candidate?” Howard wondered.
“I don’t want to get in the middle. It’s up to the voters to decide,” Hillary said.
The last time she let the voters decide was Nov. 8, 2016—they chose her by an overwhelming majority. Despite earning about three million more votes than Donald Trump in the general election, however, Clinton lost key battleground states like Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania and was ultimately defeated.
Secretary Clinton didn’t shy away from talking to Howard about her 2016 campaign or the heartbreak she felt after losing such a hard-fought contest. She told Howard she was tested early on after several Republican colleagues she’d been friendly with in the U.S. Senate turned against as soon as she was named the Democratic nominee.
“There’s like a spectrum. You expect some of it,” she said. “Some of the Republicans I’ve served with never said a bad word about me, I’ve never said a bad word about them ... but then there are those who have fallen off the edge and have so changed their personality and, in my view, their politics.”
“Like a Lindsey Graham?” Howard asked, referring to the prominent Republican Senator from South Carolina who has emerged as one of President Trump’s staunchest defenders.
“Like a Lindsey Graham. Exactly,” she agreed.
“He was good company, he was funny, he was self-deprecating. He also believed in climate change back in those days,” she continued. “I saw him as somebody who had been working to figure out what he believed and how he could do things."
“Has he sold his soul to the devil?” Howard asked.
“I don’t know the answer to that. I think that’s a fair question, however,” Clinton said, lamenting the evolution of some of his positions in recent years. “I don’t know what happened to Lindsey Graham,” she continued, explaining he had once written her a nice tribute in Time magazine and now “it’s like he had a brain snatch.”
Back-stabbing might be common in politics, but some of the other hurdles Secretary Clinton was forced to clear during her campaign were unique. When she came down with pneumonia two months before the election and became faint at a 9/11 remembrance ceremony, it somehow became a scandal. She had a standard reaction to a fairly common illness, but since it was all captured on camera it led to a barrage of negative press questioning her fitness for office.
“You would’ve thought that I was being taken to the cemetery. It was crazy,” she told Howard.
Likewise, then F.B.I. Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress in late October which effectively reopened the can of worms surrounding Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State. It was an unprecedented move by an acting government official on the eve of an election which dominated the news cycle for days and many pundits suppose it helped Trump a great deal in the end.
“I think the Comey letter—10 days before the election—killed me,” Hillary said.
Even the debates took a turn for the unusual when Trump spent much of one evening interrupting Clinton and looming behind Clinton while she spoke. The media had plenty to say about his onstage presence, yet some criticized her for not calling him out on TV. From Hillary’s perspective, however, she was in a no-win situation.
“Supposed I had turned around and said, ‘Back up you creep. You’re not going to intimidate me’? The headlines would be ‘Lost Her Calm’ … It would’ve worked against me and all the pundits would’ve said, ‘If she can’t take Donald Trump, how can she take Vladimir Putin?’” she told Howard.
Despite the bizarre debates, the Comey letter, the hacked emails, and everything else working against her, most credible news outlets still considered Clinton the odds-on favorite the morning of the election. When Trump was declared the winner later that night, Hillary revealed she was as shocked as everyone else.
“Obviously I was crushed. I was disappointed. I was really surprised because I really couldn’t figure out what happened,” she told Howard, saying her team was so confident they’d win that she hadn’t even crafted a concession speech.
As crushed as she was, Secretary Clinton didn’t let it stop her from congratulating Trump and even offering him her counsel. “When I called him on that terrible night, I said … ‘Donald, I want you to be a good president and I’ll do whatever I can to help you,’” she told Howard.
“Was he gracious or was he a sore winner?” Howard wondered.
“He was so shocked he could barely talk,” Hillary laughed. “He was more shocked than me, I think.”
President Trump was sworn into office Jan. 20, 2017, a day Hillary will never forget. “I went to the inauguration of Donald Trump which was one of the hardest days of my life, to be honest,” she told Howard on Wednesday.
She attended the ceremony not as a former U.S. Senator or Secretary of State, but as former First Lady of the United States. Despite disagreeing with Trump on a litany of issues, she did her best to give Trump the benefit of the doubt as he took office. “I said to myself … ‘I hope he’s gonna be a better president than I think he will be.’” Clinton recalled.
Not long into Trump’s inaugural address, however, she realized her hopes were in vain. “He started on that speech, which was so bizarre, and that’s when I got really worried,” she said. “It’s not what a president does.”
Clinton wasn’t the only one put off by his speech, either. “I was sitting there like, just wow, I couldn’t believe it, and George W. Bush says to me, ‘Well, that was some weird shit,’” she told Howard.
Several people in Hillary’s camp cautioned her against attending Trump’s inauguration, but she was compelled by the same sense of duty which caused her to run in the first place. “I ran for president because I love this country and want to serve this country. I thought I’d be a really good president,” Clinton told Howard.
Had she won in 2016, Howard wondered what issues she would’ve tackled in her first 100 days on the job.
“I was going to have to try and do more than one thing because we had to shore up and save healthcare … we had to figure out what we’re going to do about immigration, which is tearing this country apart,” she said, adding she also would’ve worked to confirm judges as quickly as possible.
Hillary didn’t always aspire to be president. Not by a long shot. She opened up to Howard about her childhood on Wednesday, explaining that her father Hugh Rodham, a hardworking World War II veteran, was a man of his time who frequently yelled but had a good heart. Her mother Dorothy Howell Rodham, meanwhile, was far more complex. She was born to two teenage parents in 1911 and sent off to live with her grandparents at a young age. “My mother lived there for about four or five years. It was miserable,” Hillary explained.
Unsurprisingly, her mother’s childhood influenced the woman she’d eventually become. “She was just so sad,” Hillary said. “I don’t think a day went by … where she wasn’t wondering why she hadn’t been loved.”
Hillary herself was somewhat popular as a school girl. Like Howard, she was captain of the hall patrol in grade school. “[I] wore a white belt. Got a badge, too,” she told him. Unlike Howard, she served as president of the Fabian fan club. “I was young and he was so cute,” she laughed.
Hillary saw several men in high school but never fell head-over-heels for anyone. “I dated a lot of different people and I liked a lot of them,” she said.
She found love for the first time while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Wellesley College. The man looked like a “Greek god,” she said, but wasn’t someone she ever seriously considered marrying.
Hillary attended Yale Law School after graduating from Wellesley in 1969. One day, while studying in the library, she looked up and noticed another student staring at her—his name was Bill Clinton.
“He looked like a Viking in those days. He had lots of reddish hair with a big reddish beard,” she remembered.
Hillary made the first move: “I said, ‘If you’re gonna keep staring at me and I’m going to keep staring back, we ought to at least know each other’s names’—and that’s how I met him."
Howard wondered if she was nervous or afraid of rejection. “No,” she said. “Then I would’ve known right then he wasn’t worth the time.”
As it turned out, Bill and Hillary were in the same class, though she hadn’t realized it because he so rarely attended. He finally showed up on the last day and that’s when he made his feelings known. He walked Hillary to the registrar after class just to strike up a conversation and they continued on to Yale’s art museum where Hillary was excited to see a Mark Rothko exhibit. The museum was closed but Bill had an idea, so he disappeared for a minute before coming back with someone.
“He introduces me to this gentlemen. He goes, ‘This is John the Janitor and John the Janitor said he’ll let us in if we pick up all the trash on the lawn,’” Hillary recounted.
“What an operator this guy is,” Howard said, impressed. “This is a guy who is a born people person.”
Hillary agreed: “You know what he says which is so important? He says everybody has a story.”
A few days after that, Bill and Hillary’s love began to blossom. After graduating in 1973, the two traveled together to England and France. That’s when he first asked her to marry him.
“I said, ‘I’m not ready to get married,’” Hillary recalled. “I was going to work for the Children’s Defense Fund.”
Nevertheless, Bill persisted. The two eventually tied the knot in 1975. Hillary got her first taste of serving as a First Lady after Bill became Governor of Arkansas in 1983, but she didn’t put the rest of her career on hold. “I was practicing law. I was also starting organizations … I was always deeply committed,” she told Howard. “I tried to have an integrated life.”
As First Lady of Arkansas, she worked hard to revamp the state’s education and healthcare systems. She took the fight nationwide a decade later after Bill was elected 42nd President of the United States. In 1993, as First Lady of the United States, she led the administration’s efforts to overhaul the entire U.S. healthcare system which had been a major part of her husband’s platform. However, the plan her task force came up with never made it through Congress and so-called “Hillary Care” was deemed a failure by many Democrats and Republicans alike.
“People were burning me in effigy,” she told Howard.
The irony didn’t go unnoticed. “When I had done education reform in Arkansas … people were like, ‘Thank you for helping.’ … We get to Washington and it turns out to be a more conservative place in terms of what a First Lady can do,” she told Howard.
After Bill’s second term, Hillary finally decided to run for office herself. In 2001, she was elected New York’s first female U.S. Senator. She ran for President in 2008, but narrowly lost the Democratic primary to then Senator Barack Obama, who went on to become the nation’s 44th Commander-in-Chief. In 2009. President Obama named her Secretary of State.
Howard said he was surprised when Obama appointed her, and he wasn’t alone.
“So was I, Howard,” she admitted before recounting what Obama had said to her when he asked her to take the position.
“He basically said, ‘Look, we’re in a mess. The economy has gone totally down. We have problems around the world.’ He said, ‘I need your help … I need you to go travel around and restore our relationships,” Hillary recalled, adding, “That’s why I was honored to serve with him.”
Secretary Clinton told Howard she has a deep respect for President Obama and she praised both his decision-making while in office and his skills as an orator. On the second point, Howard saw some similarities between Barack and Bill’s masterful public speaking abilities.
“Unbelievable, both of them,” Hillary agreed. “They just had whatever that magical charisma was.” She went on to say both men were also “really good presidents” who “left the country stronger than they found it.”
Clinton served as America’s top diplomat for four years, including in 2009 when President Obama authorized a strike against terrorist and 9/11-mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Howard wondered what it was like being in the Situation Room that day. “You knew that was a huge moment, right?” he asked her.
“Huge,” she said, adding, “There was a split among his advisors. I was in the small group that said go after him and go ahead and do it with a Navy SEAL team.”
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden both warned President Obama against going forward with the operation, according to Clinton. While she admits the operation was a risky one, she also said she felt a “special responsibility” after having served as one of New York’s Senators when the city was attacked in 2001.
“We all said what we thought, but [President Obama] had to make the decision and he said, ‘I’m going to think about it. I’m going to sleep on it,’” Hillary said.
“I admired that,” she continued. “I do not like impulsive decision makers.”
Presidents and First Ladies are given Secret Service protection for life, which means Hillary has been under the agency’s watchful eye for the better part of 30 years. It’s part of their job to follow her around all day and drive her wherever she needs to go, and Howard worried that kind of attention might infantilize someone.
“I think that’s pretty perceptive,” Hillary laughed. “Your therapy is paying off.”
Still, she tries not to let the agents’ presence affect her day-to-day life. She goes to the movies (she and Bill recently saw “Harriet,” a biopic about slave turned abolitionist Harriet Tubman) and does her own shopping at the grocery store.
“They hang back,” she explained. “They’re not out there squeezing the cantaloupes with me.”
Clinton enjoyed “Harriet,” describing it as a largely accurate retelling of Tubman’s incredible life. She should know, too, as she and Chelsea recently wrote about her in “The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience.” Their new best-seller chronicles the lives of a variety of celebrated women, including Tubman, poet Maya Angelou, tennis champion Billie Jean King, and environmental activist Greta Thunberg but leaves out several better-known heroines like media mogul Oprah Winfrey and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Howard asked Hillary what it meant to be a gutsy woman.
“It means having that determination, that persistence, to not only achieve something for yourself but also to make a positive difference for others,” she told him. “I’m especially interested in people who overcome unbelievable obstacles because they believe in something bigger than themselves.”
Another woman who made the cut is former FLOTUS Betty Ford, who Clinton admired both for her efforts to raise awareness about breast cancer and her founding of the Betty Ford Center, a non-profit treatment center for alcohol and other drug addictions.
“She saved lives, Howard,” Hillary said.
Clinton has gotten to know several First Ladies over the years, including John F. Kennedy’s widow Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The two met in the ‘90s at her apartment on 5th Avenue and Jackie gave her invaluable advice about White House living. “It was so great … She was really focused on how to make the White House a home for my daughter,” Hillary said.
Hillary believes every First Lady has done something she can admire, but Howard wondered which was her all-time favorite. That distinction went to Eleanor Roosevelt, who served beside Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1945. “She was her husband’s eyes, ears, legs,” Hillary explained, adding, “She pushed him really hard on Civil Rights. She pushed him on, you know, trying to open the doors to more Jews fleeing Europe.”
Hillary’s favorite president, meanwhile, is Abraham Lincoln. “I think Lincoln faced the worst possible choices,” she said, adding, “He had this view that he had to save the Union—and how do you save the Union when it’s half free and half slave? And what are the compromises you’re willing to make?”
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton’s “The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience” is available now.