'Hillary' Documentary Sets Clinton's Career And Marriage Against Culture War Backdrop

Mar 4, 2020
Originally published on March 4, 2020 7:19 pm

In Hillary, a new four-part documentary on Hulu, director Nanette Burstein overlays the story of Hillary Clinton's career and marriage over the story of feminism and the culture wars of the 1990s and 2000s.

It's a dynamic that comes down to "Be Our Champion, Go Away," as one episode is titled.

Hillary reveals behind-the-scenes footage from Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign against Donald Trump. And it takes a probing look at her life, both public and private, before the campaign to help reveal how the sexual scandals that plagued her husband's political career ultimately affected her own.

Among the episodes the film explores is the night in October 2016 when then-candidate Donald Trump brought some of Bill Clinton's accusers to sit in the audience during the second presidential debate — a move the Clinton campaign called a "stunt."

In an interview with NPR on Tuesday, Clinton said it was all part of a political strategy by an opponent who was trying to "turn the tables" away from his own brewing sex scandal. But she rejects the idea that her husband's history limited her ability to take on Trump on the issue of sexual misconduct.

"What happened in my husband's presidency is obviously part of history. He was held accountable, he expressed his regrets and what I saw happening with Trump is the inability of people to figure out how to hold him accountable for anything," she said.

Clinton and Burstein spoke to NPR on Super Tuesday. The former presidential nominee said she is not planning to endorse any candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary race. Hear that conversation here.


Interview Highlights

On how Hillary Clinton's life reflects the arc of the modern women's movement

Burstein: Secretary Clinton grew up at a time when she was part of the second wave of feminism. She grew up during the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement. There's almost a Zelig-like anthem to her life and the various places that even in early life she was encountering and being involved in.

On how the documentary shows Clinton change

Clinton: I think I certainly became more wary. I felt like I was on a tightrope, no margins whatsoever. I watched other people run for office — men, let's be honest. When you're the only woman, or the first woman, or one of very few women, there isn't that template.

On whether Clinton still feels, as she says in the documentary, that she may be a better public servant than candidate

Clinton: I know I was a good public servant. I hope that I've made it a little bit easier for more women to enter the public sphere and I think for viewers who watch the documentary on Hulu starting on Friday night, I hope that maybe there are some lessons in that for them, too.

Burstein: In the documentary, [Clinton 2016 campaign strategist] Robby Mook ... makes this point of saying now with social media what drives voters is clear, quick, clean ideas: Free education for all, universal health care. I know that Secretary Clinton shared with me that she has what she referred to as the "responsibility gene" where she doesn't want to just promise things, she likes to break down and explain all the different funding streams and how you would actually accomplish it. And it's not what the public always wants to take the time to listen to.

Justine Kenin and Courtney Dorning produced and edited this story for broadcast. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One thing is clear from the new "Hillary" documentary on Hulu. Secretary Clinton knows what people think about her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HILLARY")

HILLARY CLINTON: People still believe weird, wacky things about me because they've been told (laughter) over and over again that, you know, I kill people. I rob people. I mean, who the heck knows what they're told?

CORNISH: The documentary by Nanette Burstein overlays the story of Clinton's career and marriage over the history of feminism and the culture wars of the '90s and aughts, a dynamic that comes down to, quote, "Be Our Champion, Go Away," as one episode is titled. Both women sat down to talk with us, and Burstein argues in the documentary that Secretary Clinton's life reflects the arc of the modern women's movement.

NANETTE BURSTEIN: Secretary Clinton grew up at a time when she was part of the second wave of feminism. She grew up during the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. There's almost a Zelig-like anthem to her life and the various places that, even in early life, she was encountering and being involved in.

CORNISH: But people look at the Baby Boomer generation now and - there was this thing going around last summer - OK, Boomer - as a slur. What did you think about this moment that made you think we could learn lessons from her life?

BURSTEIN: Well, I think you can always learn lessons. And I think that's one of the things that really bothers me is that a lot of young women today - and I don't say this in a condescending way. But we don't realize, like, how much change has happened in such a short amount of time.

CORNISH: The documentary is looking at the 2016 race using the footage collected by the campaign and then going back in history as well and tracing your - the arc of your life. Ms. Burstein, I want to ask about the fact that you spend a good chunk of the film talking about the sexual scandals that President Clinton brought on himself and how they affected the career of Secretary Clinton. Can you talk about why?

BURSTEIN: Well, first of all, I think there has been a lot of speculation about the nature of their marriage. During the 2016 election, I would hear so often from women, well, I am not going to vote for Hillary Clinton because she did not leave her husband. And it really bothered them, and I found that really surprising at that time.

CORNISH: Secretary Clinton, for you, does this - was this a moment when, watching this documentary, you had to think about or personally reconcile the ways in which your husband's political history affected your career?

CLINTON: Well, it wasn't just watching the documentary. I'm well aware that, you know, my life affected his life and his political career. His life and his political career affected mine.

CORNISH: I mean, there is this moment where you're showing the second presidential debate, right? And Donald Trump brings the sexual misconduct accusers to the debate. Your campaign is calling it a stunt. You're having to get through that night. I mean, this affected you directly many years later.

CLINTON: It did because we had someone running against me who has been credibly accused by many, many women, and he is a great counterpuncher. So taking everything that had been said about him - and a day or two after, the Access Hollywood tape, where he's literally on tape saying what he had said - and trying to turn the tables was a strategy. It was a political strategy. And I...

CORNISH: But the take now has been that President Clinton's history limited your ability...

CLINTON: Well...

CORNISH: ...To take on Candidate Trump on this issue.

CLINTON: I don't think so. Look; what happened in my husband's presidency is, obviously, part of history. He was held accountable. He expressed his regrets. And what I saw happening with Trump is the inability of people to figure out how to hold him accountable for anything.

CORNISH: Have you figured anything out about that since in this time that you've been away from public life?

CLINTON: Well, I have figured out that because he does something outrageous at least once a day, it's just too much for the body politic or for the press to absorb.

CORNISH: I feel like over time, watching the documentary, Secretary Clinton, we can kind of see you become a closed person in terms of your physicality, your facial expressions. It may be the photography that Nanette Burstein chose. Is that something you witnessed as well?

CLINTON: Oh, I think I certainly became more wary. I felt like I was on a tightrope, no margins whatsoever. I watched other people run for office and - you know, men, to be honest (laughter). I watched other men run for office. When you're the only woman or the first woman or one of very few women, there isn't that template.

CORNISH: As a black American woman, I can say there are times that it is difficult to tease out whether you are facing an -ism (ph), so to speak, or whether it's you. And I know...

CLINTON: Yeah, that's absolutely true.

CORNISH: ...At a certain point in the documentary, you said that you felt like maybe you were a better public servant than a candidate. Do you still feel that way?

CLINTON: Well, I know I was a good public servant. I hope that I've made it a little bit easier for more women to enter the public sphere. And I think, for viewers who watch the documentary on Hulu starting Friday night, I hope that maybe there are some lessons in that for them, too.

CORNISH: I like the plug. That means you're already on it.

(LAUGHTER)

BURSTEIN: But, you know, what's interesting about this point is in the documentary, Robby Mook also makes this point of saying...

CORNISH: This was a campaign strategist in 2016.

BURSTEIN: This was the campaign manager for the 2016 election - that, you know, now with social media, what drives voters is clear, quick, clean ideas - you know, free education for all, universal health care. And I know that Secretary Clinton shared with me that she has what, you know, she referred to as the responsibility gene, where she doesn't want to just promise things, but she likes to break down and explain all the different funding streams and how you would actually accomplish it. And it's not what the public always wants to take the time to listen to, so it's a different approach...

CORNISH: Right. As soon as you said funding streams, I thought, not a good one for the ad.

BURSTEIN: (Laughter) Right.

CORNISH: What did you learn about the idea of transparency? I mean, throughout this story, whether it's about your personal life, whether it's about the political scandals that have dogged your political career in the past - and now you're in a moment where I'm reading reviews were saying, she's more blunt, and that's great. I mean, is this something - not everyone has this position to have a huge chunk of their life (laughter) presented to them in four hours. Is this something that you have learned from watching all this?

CLINTON: My life has been pretty much a public, open book for decades now, more than most people I know in politics. So when I think about, you know, all of the allegations against me - none of which have ever been proven but which certainly took their toll because even though something is disproven, you've got the lingering thoughts in people's heads, like, oh, my gosh. Well, you know, maybe - you know, maybe there was something to that. And then you have investigations, and you have all kinds of inquiries. And at the end of the day, after the damage is done, it's like, just kidding; nothing there. Move on. And...

CORNISH: But Secretary Clinton, can I jump in here?

CLINTON: Sure.

CORNISH: I think the question is, what have you learned? I can't imagine sitting watching four hours (laughter) of an examination of my own life. For you, did you actually come away with something?

CLINTON: I'm very grateful for my life. I came away very happy with the life that I've lived and the choices that I've made. And seeing it over the course of four hours just reinforced that.

CORNISH: Well, Secretary Hillary Clinton and Nanette Burstein, director of the documentary "Hillary," thank you so much for your time.

CLINTON: Thank you very much.

BURSTEIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE BACK THE POWER")

THE INTERRUPTERS: (Singing) Take back the power. What's your plan for tomorrow? Are you a leader or will you follow? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.