In 1978, Bill Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas in a landslide. He and his wife, Hillary Rodham, whom he married in 1975, were just 32. Rodham, who moved south for Clinton’s political career, had already built a successful career in the state as a young lawyer and law professor.
The young Hillary had decided to keep her last name because she saw it as part of her own identity. (Bill’s mother, Virginia, had cried at the news.) Rodham’s last name ultimately became an issue in Bill’s 1978 campaign, though. His opponent, Frank White, would introduce his wife as “Mrs. Frank White” — a not-so-subtle attack on what Republicans in Arkansas saw as the Clintons’ brazen liberalism in the Southern state.
In 1979, a month into her tenure as Arkansas first lady, Rodham sat down for an interview with the Arkansas public affairs program In Focus. The interview, available on BuzzFeed News for the first time in decades, is among the earliest, and most open, glimpses of Clinton’s efforts to balance public and private life, a theme that has followed her long career. Archived in the special collections at the University of Arkansas, the nearly half-hour-long interview offers an insight into the future Hillary Clinton and her early attempts to navigate the tough waters as the wife of a political figure — while keeping her own identity and privacy.
The interview covers how the Clintons compromised on her dual roles in her career and as first lady and how they traded the exposure of being a public couple but guarded their private life. She talked about her and Bill’s youth being an asset, and discussed wanting to have children (this interview took place before Chelsea was born).
The deeply personal interview is perhaps the oldest and longest video of the young Hillary Clinton.
3. Here are the highlights:
4. Hillary said she dealt with guarding her and Bill’s privacy while accepting that having your privacy curtailed is a part of public life.
“Well, I think that anyone who is going to be in public life has to, first of all, accept the fact that a certain amount of your privacy has to be curtailed, because you have an obligation to be available to people — and for people to feel that they have access to you. So I think it’s a trade-off that one knows one makes, when you enter public life, but I try as much as I can, particularly on his behalf, to take as much effort as I can make to guard his privacy so he has enough time to sleep and eat and think, because I believe that the people elected him to make decisions, and if he’s just always a public person there’s no time for that. So it is a problem, but it’s one that we’re willing to live with and figure out.”
5. She talked about the “tremendous strain” people married to politicians are under.
“Well no, that wouldn’t, unless I was going to take on the position of his bodyguard and follow him around all the time, I’m afraid that wouldn’t solve it at all,” Rodham said in response to a question about being able to spend more time with her husband if she didn’t practice law. “In fact, I think that people who are married to politicians are under a tremendous strain, because unless you have a pretty strong sense of your own self-identity, it becomes very easy to be buffeted about by all the people who are around your husband. People who are advising him, people who want favors from him, people who want to do things with him, for him, or to him, and very often those people are not anxious to have the politician’s wife or family members around because that’s then competition for their time.
“But I think if one looks at the lives of most political people and looks at the wives of those politicians, one would find that if they’re not working then they’re equally involved in activities that take up their time because your husband is gone so much, leaves at seven o’clock in the morning for a meeting and goes on to receptions and appointments and business and all the rest of it, and may have some kind of event in the evening as well. … No, I think that practicing law is something that in addition to a profession that I enjoy, it’s something that kind of keeps me busy during all the time he would be gone anyway.”
6. “One gets the impression,” the host noted, “that you’re really not all that interested in state dinners and teas and garden parties…”
“Well that’s not a true impression. I’m interested in everything. I’m interested in social events and civic events, as well as my own professional life,” Rodham replied.
“I don’t see any reason to be a sort of either/or person, I never have. I think that there’s so many opportunities in life to learn new things and meet new people and become involved with activities that it’s sort of shortsighted to cut oneself off from anything. Although I don’t spend my time completely doing social events, I also don’t spend it completely doing sort of nonsocial, public interest, or professional events either. I like to have a good mixture. I think that’s fun — you get to meet more people who have different viewpoints and perspectives on what’s going on in the state, and I really enjoy it.”
7. Hillary said being in politics put a strain on her marriage with Bill. Did she ever have second thoughts? “No, no, never, never.”
“I’m very lucky because I married Bill when he was a defeated politician. He had lost his race for Congress, and I had known him for a period of time before that in law school, before I ever knew really that he was interested in politics, and had an opportunity to get to know him,” said Rodham. “We have, for me, an excellent marriage. I’m not sure that it would suit other people, because the kinds of strains that we’ve been talking about, being in the public eye, being separated from one another are ones that not everyone could live with.”
Rodham added she really believed in what Clinton was doing and it helped them work out the strains in their marriage caused by being in politics.
“But I really believe in what he’s doing. I think that he’s a superb human being as well as a good politician, so that for me, those are sacrifices that I’m willing to make. And he’s very supportive of me and everything that I do, and I try to do as much as I can for him so that — I think there are strains in any marriage, and a political marriage, of course, has strains, but I’m not so sure that any marriage doesn’t have their own particular kinds of strains, and each couple has to work out an accommodation for whatever reasons there may be. So that we’ve worked out ours and we’re very happy, and I just hope that other people can work our their strains as well as I think we have.”
Asked if she had ever had any second thoughts, she said, “No, no, never, never.”
8. Had the Clintons’ youth been a problem for them? “It hasn’t proven to be. At least thus far; in many ways, it’s been a blessing…”
“At least thus far; in many ways, it’s been a blessing, because the amount of work that’s required is demanding on one’s stamina and enthusiasm, both of which Bill and I are lucky to have. So no, we have not run into those difficulties. I’m sure again that there are some people who are concerned about our youth, but I think that will also begin to dissolve depending on the kind of job that we do.”
9. Hillary said she thought it was “understandable” that people asked why she didn’t take her husband’s last name. The reason, she said, was she “really did not want to mix my professional activities with his political activities.”
“I think it’s an understandable question, but for many of the things we’ve just been talking about, the decision to keep my own name, particularly in my professional work, was one that seemed a very natural kind of decision, because as I said I was older when I got married,” said Rodham. “I had practiced law. I had worked in Washington and Boston. I had written several articles, had developed something of a specialization in the area of children and family law, and I knew that we were going to be undergoing a great deal of scrutiny and a great deal of attention if Bill continued in politics, which he intended to do in some form or another. And since I wanted to continue practicing law, I really did not want to mix my professional activities with his political activities.”
“I didn’t want anyone ever to think that I was either taking advantage of his position or in some way riding on it, and there aren’t very many way to persuade people of that. But I thought it essential that I try to keep as much of a distinction between my legal career and my obligations as Bill’s wife as I could. Keeping my name was part of that, as well as the professional reputation that I’d already built up.”
10. “I’m sure that it probably did, and I regret that very much,” Hillary said when asked if her last name lost Bill votes. “I regret any reason for someone voting against Bill other than on the basis of an honest disagreement with the issues.”
11. Hillary said reflections of her as “too liberal” because she didn’t take Bill’s last name were “no way related to reality.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. Anita Bryant didn’t take her husband’s name either, and I don’t think that she has a liberal image,” said Rodham.
“I think that a lot of people have images that are in no way related to reality. And there’s really not much that one can do about that. Someone could come up with an image of either me or my husband or you that if you were to sit down and talk with the person would dissolve, because you’d realize that your image was not in any way reflective of how that person acted or believed. And I can only hope that whatever image people might have of either me or Bill they will hold in advance until they have an opportunity to meet with us or to talk with us.
“Some people may think I’m too conservative. Some people may think I’m too this or too that, but I think that’s another one of the dangers of being in public life,” added Rodham. “One cannot live one’s life based on what somebody else’s image of you might be. I suppose that there have been many wives of politicians who may have had serious problems personally, because they were worried about the image that they had and as to whether or not that would hurt their husband. All one can do is live the life that God gave you, and you know you just do the best you can, and if somebody likes you or doesn’t like you that’s really in many ways something that you have no control over.”
12. Hillary said she wasn’t concerned if she didn’t fit the typical image for the wife of the governor. She said she fell in love with the state and couldn’t “think of a better place to be living right now.”
“No, because just as I’ve said before I think that each person should be assessed and judged on that person’s own merits,” said Rodham. “And I’m not 40, but that will be cured by age; eventually, I will be. We don’t have any children yet. We’re hoping to have children, so I hope that will be cured in a number of years also. That doesn’t bother me, and I hope that it doesn’t bother very many people. That in a way it’s kind of a tribute to the state that someone who may or may not fit an image is accepted on her own terms. I came to Arkansas of my own free will, I was not born here, and I fell in love with the state and decided to stay, and Bill and I were married.”
13. Hillary said she found the “slower pace” of Arkansas “a welcome relief” from the 18- to 20-hour days she did working as aide on the House impeachment staff in the early 1970s.
“The slower pace was a welcome relief. When I moved … from Washington to Arkansas, I had just finished working on the impeachment inquiry staff, and we had worked 18–20 hours a day, sometimes overnight, because the pressure was so intense and the work that we were doing was so important to us all. I was pleased to live in a community where people were willing to lead a more full and rounded life. People weren’t just workaholics, they were involved in family and community activities, they took family and friends seriously, and I was very glad to be there.”
14. “Every so often, people who come from the outside of Arkansas say that we’re so unprogressive here,” the host noted.
“Well, I think that depends upon what they mean and what we mean by ‘progressive,’” Rodham responds. “You know, if it’s progress to default on your bond obligations so that your city’s going into bankruptcy, or if it’s progress to have such an incredible crime rate that people don’t venture outside their doors, or if it’s progress to live in a city where you can’t breathe – well then I hope we are unprogressive, and I hope we never get to the point where that’s our definition of progress.”
“Well, our definition — and Bill’s talked about this all through the campaign, and in his first weeks as governor — our definition of progress is having a well-balanced kind of growth that reaches all sectors of the economy, all regions of our state, and all kinds of people, so that we’re not just focusing the growth in one particular part of the state.
“And that we have industry that comes here that is compatible with our environment, so that we don’t – in 10 or 15 years – turn around and are sorry that we’ve progressed, because we now no longer can breathe, or we can’t hunt, or we can’t walk in a quiet place,” added Rodham.
“You know, that’s our idea of progress: keeping the quality of life that enables people to live with some sense of harmony between themselves and their neighbors and nature and all, and at the same time being able to lead good lives that are remunerative, and that enable them to raise their children. You know, that’s what we mean by ‘progress.’ I don’t know what somebody else means by ‘progress,’ when they say we aren’t progressive, you know.”
15. Here’s the full interview:
Molly Ward contributed reporting.
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