Award-winning biographer Karen Blumenthal has written a biography about President in waiting: Hillary Clinton. She tells us about her journey to finding the woman beneath the public persona.

When an editor asked a couple of years ago if I’d be interested in writing a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, I didn’t hesitate.

Here was a subject who was compelling, controversial, complicated and the focus of an enormous amount of attention. The only request: “Make her human.”

It seemed like a fun and engaging project. Really, I should have thought harder about it. What I didn’t anticipate was how difficult it would be to understand someone who has spent nearly four decades in public life. Hillary Clinton turned out to be something of a human contranym—like one of those confounding words (think “sanction”) that comes with opposite meanings.

 

“Some Americans just out and out hate her for all kinds of reasons: her secrecy, perceived lies or less-than-upfront statements, her political beliefs and her ambition.”

 

Though she lives very much in the public eye, she is a surprisingly private person. Despite urging from friends, she refused to keep a diary during her White House years because she was convinced it could not be kept private.

Her own books, Living History and Hard Choices, tell some personal stories, but in a rather clinical way, and she doesn’t share many stories about herself in her interviews and speeches.

A clearly very bright and accomplished woman, she is also capable of less-than-brilliant statements and choices—like her decision to use her personal email address rather than the U.S. State Department’s when she was secretary of state.

She is perceived as very liberal, but in fact, she is a moderate Democrat who is much closer to the center than the left. Her father was a staunch Republican and she campaigned for and pledged Republican until her college years. There are still some conservative remnants left, but the other perception lingers.

And, hoo boy, is she divisive!

Some Americans just out and out hate her for all kinds of reasons: her secrecy, perceived lies or less-than-upfront statements, her political beliefs and her ambition. At the same time, she has been Gallup Poll’s most admired woman in America for a record 20 years out of the last 23. (She lost twice to Mother Teresa and once to Laura Bush.)

The upshot of all these contradictions when writing about Clinton, was that finding the truth—and the humanity—meant wading through thousands of pages of books, news and magazine stories, interviews and transcripts, oral histories, videos and archives.

Little by little, a real person emerged. Over and over, people who encountered her mentioned her sense of humor and her empathy, personal qualities that are hard to see in television sound bites or dispatches from the campaign trail.

 

“We also realized that a marriage between two people like us was never, ever going to be easy, if it could even happen at all.”

 

One of the most telling comments was from Robert Gates, U.S. Secretary of Defense in both the Bush and Obama administrations, who thought he knew Clinton from years of seeing her in the public eye. But in working with her, he said, he “quickly learned that I had been badly misinformed.” He found her to be smart, funny, idealistic but pragmatic and “a very valuable colleague.”

Between the lines, Clinton revealed herself as a woman of deep faith, committed to Methodist teachings. She carries a small Bible with her which she reads, and has regularly participated in prayer groups.

Wading through a huge list of speeches and interviews at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library yielded an unusually personal speech given in June 1991, a few months before Bill Clinton formally declared his candidacy for president.

In it, Hillary Clinton shares how she wrestled with the balance between work and home, a personal life and public life. 
 

Bill and Hillary Clinton as youths
Bill and Hillary Clinton in their younger years

She began dating Bill at Yale Law School and they found common ground in their interest in politics. Both were smart, intense, passionate and ambitious. But Bill was determined to go back to Arkansas and Hillary didn’t want anything to do with that. And she admitted, “We also realized that a marriage between two people like us was never, ever going to be easy, if it could even happen at all.”

 

“She had made many compromises over the years… giving up her name, changing her looks and trying to meet others’ expectations.”

 

But after working apart for a year, she had a difficult decision to make. “It was clear to me,” she said, “as much as I would have liked to have denied it, that there was something very special about Bill and there was something very important between us.”

She followed her heart to Arkansas.

When Bill was elected Arkansas attorney general and then governor, she worked as a lawyer, keeping her maiden name. She had thought she had simply married another professional. She figured, “I’d go off in the morning, I’d be a lawyer, and we’d come home in the evening and talk about ‘How was your day?’”

Of course, being a political wife was nothing like that, and she ultimately had to take his name, improve her hairstyle and adapt to a more public life. As she had predicted, it wasn’t an easy marriage.

 

“But I’m not going to try to pretend to be somebody that I’m not, I’m a complex person, and they’re just going to have to live with that.”

 

Later, another side emerged. Rather than keep a diary, she asked her good friend Diane Blair, a University of Arkansas professor, to take notes. Through Blair's personal letters and single-spaced typed pages, a friendship comes to life; over the biographies and thrillers they exchanged, the movies enjoyed, and cartoons shared.

Once, after criticism for comments she made on an overseas trip, Clinton vented to her friend.

She had attracted 15,000 people to a speech in Manila, but at home she couldn’t catch a break. She had made many compromises over the years, she told Blair—giving up her name, changing her looks and trying to meet others’ expectations. “But I’m not going to try to pretend to be somebody that I’m not,” she said. “I’m a complex person, and they’re just going to have to live with that.”

“On her death bed,” Blair wrote, “[she] wants to be able to say she was true to herself.”

What ultimately emerged from these notes was her passion, her commitment to contributing to the world and even her love for Bill.

All in all, she turned out to be person who was fascinating and accomplished but at the same time hard to understand, and definitely human.

Read an extract from Karen Blumenthal's Hillary

Karen Blumenthal is a critically acclaimed, award-winning author and journalist.

 

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