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Ruminating with Hillary Clinton
Guest Editor Charlotte Alter goes deep with her on age, happiness and Trump
This week I’m turning Old Goats over to our daughter, Charlotte Alter, who is a senior national correspondent for TIME. On May 22, Charlotte interviewed Hillary Clinton onstage at the Riviera Theater, which is not far from where I grew up on the North Side of Chicago. Hillary appeared as part of the Joanne Alter Women in Politics Lecture series at the Chicago Humanities Festival. It’s named for my late mother (Charlotte’s grandmother), who was a pioneer for women in Chicago politics. Hillary, 75, was warm and engaging, but she bristled when Charlotte, 33, the author of a book on young politicians changing the country, asked her about why some Democrats don’t know when it’s time to get off the stage. Excerpts:
How are you feeling about this world we’re leaving for your grandchildren? It's very hard for a lot of people to remain optimistic these days so I'm curious about how you maintain optimism when there's so much at stake.
Well, it really is something I hear about a lot, so I’ll start with a story about my wonderful lady friend and predecessor as Secretary of State and an extraordinary person, Madeleine Albright. Her family escaped from the Nazis and then they went back to Czechoslovakia and they had to escape from the [Communists]. She led a very impactful and meaningful life, including a book about fascism shortly before she died. When she went on her book tour, people like you asked, “Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the future?” And I love, love, love her answer. She said, “Well, I remain an optimist, but an optimist who worries a lot.” I can't help but feel positive about some of the good things that are happening but I’m worried about recent developments in our world.
“She [Madeline Albright] said, ‘Well, I remain an optimist, but an optimist who worries a lot.’ I can't help but feel positive about some of the good things that are happening but I’m worried about recent developments in our world.”
What do we need to learn about Trump this time? What works against him?
He apparently intends to run for president again, despite being indicted now, at least once. And he has a hardcore following not as a former president or even as a presidential candidate but as a cult leader. He has a hold on a significant percentage of the Republican Party who view him with all his demagoguery and his authoritarian tendencies as a kind of strongman. So he will most likely become the Republican nominee again, and he'll be defeated by Joe Biden.
[Trump] understood when he started running the first time back in 2013 that he was, in effect, offering himself as the candidate of grievance and anger and that he would have a following that would be extremely loyal to his version of reality.
Remember when he was inaugurated — it was just an extraordinarily depressing moment. Not just because he shouldn’t have been there but because he made absolutely no effort to unite the country. It's not just a nice thing to do, it's critically important that when the president is sworn in, he makes some gesture to the people who didn't vote for him. Something like “I'm going to be the president of everybody.”
None of that happened. But what was even more disturbing was the content of the speech. He was painting this dark dystopian view of our country, which is unrecognizable to those of us who actually live in a reality-based world and see the progress that we've made. And then once the official pictures were posted, he went ballistic because it wasn’t a very big crowd at his inauguration. Our president was going to try to convince us that what we received with our own eyes is not real and what he was instead telling us is. It was astonishing to me how seriously they [his supporters] took that.
It felt in 2016 as if a lot of conventional rules did not apply. And then in 2018 and 2020 and 2022, some of them sort of did again. But it still wasn't clear which ones would work in which case.
Well, I think we're still trying to figure that out. You're right that his campaign did defy what was expected from a presidential campaign and candidate. People couldn't turn away; it was like watching a train wreck. And we now know that the media was just totally dumbfounded in one respect, because there was no ability to in any way hold him accountable. He didn't regard the facts or evidence as important. I've been fortunate enough to be in and around a number of presidential campaigns, and usually if a candidate says something wrong, you try to figure out a way to kind of fix it. This is embarrassing for the candidate and the campaign but it is still necessary. And so I think that the way he [Trump] was covered was the most incredibly unaccountable way that I've ever seen a modern presidential candidate covered. Usually there are moments of reckoning when somebody says something [inaccurate] on the debate stage, in a speech or exchange with the press, but then they [have to answer for it].
[This] was not just a difference in a few degrees but a significant change. The [print] press to some extent, but particularly broadcast media, found that he was great TV because he was more of a performer [than other candidates]. Remember, people had seen him on TV playing a successful businessman. [Eye roll]. It was a very difficult environment for the press when it came to dealing with him.
“People couldn't turn away; it was like watching a train wreck. And we now know that the media was just totally dumbfounded in one respect, because there was no ability to in any way hold him accountable.”
A lot of people in the press are grappling with this. How can we live in a democracy if we are not living in a shared reality?
Well, first you have to start with the premise that half the country doesn't want you to ask that. We have a political party that is counting on driving a distorted reality. That advantages their agenda. So when they say things that are painfully untrue, they know it, but it's in furtherance of a set of goals that they are pursuing. So you're right that it does great harm to our democracy. We have no shared reality. We're in what is often called a post-truth era, where truth, facts, expertise—none of it matters. What matters is a message that resonates with enough people and certain press outlets that are in service of an agenda. They try to change the narrative [mistakenly] to have people accept it as being real versus what is actually happening.
There's no better example than what happened in the 2020 election and on January 6. Think about how repetitive the message has been from Trump and his enablers that he either won the election, or he had reason to believe that it wasn't fair, despite losing something like 66 court cases where he still had no evidence. For months, we had a constant stream of untruthful propaganda that the guy who lost [had won], and then we had an attack on our Capitol. I find it just extraordinary that people I served with in the Senate for eight years — people whom I know — are either silent or complicit in the continuation of these lies that Trump is putting out there for his own personal benefit, to the detriment of our democracy and the future of our country.
You faced a lot of pushback for calling some Republicans “deplorables.”
If you looked at what I said, I said it more in sorrow than [in] attack or anger, because even during the campaign, although I had a hard time convincing people of this, I could see the growing grip of this unreality on voters. You saw it at their rallies where Trump is saying outrageous things to people who are there, [saying] racist and misogynistic things, attacking the reporter with disabilities. And you will see the crowds laughing about it.
So [the challenge with] Trump was trying to figure out a way to separate people who've gone full cult member from people who thought, “He was a successful businessman and I saw him on TV and I want some change after a two-term President.” I understood the kind of quasi-rationalizations that people were buying into about why they were supportive [of Trump] as opposed to those people who were really attracted to the cruelty and the insulting and very hateful language that he was using. I was trying to try to create some space between those two groups and basically said, “Half of his supporters certainly don't believe that but unfortunately there are those who do.”
Well, now it's full-fledged open season on truth and decency and civility. What makes human activities possible in a very diverse, pluralistic society like ours is what makes democratic governance possible. So this [attack on truth] might have been the most political thing [Trump] could have done. But the people who really buy into his message and his persona are not the ones who bother me that much. It's the people who know better and go along with it.
“But the people who really buy into his message and his persona are not the ones who bother me that much. It's the people who know better and go along with it.”
Do you still believe in bipartisanship?
Absolutely, [though] it looks like we don’t have many great examples right now. Because we are so obsessed with the personality [part of the] job, [Trump] still dominates the American psyche when he should be exiled from the American psyche. People don't know about the extraordinary legislation that Joe Biden was able to get [passed] because it never gets through to them. It's fascinating when projects are announced that Republicans don’t support yet they continue to take credit for them. Bipartisanship is an important goal, but it can't be a goal that hurts America.
Right now you're seeing this very dangerous debt negotiation, with Speaker Kevin McCarthy holding our country hostage. Biden is saying no, come up with something that's more reasonable. So bipartisanship is a goal but it can't be at the cost of important principles and values. It's easier when you've got people who also want to meet you halfway, and we'll see what happens on this debt limit and whether it’s possible for Republicans to do so.
I covered the surge of political engagement following  and the hundreds, even thousands of women — first timers who had never been involved in politics and ran for office, sometimes for high office and sometimes for offices similar to what Joanne [Alter] ran for. What did you make of that and what advice would you give to those women?
Well I was thrilled by the women's march the day after the inauguration. It was partially motivated by a reaction against what happened in the election and in a disbelief about the outcome and a feeling that we all needed to have done more to prevent the election of Donald Trump. So I felt very connected to it and part of the extraordinary outpouring and feeling and commitment.
I wanted to support what I saw happening and I started a group in 2017 called Onward Together to fund organizations that are recruiting young people, recruiting people of color, recruiting people to run at all levels, because one of the things that Democrats hadn't focused on was running at the state and local levels. So we are supporting about 17 groups that are doing really great work both recruiting candidates and recruiting potential campaign staff. We started a PAC to find a lot of these candidates and I felt very strongly that there were too many offices in parts of our country where no Democrats were around because nobody got out there and did the work. Sometimes you have to run once or twice or you have to lay the groundwork for somebody else to come and run before you can be elected.
So since 2017, we have raised about $63 million and have about a two-thirds win rate. We want to really zero in on people who are going to do the work and produce results and get reelected and move up the ranks within the House or whatever other position they're in. But it's also critically important to say that the energy that I saw, particularly among women and young people, has not abated. I was doing an interview over the weekend and the interviewer was saying, “Well, young people are not involved in politics anymore.” That’s just not true. Starting in 2018 and then in 2020, the percentage of young people not just running for office, but actually turning up and voting has been really significant. So if we’re able to keep this energy going, we have a very good prospect for 2024.
So on that note, there's a little bit of a disconnect in the Democratic Party right now, because there’s all this energy, as you said, that is coming from the younger generation of voters who are overwhelmingly appalled by Trump and Trumpism, but we also have a Democratic Party that is very old. Can we just have a candid conversation about age? Why do smart people often make foolish retirement choices? Why are so many Democrats in office for this long, especially the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Dianne Feinstein?
I have a very negative response to that question. If you look at Justice Ginsburg, she was a survivor. I was with her four days before she passed away and she was as sharp and focused as she could be. And I think she made a judgment—that a lot of men in other situations made—that she's still gonna do her job and that she was up to the job. She had said she was going to retire if I got elected because she wanted me to choose her successor. And when I wasn't elected, she had a tough choice to make.
And let me say a word about my friend and longtime colleague Dianne Feinstein. First of all, she has suffered greatly from the bout of shingles and encephalitis that she has endured. Here is the dilemma for her: She got reelected, the people of California voted for her again, not very long ago . That was the voters’ decision to vote for her, and she has been a remarkable and very effective leader.
Here’s the [broader] dilemma: The Republicans will not agree to add someone else to the Judiciary Committee if she retires. [Feinstein’s recent return to the Senate will allow Democrats to break the logjam on their judicial nominations]. I want you to think about how crummy that is. I don’t know in her heart about whether she really would or wouldn’t, but right now, she can’t. Because if we’re going to get judges confirmed, which is one of the most important continuing obligations that we have, then we cannot afford to have her seat vacant.
If Republicans were to do the decent thing and say, well this woman was gravely ill, she has just lost her husband to cancer, of course we will let you fill this position if she retires. But they won’t say that. So what are we supposed to do? All these people pushing her to retire — fine, we get no more judges? I don’t think that’s a good tradeoff.
I do not believe in broad questions about age [or term limits]. If you don’t want to vote for somebody, don’t vote for them. But don’t impose some artificial check on the voters. I don’t buy this whole debate. And frankly, a lot of the people pushing it, I don’t understand what their real agenda is, because part of it is a bank shot against Joe Biden. And I think Joe Biden has done a very good job. So as he says — and I think this is a very fair point — don't judge him against the Almighty. Judge him against the alternative.
“I don't understand the real agenda among people pushing for term limits, but [it seems like] a bank shot against Joe Biden. And I think Joe Biden has done a very good job. So as he says — and I think this is a very fair point — don't judge him against the Almighty. Judge him against the alternative.”
Do you think you the Dobbs decision is a watershed moment for American women? Does it hurt the legitimacy of the Court?
I think the Supreme Court is doing exactly what the people who chose them want them to do. This has been a long term project, run through the Federalist Society where young lawyers and young judges are identified as being in line with the ideological partisan viewpoints that those courting them are pursuing. And so I think that the Court very sadly reflects a concerted effort that was aimed not only at gaining support, but also to stop Barack Obama from getting a vote even in committee for a replacement when Justice Scalia passed away [nine months] before the election. They all claimed, “Oh, no, it's too close to the election.”
What garbage was that? They wouldn't give the President of the United States the right to fill that vacancy. But then shortly before the 2020 election, they found a Supreme Court justice of their choice. So the process of filling vacancies has been moving towards questionable legitimacy for some time. The decisions that are being made are “results oriented” — in line with what these justices are expected to deliver. This has been a game from the beginning. The entire process has been an illegitimate way to have groups like the Federalist Society achieve their goals. Now they are rendering decisions to turn the clock back on everything from voting rights to the interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Dobbs decision, and I think there's more partisan ideologically-driven decisions to come.
What do you think the long term impact of this is?
I really wish I didn't have to say this, but women will die because of the Dobbs decision. They will be denied health care and these stories are here now — where women are being turned away who are miscarrying or whose pregnancy is terribly at risk. Women are told to go wait in their cars in the parking lot until they're really sick. Or they're being told that yes, you're going to have to carry the baby to term even though it's already dead. I mean, things that are just so horrible and that nobody should be subjected to by the decisions of legislators and governors.
It was also reminiscent of what happened in Ireland, which had the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. A woman, a doctor who was suffering a miscarriage and severe distress, went into a hospital and needed an operation because she had an unwanted baby. She needed medical intervention, but the [fetal] heart was still beating. And she was told that she wasn't eligible yet and she got sepsis and she died. And that led to the most extraordinary outpouring by the Irish people against an abortion law. They overturned the whole law in a referendum.
What we're seeing in the United States right now is that voters, not legislators, not justices, but voters get to exercise their common sense. They look for what is reasonable, and they vote against people who want to restrict abortion with no exceptions. There’s no opportunity for the kind of the medical care that you might need, because doctors are afraid of going to jail. And so honestly, I think it will continue to be a voting issue, and I certainly hope that it is because the only way we're going to reverse any of this is by voting out of office the people who want to restrict abortion and turn back the clock.
I want to broaden out here to talk about ambition and happiness because I think a lot of people, particularly women my age, are rethinking their relationship with ambition. A lot of women are realizing that accomplishment and happiness are not necessarily the same thing. And you're someone who's been there for a while and working hard and to a lot of people you’re a symbol for women. So what do you think? Do you think accomplishment and happiness go together?
Personally mine does. But what ambition means to us versus your friend, your neighbor, your sister, your mother, whoever, can be very different. And what does accomplishment mean? I think there may be an almost liberating and empowering opportunity here where people can rethink what ambition and accomplishment mean for them. I spent my entire adult life arguing that women should make whatever the responsible choices that are best for them and I know that the choice you make in your 20s may not be the choice you end up making in your 40s or 50s. So what we want is to create an environment in which women are able to define those terms — ambition and accomplishment— based on their own sense of purpose and fulfillment and happiness.
I think it's really dangerous to make broad statements because we're all so different. And we also have different experiences. When you're a young woman, single, no family, different sets of [expectations] from your life will affect how you feel about ambition and happiness. If you become a wife, or you become a mother or become a person who has other responsibilities, that, too, will certainly affect how you feel about ambition and accomplishment and how you define your happiness. I think we're living in a time of searching and part of COVID accelerated that because everybody had so much time alone that people were often cut off from their social networks. A lot are still working remotely. So there's a lot of rethinking going on, and I think that's helping, as long as we aren’t falling into another trap, which is “Oh, no, now, nobody can be ambitious and accomplished and happy.” Well, I'm here to tell you, yes you can. So I really reject the boxes we tried to put ourselves in, where women started judging each other on [some arbitrary] standard: “Oh, well, she's so ambitious so she can’t be happy.”
How can we get away from that perfectionism that so many women feel compared to?
That's a really good question. I don't know what it is about moving from girlhood into adolescence, but we now have a lot of research that little girls are just so brave, and so willing to stand up and speak out and try things and fail and try again. There's a sense of adventure and curiosity and risk-taking, and then puberty hits and girls become more self-conscious and more worried about how they're being perceived. But now we throw in the added element of the addiction to social media and [we know that] the false life that social media presents is particularly damaging to girls. The increase in anxiety and depression and eating disorders. We were talking earlier about political false reality. Well, social media is a false reality and yet it's so omnipresent and it controls so much time and headspace of young people.
I read a fascinating study which showed that while boys are also affected, boys spend more time on screens playing games while girls are on screens scrolling and comparing themselves and seeing people who are filtered up in every way looking so much more glamorous, or hiding that they weren't invited to a party. The activity of gaming has somehow protected boys a little bit more than the social media unreality that girls experience. I think that the perfectionism comes from comparing yourself to other people. And it was hard enough when we were living in a world where the kids went to school with the kids you knew that you compared yourself to, not people who are disembodied faces and bodies from online. All of a sudden the constant comparison begins to eat away at confidence and a sense of self. Most young people get through it, but some are particularly damaged by it. So the perfectionism, which is an ongoing a challenge for girls and women, has just seemed to be made more intense and more destructive because of social media.
The criticism of you has has sometimes been very unfair. It reminds me of this John Updike quote, “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.”
And so I'm wondering how how are you thinking about that these days? Are you feeling like you're able to be more yourself now?
I’ve been the same person my entire life. When you are at a very high level of visibility, I often say it’s like a Rorschach Test. People see in you what reflects back to them about something that is of concern to them. And I think the double standard, which is alive and well, is a way of trying to pigeonhole women in the public arena.
As First Lady, people were upset with me because I was wearing pants. But it was because when I went to Brazil [wearing a skirt] there was a camera spray and suddenly there are billboards all over Brazil, or at least in Rio and Sao Paolo, with me sitting there and photos suggestively looking like they were taken up my skirt, and then it happened again with pictures of me on the stairs. I wasted too much energy trying to figure out why people were upset back when I started wearing pants. I cannot [waste time] worrying about what people think about me. It's so weird — the stuff online. You know, Pizzagate — crazy stuff like that. And I'm sitting there thinking like, “Wow!” So I just live my life how I want now.
I know that people come up to you all the time and say, “Are you OK?” Well, as we’ve seen tonight, you’re OK. But I want to know about your own personal rethinking. Was there anything you rethought about your life after the 2016 election? And what are the ingredients of happiness for you?
I like feeling that I'm helping people. That makes me very happy. I like finding ways to solve problems that I think are challenging. It's something that gets me up in the morning. I'm very motivated by that. I learned just in the last few days that the Trump Administration investigated the Clinton Foundation for four years. And of course, they saw nothing because there's nothing to find. We brought back the Clinton Global Initiative in September. It was thrilling to have people in the room making commitments to solve problems, whether it was on maternal mortality or working with a group of amazing, poor women in India to deal with the horrible effects of heat and climate change and trying to figure out how do we help them come up with some solutions.
Look, I have a wonderful family. I had a really great public school education. I went to a women's college, I went to law school. I am very grateful for that and very conscious of why it's important to try to keep giving back, but I also find it incredibly rewarding.
I’ll end with this story. My father used to get Reader's Digest. I was 10 years old, and I read this story about a famous psychiatrist. His name was Karl Menninger and he was from Kansas. And he wrote about how he was called one day by a very rich man who wanted to come see him right away. He makes an appointment and goes in and he says, “Dr. Menninger, I am more successful than I ever thought possible. I'm richer than I know. Why am I so unhappy?” Dr. Menninger said, “I'm going to write you a prescription and put it in this envelope, and I don’t want you to open it until you get to your house.” The man is very excited — he’s gong to get the answer to why he’s unhappy despite all of his accomplishments. And so he goes home and opens it up and the note says, “Go change your clothes, put on some work clothes and go find somebody to help.”
I read that and that’s what my church told me and what my family told me, and it's just always been what matters to me. I've always been motivated in politics and government by what I can do, how I can help. As long as I can still do that — that’s what will make me happy.