Director Nanette Burstein wanted to see if she could get her to open up. In January of 2018, Clinton’s camp came to Burnstein with 2,000 hours of a behind-the-scenes footage and a production deal with Hulu to make a documentary about her run at the White House. “I changed the concept to doing a biopic of her life,” Burstein tells Rolling Stone. “I felt that there was a much more interesting story to tell with access to her, to tell her life story. There were so many more important themes.”
Burstein notes that she had to convince Clinton — who over the course of decades in the political spotlight has shouldered a reputation for being calculating and inauthentic — on the idea of delving into some of the more painful portions of her life, but that she was ultimately receptive to the idea. “I was able to show her how I was really focusing on the history of the feminist movement and partisan politics and all of these different ways her life is instructive and emblematic of this history that really matters to her. That made sense to her.”
Clinton seems to have enjoyed the experience. Since Burstein sat down with her for seven days in November of 2018, the former first lady has opened up to Howard Stern, appeared on several talk shows, and announced she’s starting her own podcast. “I think it was the first step,” Burstein says of the documentary’s role in Clinton’s surprisingly candid new public persona. “It was like pulling off the Band-Aid. For the first time you’re not in public office … After 40 years, it’s the first time where she doesn’t have to worry about that. It’s a new era.”
In addition to interviews in which Clinton examines everything from her childhood, to her tumultuous eight years in the White House, to her two runs at the presidency, Burstein spoke with Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and dozens of other figures in Clinton’s life in order to paint a vivid portrait of one of the most polarizing political figures of the past 30 years. Make no mistake about it, Hillary is a celebration of Clinton’s life and all that it meant for the women’s movement, told primarily through the eyes of its subject. But even for those who despise her, the series offers a unique glimpse behind the scenes of some of the most consequential moments in recent political history.
Here are five key takeaways:
Clinton really, really doesn’t like Bernie Sanders
Clinton’s disdain for Bernie Sanders is well documented, and she didn’t hold back when addressing her Democratic primary opponent at length in Hillary.
“Honestly, Bernie just drove me crazy,” she said. “He was in Congress for years. Years. He had one senator support him. Nobody likes him. Nobody wants to work with him. He got nothing done. He was a career politician. He didn’t work until he was like 41, and then he got elected to something. It was all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.”
Hillary also threw shade at Sanders in outlining what she feels is her own more pragmatic approach to politics. “I suffer from the responsibility gene,” she said when discussing why she didn’t support Sanders’ plan for tuition-free college. “I don’t like to say something that I know is not true. I don’t like to say I’m going to do something that I know is not doable. That is just anathema to me.”
The appalling misogyny Clinton experienced across decades in the political spotlight
It’s no secret that female politicians are forced to deal with misogyny on a day-to-day basis, but Burstein does a remarkable job illustrating everything Clinton was subjected to throughout her career in politics — from protesters with “Iron My Shirt” signs at her rallies, to male supporters earnestly advising her to smile more, to John Edwards commenting on her clothing choices on the debate stage in 2008. “I wasn’t aware of the commentators being so blatantly sexist,” Burstein tells Rolling Stone. “I sort of missed all of that until I went back and looked at it. I was pretty surprised by all of the overt sexism that went on.”
One of several striking examples from the 2016 election came during the debate following the release of the Access Hollywood tape, when Trump stalked behind Clinton as she spoke in an effort to physically intimidate her. Clinton wanted to call him out, but didn’t. She knew how the press would react. “He was stalking me; he was leering over me; he was preening like an alpha male,” she tells Burstein. “I knew he was doing it. I was well aware of it. I was trying to figure out what do I do. If I wheeled around and I said, ‘Back up you creep, you’re not going to intimidate me,’ would I sound angry and would people recoil from that, because all he’s doing is standing there?”
Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director, elaborates on why calling out Trump would have been ill-advised. “I think that would have been a mistake, because then the headline would have been: ‘Clinton Rattled,'” she says. “Maybe in this universe — because I do think the post-2016 election world is a different universe — I think a woman could do that and be lauded for standing up to a man who was trying to intimidate her, but not then.”
Obama called Trump a “fascist” during a pre-election call with Tim Kaine
Obama has been hesitant to criticize President Trump directly, but in the run-up to the 2016 election, he made his feelings clear in a phone conversation with Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate. Hillary includes some behind-the-scenes footage in which Kaine relays what Obama told him. “President Obama called me last night and said, ‘Tim, remember: This is no time to be a purist. You’ve got to keep a fascist out of the White House.'”
“I echo that sentiment,” Clinton responds. “But really, the weight of our responsibility is so huge.”
Clinton wanted to publicly bash James Comey for re-opening the FBI’s investigation into her emails a week before the election
The 2016 election is rife with what-ifs, but the biggest among them may be the question of whether Clinton would have pulled out an Electoral College win if then-FBI Director James Comey didn’t decide to re-open the bureau’s investigation into her emails just days before the election. “We saw an immediate drop in my polling,” Clinton remembers. “It was devastating.”
“We had a big debate,” she continues. “I was so angry. I was so mad about this. I said, ‘I’m going to go out and blast the guy.’ Everybody was like no, no, don’t do that. You don’t want to get in a fight with the FBI director. I said he’s been fighting me for months. It was one of the things I’ve thought a lot about. Maybe I should have. I didn’t know how I could win against the FBI director, until the whole thing was resolve. And they did not resolve it until the Sunday before the election.”
Hillary and Bill open up about the Lewinsky scandal
The heaviest section of the series comes when both Hillary and Bill open up about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “She definitely opened up more about her marriage than I expected her to,” Burstein tells Rolling Stone. “Both the good and the bad. I think it was difficult for her, but she did do it.”
In the series, Hillary explains to Burstein how Bill Clinton was at first “adamant” and “convincing” that the reports of an affair with Lewinsky were false. Contributing to Hillary’s sense of security was the involvement of Ken Starr, and previous Republican smear jobs against the power couple, including the conspiracy theory that they were behind the death of Vincent Foster, the childhood friend of Bill and deputy White House counsel who killed himself in 1993.
“She definitely opened up more about her marriage than I expected her to,” director Nanette Burstein tells Rolling Stone. “Both the good and the bad. I think it was difficult for her, but she did do it.”
“I was absolutely persuaded — because of my own experience, not what anybody else went through — that [Starr] would make up stuff,” Hillary says of the idea Bill had an affair with Lewinsky. “If they could make up something, if they could lie about something, they were so partisan that they would do it.”
But eventually, Bill would have to confess. “I went and sat on the bed and talked to her,” he tells Burstein. “I told her exactly what happened, when it happened, and I said I feel terrible about it. I said that we’ve been through quite a lot in the past few years, and I have no defense and this is inexcusable what I did.”
“I was just devastated,” says Hillary. “I could not believe it. I was just so personally hurt. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you lied. It was horrible. I said if this is going to be public you have to go tell Chelsea.”
It was “awful,” Bill says of having to tell their daughter. “You know,” he continues. “We all bring our baggage to life and sometimes we do things we shouldn’t do. It was awful what I did.”
Then Burstein asked Bill why he took the risk.
“Nobody thinks about that,” he says. “Nobody thinks I’m taking a risk. That’s not why people do stupid things. That’s not what happened. Nobody sits down and thinks I think I’ll take a really irresponsible risk that’s bad for my family, bad for my country, bad for the people who work with me. You feel like you’re staggering around. You’ve been in a 15-round prize fight that was extended to 30 rounds. Here’s something to take your mind off it for a while, that’s what happens. Everybody’s life has pressures and disappointments and terrors — fears of whatever. The things I did to manage my anxieties for years… I’m a totally different person than I was. All that stuff 20 years ago…. Maybe it’s just getting older, but it’s also just going through a lot of this… What I did, it was bad, but it wasn’t like I was thinking about the most stupid thing I could possibly do and do it. It’s not a defense, it’s an explanation. It was awful.”
Bill has famously never apologized to Lewinsky for essentially ruining her life. He doesn’t offer her one in Hillary either, only noting that he feels bad about how things turned out. “I feel terrible about the fact that Monica Lewinsky’s life was defined by it,” he says. “Unfairly, I think.”