With four-part Hulu series 'Hillary' set to premiere at Sundance, one of America's most groundbreaking (and polarizing) figures opens up about Monica Lewinsky, her marriage, whether a woman can win the presidency and her not-so-fuzzy feelings about Bernie Sanders: "Nobody wants to work with him."
In the fall of 2017, producer Howard T. Owens got a call from famed Washington power broker Robert Barnett. Barnett's longtime client, Hillary Clinton, was sitting on nearly 2,000 hours of campaign footage and planned to turn it into a documentary. Hulu was already on board to distribute it domestically, but would Owens consider producing and selling it abroad?
The son of a onetime Democratic state senator from Connecticut and himself the former head of National Geographic Channel, Owens was immediately interested. He'd have to meet and woo Secretary Clinton and her top aide, Huma Abedin, he was told, and then, with the streamer, begin compiling a list of potential filmmakers. The only requirement: that she be female.
Nanette Burstein, a political junkie whose résumé included the celebrated 2002 Robert Evans documentaryThe Kid Stays in the Picture, was Owens' top choice. After a meeting in February 2018, she'd be Clinton's, too. Burstein's pitch was for "something much bigger than the election," says the documentarian, who set out to explore how Clinton had become one of the country's most admired and vilified people, and what that status says about gender and culture. That Clinton was, for the first time in years, not in office or running for office meant that such an intimate portrait was within reach.
Still, Burstein would need ample access to Clinton and her husband, Bill, as well as complete editorial control. To her relief, she was granted both. "The Clintons have a reputation for being controlling, but from the moment we met Hillary, we saw zero of it," says Owens, who confirms that no subject was off-limits. Clinton would end up giving 35 hours of her time, recounting everything from her husband's affair as president with then-intern Monica Lewinsky to election night 2016, when her own presidency eluded her grasp.
"I’d watched the 2016 election very closely, very emotionally and very disappointedly," says Nanette Burstein, photographed with Clinton.
The end result, simply titledHillary, is a largely flattering portrayal, even as it delves into the many scandals and controversies that have ensnared its 72-year-old subject. Burstein has made peace with the inevitable flak it will catch from Clinton detractors who'll take issue with the doc's lack of conservative voices (save former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist). It's not, she and her producers insist, for lack of trying. Instead, they got one no after the next. "We were shocked," says Owens, who blames a toxic, polarized political culture for the near shutout. At one point, Burstein says, she managed to track down Newt Gingrich by cellphone, and was told he'd "rather stick needles in [his] eyes than do the interview."
While prominently featured, neither Lewinsky (who was contributing to an A&E docuseries on the subject at the time), Bernie Sanders nor Donald Trump was asked to participate. "I didn't want to re-litigate 2016," the director explains, "as much as just be able to show Hillary in this unobtrusive way." Forty-five others do, however, including her husband (who holds back tears as he, too, walks through the Lewinsky chapter) and daughter, childhood friends, aides and advisers, a litany of journalists and her onetime opponent turned boss, Barack Obama. "This is not an agenda piece," says Hulu's head of docs, Belisa Balaban. "It's an authored piece of work that looks at a very long slice of personal and political history."
The four-hour docuseries will premiere in its entirety March 6 on Hulu, against the backdrop of a contentious primary season where gender politics is once again a central theme. But before it does, Clinton and Burstein will trek to Park City, where the project will make its debut Jan. 25 at the Sundance Film Festival. It's there that Owens and his Propagate partner, Ben Silverman, will begin the overseas sales process, continuing a month later in Berlin. Per Owens, the global appetite is "incredible," thanks in part to the nearly 1 million miles Clinton logged as secretary of state.
With a team of Secret Service agents present, Clinton sat down on a mid-January afternoon in Pasadena to discuss her decision to open up her life to further examination, her damning assessments of both Sanders and Trump and her own thoughts on the electability of a woman.
Once you agreed to open yourself up for this docuseries, what was your biggest concern?
I don't know that I really understood what I was getting into. We ended up doing 35 hours of interviews, and it was both exhilarating and obviously painful at some points. It was probably made easier because of the rapport with [Burstein], and it gave me a chance to try to explain things and maybe to vent a bit.
In the doc, you're brutally honest on Sanders: "He was in Congress for 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. It's all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it." That assessment still hold?
Yes, it does.
If he gets the nomination, will you endorse and campaign for him?
I'm not going to go there yet. We're still in a very vigorous primary season. I will say, however, that it's not only him, it's the culture around him. It's his leadership team. It's his prominent supporters. It's his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women. And I really hope people are paying attention to that because it should be worrisome that he has permitted this culture — not only permitted, [he] seems to really be very much supporting it. And I don't think we want to go down that road again where you campaign by insult and attack and maybe you try to get some distance from it, but you either don't know what your campaign and supporters are doing or you're just giving them a wink and you want them to go after Kamala [Harris] or after Elizabeth [Warren]. I think that that's a pattern that people should take into account when they make their decisions.
Speaking of, he allegedly told Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2018 that he didn't think a woman could win, a statement he vigorously denies. How did you digest that?
Well, number one, I think [that sentiment] is untrue, which we should all say loudly. I mean, I did get more votes both in the primary, by about 4 million, and in the general election, by about 3 million. I think that both the press and the public have to really hold everybody running accountable for what they say and what their campaign says and does. That's particularly true with what's going on right now with the Bernie campaign having gone after Elizabeth with a very personal attack on her. Then this argument about whether or not or when he did or didn't say that a woman couldn't be elected, it's part of a pattern. If it were a one-off, you might say, "OK, fine." But he said I was unqualified. I had a lot more experience than he did, and got a lot more done than he had, but that was his attack on me. I just think people need to pay attention because we want, hopefully, to elect a president who's going to try to bring us together, and not either turn a blind eye, or actually reward the kind of insulting, attacking, demeaning, degrading behavior that we've seen from this current administration.
Barbara Kinney/Hillary for America/Hulu
"When people ask, 'How are you?' I always say, 'As a person, I’m great. As an American, I’m crazed, I’m worried, I’m upset,'" says Clinton.
Do you think the media's coverage of the 2020 campaign has improved from its coverage four years ago?
I don't. In the beginning I was hopeful that it had. I thought that with more than one woman running — at one point there were six, so a basketball team plus a spare — it'll get more normal [because] you have women on the stage. It's not just me standing alone up there. And in the very beginning there was reason for hope, but as the campaign has gone on, it does seem to me that people are reverting back to stereotypes, and many of those are highly genderized. And it's a shame.
Any advice to Warren or Sen. Amy Klobuchar if either wins the nomination?
I've talked to them.
What have you said?
I answer their questions, number one. I've talked to practically everybody who had run and is still running.
Assume Bernie's not part of that?
(Nods.) So, I can't sayallof them. But I answer their questions. I always say [to the female candidates], "Look, you can run the best campaign, but you're going to have to be even better than your best campaign to overcome some of the unfairness that will be directed at you as a woman." Whoever gets the nomination, you've got to deal with the structural challenges that the Republicans and their allies have put in your way. So, that means you've got to deal with voter suppression, because they'll steal votes or they'll prevent votes from happening. They're now trying to purge voters so that they can try to limit the electorate. You've got to deal with the theft of your personal information, particularly your emails. I say to them, "If your emails haven't been stolen yet, they will be." Look what the Russians just did, hacking into that Ukrainian oil company to try to dig up something or make something up [about Joe Biden's son, Hunter]. Then you've got to worry about the propaganda, the fake news, the made-up stories. Now you have the additional worry of the deepfakes, and people putting words in your mouth. I've tried to tell all the candidates the same thing, but with the women, I say, "You're probably not going to be treated fairly, don't let it knock you off stride."
You've grappled with whether you should have fired back more aggressively at Trump when you had the chance. Can a woman win that way in 2020?
It's hard still. Very hard. I thought Elizabeth did a good job [at the Jan. 14 Democratic debate] with, "The only people on this stage who have won every one of their races are Amy and me." I thought that was clever. Some people loved it, some hated it.
That's the world we live in.
It's really hard ever to score 100 when you're trying to navigate gender expectations and barriers. Sometimes you really do want to let loose, and then you think, "Oh, great, they'll say I can't take it, so I'm getting angry.” Or they'll say that I'm mad, and that that's not a very attractive look. So, it's a constant evaluation about, how can I best convey who I am, what I believe, what I stand for and what I'm willing to fight for?
The end of the doc strikes a more hopeful tone, beginning with the women's marches. You talk about not attending …
Yeah, I didn't want it to be about me. And I had to go to the inauguration. I felt my civic responsibility was to show up, and it was painful. But that next day [with the marches] was so empowering. I was texting with everybody and they were sending me pictures with people wearing my T-shirts and carrying posters of my quotes. I couldn't have been happier. That energy, the so-called resistance, which I consider myself a part of, was really important to keeping people focused and understanding that we couldn't just get disgusted and walk away. We had to fight back. A lot of the women who ran in '18, I supported them. They contacted me, they told me that volunteering for me or my election motivated them to run. Then Virginia just passed the [Equal Rights Amendment] with a resounding vote, because they took back both houses of the legislature. For the first time in Virginia history, a woman is now the speaker. So, you see the positive effects of this terrible loss. That's what I want people to grasp. I want people to understand it's not enough to criticize, no matter how legitimate your critique may be. If we don't turn out and vote, we can't take our country back.
It concludes with a former adviser saying, "I don't know if we're ever ready for the person who has to blaze the trail. We're ready for the people who come after them … For [Hillary], she was at the tip of the spear." Does that get exhausting?
Of course. But it doesn't last for long. Look, I could have a perfectly wonderful life without ever poking my head into the public arena again. But that's not how I was raised, both with my faith and my family. I believe that part of the reason we're on this earth is to do what we can to make life better, fairer, juster. That motivates me. Does it get discouraging? Do you feel like you want to pull the covers over your head? Yes. But it's just not how I'm made, and it's not what I think this country that I love and I've tried to serve should stand for. So, I get back in the fray.
Is there any piece of you that has considered jumping into the race?
I have had so many people [urge me to]. Every day. And I'm grateful for people's confidence, but I did think it was right for me to step back. I'll do anything I can to defeat the current incumbent, and to reverse a lot of his damaging policies. Thankfully, I still have a voice and a following.