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'I thought about boiling Bill in oil - but I never doubted my decision to stay' - Hillary Clinton

Condemned as weak for sticking by her husband, described as robotic and ridiculed for wearing pantsuits, Hillary Clinton is one of the most divisive women in public life. The former First Lady tells Celia Walden about love, misogyny and Trump's woeful mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.

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All episodes of 'Hillary' are available on Sky Documentaries and Now TV

All episodes of 'Hillary' are available on Sky Documentaries and Now TV

No holds barred: When Hilary signed up for the documentary, she had to agree that nothing would be off-limits, including her marriage

No holds barred: When Hilary signed up for the documentary, she had to agree that nothing would be off-limits, including her marriage

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All episodes of 'Hillary' are available on Sky Documentaries and Now TV

Hillary Clinton and I were going to Zoom. There's a sentence I never thought I'd write.

Not four months ago, when the video communication platform was practically unheard of and the prospect of real life being replaced by some locked-down Zoomtopia would have been laughed off as preposterously far-fetched. Not 10 years ago, when news reports of the then Secretary of State getting tough on issues like Iran sanctions were often drowned out by heckles of, 'What is she wearing?' and, 'Helmet hair!' And not a decade prior to that, when I watched America's First Lady stand beside her husband - numb-faced beneath the warpaint - as he uttered the words that would follow them both for years to come: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

Hillary Clinton and I didn't Zoom, as it turned out - for which the 72-year-old is apologetic. "I have learnt how to Zoom," she insists, on the phone from the Dutch-colonial mansion in Chappaqua, New York, that has been the family home since 1999 and the couple's place of confinement during lockdown. "And we would have Zoomed today, but we only have one account and Bill had arranged a call at the same time." It's hard to feel usurped by one of the most popular US Presidents in history. And although I'll never now get to see Clinton's lockdown hair, I've got decades of mental imagery to accompany every political point she makes, every burst of Trump-directed rage, every joke and rich, head-thrown-back laugh.

That warmth and humour would have come as a surprise, had I not spent the previous days immersed in Hillary, a four-part documentary that sheds more light than ever on one of the most opaque and divisive women in public life. Directed by veteran documentarian Nanette Burstein, who spent 35 hours interviewing Clinton, the series splices archival clips from her career and 2016 presidential campaign with interviews with childhood friends and former staffers, President Obama, her husband and her daughter, Chelsea.

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No holds barred: When Hilary signed up for the documentary, she had to agree that nothing would be off-limits, including her marriage

No holds barred: When Hilary signed up for the documentary, she had to agree that nothing would be off-limits, including her marriage

No holds barred: When Hilary signed up for the documentary, she had to agree that nothing would be off-limits, including her marriage

Having gone through 2,000 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot during Clinton's presidential campaign, Burstein came back to her with the following: "There's a much bigger story here. There's a story not just about your life and American politics but about women's lives and the last half of the 20th century. I want to tell that bigger story, if you're willing to co-operate with me. But that would mean no holds barred: I get to ask you anything."

"And she did," confirms Clinton with one of her big laughs, "which was a very intense experience. But because nothing was off limits, it felt like it was part of a larger mission - a larger story."

The larger story of Hillary Diane Rodham - raised alongside her younger brothers, Tony and Hugh, in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge by her prosperous fabric-store-owner father and stay-at-home mother - is one of ambition and grit, misjudgements and misogyny. But it's the smaller, unconventional love story at the heart of Hillary that steals the show: the story of the earnest Yale Law School student with the Coke-bottle glasses and the charismatic ladies' man who spent so long staring at her in the library one day, in 1971, that she eventually walked over, looked him in the eye, and said: "If you're going to keep staring at me and I'm going to keep staring back, we ought to at least know each other's names. Mine's Hillary Rodham. What's yours?"

If marrying Bill and taking on the Clinton name was "the most consequential decision of my life", as she states in her 2017 memoir What Happened, then choosing to stay in the marriage after her husband admitted, in 1998, to having had an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky when she was a 22-year-old White House intern, was undoubtedly the second. Four years earlier, civil servant Paula Jones had accused the president of sexual harassment, and three further women - Juanita Broaddrick, Leslie Millwee and Kathleen Willey - have subsequently come forward with sexual-misconduct allegations against him, all of which he has denied. As this article goes to press he has had to deny a second claim, made in the Netflix documentary Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, that he visited the late disgraced financier's Caribbean island.

With women variously condemning Clinton as 'weak' or 'cold' for sticking by her husband, and Trump publicly branding her 'an enabler' during the presidential campaign, Burstein isn't the first to question whether one consequence might have been the failure of her 2016 leadership bid. But today, as in the documentary, Clinton sounds more serene than bitter - and bemused by our enduring fascination with their relationship. "The characterisation of our marriage has been a continuing source of curiosity and bewilderment," she says slowly. "I don't think to characterise anybody else's marriage from the outside. But certainly many people have chosen to try when it comes to us." Of all the assumptions made, she says, the notion that the couple had some cynical 'arrangement' that allowed Clinton to turn a blind eye to her husband's behaviour was perhaps the most hurtful. And when a 1992 60 Minutes interview with the couple is replayed in the documentary - an interview filmed after the former lounge singer Gennifer Flowers declared she had been Bill's mistress - interviewer Steve Kroft's casual characterisation of their marriage as being based on "some sort of an understanding and an arrangement" does come across as remarkably patronising.

"Right!" cries Clinton. "I couldn't agree with you more. Listen, when I asked Bill if he wanted to participate in the documentary, I warned him that my deal with the director meant she could ask anything, and I'm really grateful he agreed, because I think it may help a lot of people to get a much better and truer view of us and our marriage and our commitment to each other."

Defending their marriage in that 60 Minutes interview, Bill cuts off Kroft with: "Wait a minute: you're looking at two people who love each other. This is not an arrangement or an understanding. This is a marriage."

Decades later, I want to know whether, putting aside all external narratives, all 'affirmation' and 'criticism' her decision to stay receives to this day, that decision was neither 'noble' nor 'weak' but simply based on the fact that she still loved her husband? "At the core of it love really was the driving reason," she tells me. "But obviously it took an enormous amount of thought and counselling and talking to my friends. I literally prayed. And it took an enormous amount of forgiving. It was very painful." She pauses. "Very, very painful. But I've always loved Bill, and I always knew he loved me. I've always believed in our marriage, our relationship, the parenting of our daughter and our shared life. So I made the decision that was right for me."

The details offered up by the 42nd President of the United States in Hillary - how, during the Lewinsky scandal, he "went and sat on the bed to talk to her, and told her exactly what happened and when it happened" - allow us to imagine the full extent of Clinton's pain for the first time. Did she ever even fleetingly consider divorce? "Oh I thought of everything! Everything! I thought about boiling him in oil! So sure - of course I thought of divorce. But it was an affirmative decision to stay; it wasn't a default decision... Even though I know people have always criticised me and had questions about that decision, I have never doubted it. Never. I made it very thoughtfully and carefully - and I have lived with it ever since."

It would take a stony heart not to feel a pinch of pity for Chelsea Clinton, who was just 17 and had finally escaped the White House fishbowl to study at Stanford University when the Lewinsky scandal engulfed her father's presidency. The photos from the day after his mea culpa, in 1998, as she took the initiative to stand between her parents, holding both of their hands, are perhaps the most famous ever taken of her. And when, promoting The Book of Gutsy Women, co-authored by mother and daughter last year, Clinton told one interviewer that personally, the "gutsiest thing" she'd ever done was to stay in her marriage, Chelsea - now a 40-year-old global health advocate and mother of three - admitted to feeling "so overwhelmed by my mother's answer that I'm a bit out of words. I'm just so proud to be her daughter."

"I must say that Chelsea has always been and continues to be such an enormous support to me," murmurs Clinton, when I bring this up, "and I'm so incredibly proud to be her mother. Now that we're able to share the joy of her children, my grandchildren, and I can see her as a mother herself..." The line goes silent; Clinton, for one rare moment, is lost for words. "I'm so grateful for that." Meanwhile, her husband's gratitude that she decided 'to stick it out' is enough to make him tear up in the documentary: "God knows the burden she paid for that."

It's a burden Clinton won't play down. And that in itself has been used as a stick to beat her with over the years. When running for Senator from New York - a position she served in from 2001 to 2009 - Clinton tells me she remembers "all these women saying, 'How could she [have stuck by him]?'" In the run-up to her presidential bid, her team would hear the same sentiment - "I can't support her because she didn't do what I would have done" - echoed time and time again, often followed by: "But if Bill Clinton ever ran again, I'd vote for him."

It didn't seem to matter that, although once a teenage Republican (Clinton's father was a tobacco-chewing Republican, her mother a Democrat), her motivations and dedication to issues such as women's rights had been unwavering. That the commencement speech she made as a 21-year-old Wellesley College student in 1969 - a speech that ended up being excerpted in Life magazine and becoming her "first brush with notoriety and fame" - proved her to be as confident and galvanising a public speaker then as she is now. Or that as First Lady, a 47-year-old Clinton defied both internal administration pressure and external pressure from the Chinese to soften a 1995 speech made at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, in which she popularised a refrain that hardly seems provocative today: "Human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights."

"It's the fact that she's always played 'the woman card'," explains a female friend when I tell her I'm about to interview Clinton, "when we've all had to deal with the same obstacles." Have we? It's easy to forget how quickly things have changed. I doubt that any successful lawyer today would be told by a judge in court: "You look so pretty. Stand up and show us how pretty you look today - just turn around," as Clinton recalls in Hillary. Or that the words she uttered during the Democratic primaries in 1992, defending herself against accusations that some of her legal work was a conflict of interest while her husband was Governor of Arkansas, would now be branded 'the biggest gaffe' of any woman's career: "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas." Indeed in 2016, Beyoncé reclaimed those words to rapturous applause at a concert in support of Clinton's campaign.

Mentioning the concert, in which Beyoncé performed surrounded by back-up dancers in pantsuits and the 'baked cookies' quote appeared on a screen, prompts hysterical laughter from Clinton.

"One of my very close friends Cheryl [Mills, Clinton's former aide] says that I'm basically the tip of the spear in lots of ways, and I do recognise that," she assures me. "But when Beyoncé did that, I thought: wow. Even if it didn't work out for me in terms of getting as high as I wanted to go, I've had such a fascinating, rich life. I've been at the forefront of so much change and I've seen the positive shifts. So if there is some young girl out there who can learn something and be inspired, then it was all worth it."

So much has changed and yet so little. And when I tell Clinton about the campaign mounted at my daughter's LA preschool to have the first female crossing guard (or 'lollipop lady') removed, because the school mums didn't feel it was 'safe' - and how to me that summed up her country's cultural issues with the idea of a female president - she groans. "Oh boy. Sadly, that doesn't surprise me. I see this in so many different formations."

The most glaring of those is surely that despite being so progressive in other ways, America doesn't yet seem ready for its first female president. Might the country finally be in 2024? "I don't know," she says with an audible sigh. "But since [Democratic candidate] Joe Biden has committed to picking a woman for Vice President, perhaps the woman he picks will have proven herself on a big enough stage to be able to start with a much greater base of support for her being a potential President. So it could be in 2024; I've got my fingers crossed," she tells me. "But it is a contradiction, which is why you can't get your head around it."

That particular contradiction may be all-American, but there are plenty more facing women in public life the world over. Too glamorous and you're not taken seriously. Too serious (pronounced 'dowdy') and you're not glamorous enough - a critique pantsuit-wearing Clinton has become all too familiar with over the years and takes on the chin. Not naturally frivolous, Clinton had simply "tried to figure out how to make the clothes and hair as unnoticeable as possible, which was what led to the pantsuits. Of course I like to put something fun and pretty on if the occasion arises. But it was such an extra on me just to look presentable. I'm not even saying fabulous or fantastic, but just presentable," she explains, with laughter in her voice. "I really wouldn't describe myself as vain, but that doesn't mean that I don't care, and that I'm not constantly worried and thinking about it." After her 2016 loss, Clinton took a moment "to add up all the time I spent getting hair and makeup done - and it was 25 days. Which is huge!"

Equally intractable is the 'emotion contradiction' female politicians still face. More than once, Clinton remembers being "at a campaign event and somebody saying, 'Well a lot of people say that women can't be president because they're more emotional than men.' And I would laugh and say, 'Well a lot of people don't think I have emotions.'"

Being "very good at compartmentalising her feelings", as her best friend, the late human-rights advocate Betsy Ebeling, attests in Hillary, has perhaps only contributed to the politician being seen as 'robotic' and 'unlikeable' - two words that recur around mentions of Clinton. Maybe that's another misconception. Or maybe a combination of age, getting out of the rat race, and the isolation of lockdown have opened her up. Because the woman I spent an hour talking to had an easy laugh, a curiosity about my life and daughter - and was unafraid to expand on the private challenges and personal sadnesses she's only briefly touched upon before.

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No holds barred: When Hilary signed up for the documentary, she had to agree that nothing would be off-limits, including her marriage

No holds barred: When Hilary signed up for the documentary, she had to agree that nothing would be off-limits, including her marriage

No holds barred: When Hilary signed up for the documentary, she had to agree that nothing would be off-limits, including her marriage

I didn't know, for example, that as her husband was campaigning to become Governor of Arkansas, Clinton was struggling to get pregnant. "It was hard for me to get pregnant," she says. "I never had a miscarriage, but we tried and tried and we were about to go and see a fertility doctor a week later when I found out I was pregnant with Chelsea. It was one of those serendipitous things."

I didn't know they had wanted a larger family. "We both would have loved to have had another child, but that didn't work out. And we're so fortunate to have got the one we got."

And although it was rare that vitriolic words or a barbaric act like the burning of the First Lady's effigy by a group in Kentucky in 1994 - footage of which is shown in Hillary - would reduce her to tears, "sometimes the sheer exhaustion... All of the demands of a political campaign. So there is that moment, yes," she concedes.

Another moment she remembers clearly was "when I was in New Hampshire in the 2008 primary campaign and some woman asked me how I did it: how I got up every morning and just did it - and tears did come to my eyes, because it is hard. I don't want to sugar-coat it. It's hard for anybody. But because of the double standard, because of the inherent remnants of sexism and misogyny, it's especially hard for women still."

Aside from working her way through the "huge stack of books on my bedside table and a lot of old favourites like [crime writers] Louise Penny and Donna Leon, taking a lot of long walks", and, yes, baking cookies, Clinton has spent lockdown writing a big piece about that famous Beijing UN speech, she tells me. "So I've been pulling a lot of research and there is so much evidence about these inherent, built-in gender stereotypes that's heartbreaking. Sensible, educated, thoughtful people have the same mindset about what is and isn't appropriate for men and women."

Of course her gender wasn't the only issue with voters. For many on both sides of the pond Clinton is still perceived as the embodiment of dynastic entitlement and corruption. There was the Whitewater controversy in the 1990s, related to the Clintons' investment in failed land development in Arkansas, but they were subsequently cleared of criminal conduct. And Clinton's presidential campaign was marred by the FBI's investigation into her use of a private email server while Secretary of State.

That the Republican President has since had his own 'server scandal' may not have enraged his base to the same extent. But a pile-up of problems in recent months - when Trump has been forced to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, a tanking economy and protests over the killing of George Floyd - looks likely to dent his approval ratings in the run-up to the election. Mourning the loss of Floyd - "We have a lot of work to do to achieve true equality and justice for all" - Clinton has called Trump's deployment of the military to help clear peaceful protesters, who have been shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with smoke canisters and pepper balls, "a horrifying use of presidential power against our own citizens". Even before that, she says grimly, the contrast between the solemn statement released by Biden - whom Clinton has been doing everything she can to support - as the country's Covid-19 death toll reached 100,000 last month, and anything the sitting president has chosen to put out, "could not be starker".

"As far as I know Trump has never expressed any empathy for the loss of 100,000 Americans. For the terrible dislocation that millions of other Americans are going through. Because I don't think he feels anything for anybody but himself. Maybe there is somebody who has pierced that very hard self-protective and narcissistic shell of his," she wonders, before giving up on that idea, "but I do think that is now penetrating people's awareness." As for the president's handling of the pandemic: "Just about every mistake that could be made was made. So everywhere you look you see incoherence, inconsistencies and incompetence. I don't think as many people would have died if we had had competence and federal leadership."

There's a long list of things Clinton would have done differently over the course of the pandemic. Among them: "I never would have eliminated the special office in the White House and the National Security Council that was set up for that purpose," and, "I would have paid attention to my intelligence briefings."

But these are no longer the words of a would-be president. "I've definitely counted myself out," she says of 2024. And if Chelsea one day decided to run? "I would say what I bet you'd say to your daughter, which is that I want her to do whatever makes her happy and fulfilled. Then I'd tell her what my experiences have been - and warn her to go into it with her eyes wide open."

© Telegraph

All episodes of 'Hillary' are available on Sky Documentaries and Now TV

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