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Hillary Clinton on criticism, taking breaks and why the White House needs a woman

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By Stylist editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski

This may be one of the world’s greatest understatements: Hillary Rodham Clinton is a very busy woman. Over the past eight years her life has been a whirlwind. As America’s 67th Secretary of State, she travelled almost one million miles and was responsible for nearly 70,000 employees across the globe; she’s written an incredibly detailed 600-page memoir while also working for The Clinton Foundation, the non-profit organisation she runs with husband Bill and her daughter Chelsea. Oh, and there was that small matter of running for the US presidency.

To be honest, until a couple of weeks ago I thought of myself as quite busy too. I edit a weekly magazine, manage 21 people, spend eight hours of my week commuting on the Tube, have two children under four and find myself working at odd hours to cram everything in. But I was soon to discover my life was about to get even busier. At 3pm on 24 June, my colleague Lucy got the call we’d been waiting for since January: we’d been approved to interview Hillary Clinton, and we were the only UK consumer magazine to do so.

An office full of screams later I realised what this meant: I was lined up to do the interview. I needed to read Hillary’s hefty new book Hard Choices and start prepping hard. And I would have to do this around my already unforgiving diary. I started reading and downloaded the 10-hour audiobook (I was going to have to read or listen at any free moment). That Sunday night, five days before we would meet, I had a dream that I was interviewing Hillary. In my dream my boss, Phil, insisted on sitting in to check what I was asking. And then I forgot to record a word of it. It doesn’t take Freud to analyse that dream: not only did I have a lot to do, I was nervous too.

As I crammed years of Hillary’s utterly mind-blowing life into just a week, something else dawned on me. I had never – would never – experience busyness like Hillary.

Hard Choices details the life of someone special: a woman with a huge capacity for understanding, a woman with an exceptional EQ and IQ (as Secretary of State she needed to remember hundreds of people, understand the intricacies of cultural and societal differences, handle delicate international business negotiations and, more pertinently, fight for people’s lives through peace deals). She was responsible for the most difficult of decisions: those that deal with life and death. It was around that moment of clarity when I stopped telling people how busy I was.

I finally meet Hillary on Friday 4 July, US Independence Day. I have the last interview slot of her UK publicity tour. She has been in London for just two days and has already been on Woman’s Hour, This Morning and Loose Women, as well as meeting broadsheet journalists. A tiring schedule for anyone.

Yet when I meet Hillary she is anything but weary. As I walk into her suite on the fifth floor of Claridge’s, she heads straight towards me, beaming, hand outstretched in greeting, before introducing me to her team – press secretary Nick Merrill and Huma Abedin, her long-standing chief of staff, who sit in on all her interviews. “Thank you so much for coming to meet me today,” she smiles, before guiding me towards an overly plush sofa. Sat facing me in a chair, she is poised but relaxed, engaged and eager to talk. I have met countless celebrities who by this point in a publicity tour are monosyllabic. Hillary is anything but.

As US Secretary of State, Hillary stands alongside US President Barack Obama

“I love the colour of your dress,” she starts, settling in for our chat. “What would you call that? Lemon?”

“Neon lemon?” I proffer back.“It’s certainly not subtle, is it?” she chuckles. I soon learn that laugh is a signature move: warm, relaxed and utterly disarming.

Even sitting in front of her, it’s hard to imagine what life has been like for Hillary Rodham Clinton. She has spent the past 38 years in the public eye, working on education and health reforms, being a truly involved First Lady, becoming the first female senator of New York, and winning more primaries and delegates in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2008 than any other female candidate in American history. Did she ever imagine she would be the world’s most powerful woman? The ultimate role model?

“One of the lessons my parents really drilled into me [was]: you’ve been given a lot and you’re supposed to give back. I always wanted to help people, but I didn’t imagine anything beyond that.”

The turning point came when she first arrived in the White House. “It felt strange... It felt odd,” she tells me, genuinely churning it over in her head. “I’ve always judged myself and other people on what you do, not who you are. Not what title you have. So, I was unprepared for being a symbol to the full extent that a First Lady is and that took some real thinking on my part to understand and accept.

“When he [Bill] became president I wasn’t fully aware of the expectations because the First Ladies that I had watched had been so different. And I saw each of them doing things that I thought were important. And then when I got to be First Lady, I realised that people were really listening and watching everything I said and did. It was a surprise for me.”

Hillary’s deep involvement as First Lady in the politics of the White House came equally as a surprise to those around her. Before his presidency, as Governor of Arkansas, Bill had tasked her with heading up a committee to change the standards by which schools operated, which was welcomed by the State. Upon moving to the White House, Bill set his wife a similar task: healthcare reform. “I said, ‘Of course, if that’s what I can do to help, I’ll be glad to.’ [But] there was all of this criticism that I shouldn’t be taking on such responsibilities,” Hillary says. “That a, quote, ‘First Lady didn’t have the right to do that’. I was quite bewildered. I learned over time that if you want to do something, and you can make a contribution, you have to be aware of the context in which you’re trying to do that.”

Hillary with her new book Hard Choices

Throughout Hard Choices, Hillary talks of her desire to have smashed the ultimate glass ceiling by becoming President. She recalls a fragment of the final speech to her supporters after losing the battle to Obama: “Although we weren’t able to shatter the hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it’s got about 18 million cracks in it. And the light is shining through like never before.”

I was struck by her desire to be that woman – to smash the glass ceiling on behalf of all women. In the UK, our political glass ceiling was shattered 35 years ago by Margaret Thatcher, but unlike Hillary she never claimed to be a feminist. She openly revealed, “I owe nothing to women’s lib” and colleagues claimed feminism “left her cold”. Smashing that glass ceiling didn’t bring true gender quality to the UK, so why does Hillary think breaking the American one will?

“There’s a great phrase, ‘You cannot be what you cannot see’. If you don’t have women in high positions that little girls and boys can look at and understand [as] a role model, how do you convince these children to make the decision that they have a comparable opportunity in life?

“[The role] has both symbolic and practical importance. This is an over-generalisation I know, but there are enough studies and observations that women in very senior positions do have more of a feel for what we would call the kitchen-table issues. And so they bring their own experience and sensitivity to the table.

“The reason I’m pro-choice, for example, is that I want women to bring their own experiences: if they choose to have an abortion or not to have an abortion, if they choose to have contraception, it’s their choice. A woman brings that sensibility to that decision.”

Throughout her years, she has campaigned personally and politically for women’s rights, an issue she still calls “the unfinished business of our time”. And it’s when talking about women that she becomes most animated and exemplifies those attributes she so admires in other women: sensitivity, experience and worldliness.

A young Hillary Clinton in the sixties

Throughout my interview with Hillary, she is fiercely engaged; her eyes – sparkly, wide, alert – remain firmly focused on me. She is warm, considered, talks slowly and thoughtfully and uses – consciously or not – tactics that put me at ease. She frequently answers my queries with the response: “Now, that’s a great question”, she litters her answers with colloquialisms that put us on a level and, listening back, I am struck by the amount of times she says, “You know”. And of course there’s that charming laugh. I can see that these natural skills make her the perfect diplomat, the ultimate leader. These are the skills she believes women bring to business. But it would be naive to think that gender differences still don’t present challenges.

“I think that times have changed, thankfully, but there are still obstacles to a woman in the public arena. That’s not just about politics. That’s about business, that’s about journalism, that’s about academia. That’s about every walk of life,” she says.

Hillary writes about the double-standard that applies to women in politics. Amusing anecdotes abound in Hard Choices: Putin’s offer to take her husband out to tag animals in the wild, rather than her; Angela Merkel’s witty gift to her – the front cover of a German newspaper featuring both women, heads cropped off, asking readers to spot the difference between the two; the constant chronicling of her hair and “pantsuits”. She jokes that she even considered calling her book The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries And It’s Still All About My Hair. It is that wry sense of humour that has seen her through.

She tackles this subject in her book: “I am often asked how I take the criticism directed my way,” she writes. “I have three answers. First, if you choose to be in public life, remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice and grow skin as thick as a rhino. Second, learn to take criticism seriously but not personally... Third, there is a persistent double-standard applied to women in politics – regarding clothes, body types and hairstyles – that you can’t let derail you. Smile and keep going.”

“But is it that easy?” I ask. How do you keep going against constant gender-related, criticism, designed to chip away at your confidence?

“Yes, yes... And where do these criticisms aim?” she replies. “They aim at appearance. Insecurity is unfortunately part of the game there. And they also aim at your family... It’s taken so personally. ‘Oh I’m a bad wife, I’m a bad mother, I’m a bad daughter, I’m just no good.’ Well first of all, I think you do have to meet your responsibilities, you can’t just shrug them off and feel good about yourself. But you don’t have to be perfect. Too many young women judge themselves harshly on their appearance, because they have one flaw, so minor, no-one else notices. Embrace who you are. If I could do anything, in giving advice like this, I would try to persuade young women to be a little easier on themselves. To not be so demanding or create obstacles where they don’t exist.”

I am curious to know the advice she has given Chelsea, her daughter who, aged 34, has grown up in the public eye. She is now pregnant with her first child, due in the autumn, and faces her own hard choices as a woman: career, motherhood or both.

“Well we’ve been starting to talk about that. But I would tell her to take deep breaths, slow down, spend time with your husband and friends. You’re going to have a wonderful experience, you know, becoming a mom. But you’re also going to continue the work that you love. Everyone takes a while to get the balance. I’m not going to say one is right and one is wrong because if it works for you, that’s what you should do.”

Hillary with her mother Dorothy and daughter Chelsea on her wedding day in July 2010

And did it work for you, even I often felt the strain and guilt. You always feel like you’re not doing enough.”

And what is her advice for any woman trying to have it all? “I just think you’ve got to be smart about how you prioritise, especially for women who want to have some kind of work that is meaningful to them. But also to have a family, whether that’s a husband, children, or an elderly relative that needs your attention, you just have to have a very highly developed sense of priorities because at certain stages of your life you will be able to do things, but you might not be able to do them all at the same stage.”

I find it interesting that a woman with so much get-up-and-go, so much drive and ambition, is quick to advise others to reduce the pressure where possible. “I think I’m very lucky,” she says again. “Each of us has talents. I have stamina. I have endurance. I have health and a sense of mission. And I’ve had that ever since I was a little girl. But it is something you have to maintain because you can get drained. You have to be prepared and aware enough to say I need a good night’s sleep, I need a session of yoga, I need a good long walk. Whatever it is that fills you up again. I can’t stress that enough.”

It is hard to not see the irony of a woman aged 66 advising others to slow down as she sets off on a global book tour and, when most people are retiring, is considering running for President. Does she really practise what she preaches?

“I think the strong recommendation from most religions is that you take at least a day off, you know there’s truth to that. Everybody thinks you need to just keep going and even if you’re resting, people fill their days with all kinds of stuff that constantly distracts your brain from resting. You just have to slow down. That takes a while to learn. I’m telling you this from experience and I think it would do a lot of people good.”

This advice-to-self can be seen towards the end of Hard Choices. She writes that her reasons for not taking up a second term as Secretary of State are a need to spend time with her family, to reconnect with her friends.

She resigns, returns home, and then, as I point out, promptly sits down to the huge undertaking of a 600-page memoir. She laughs. “It’s funny, because I wrote a book 10 years ago when I was a senator and I wrote that mostly at night, when I got home from the Senate. So, this felt like a leisurely pursuit. I was very happy to set my schedule to go up to the little attic study that I have in our refurbished farm house north of New York. So I really didn’t feel like it was overwhelming. I had much more time to go for those walks, go for those dinners, go to those movies, it just seemed much more of a rhythm that I needed and wanted. I wanted to be in one time zone for most of my days. And I felt really good about it.”

As way of relaxing, Hillary often references her long walks and conversations with Bill, yoga, her three dogs, her family. She also stores up episodes of House Of Cards, which she binge watches. Isn’t that a bit of a busman’s holiday, I ask? “I’ll give you that,” she chuckles.

It turns out she’s a fan of all political dramas. And while she says House Of Cards is not a fair reflection of the White House, The West Wing was “somewhat realistic. There were lots of dramatic plots, but you still had a feeling it worked. House Of Cards is a Shakespearean version of life in the White House.”

What else does she do to unwind? “I enjoy music,” she tells me. “I like three kinds of music: instrumentals of all kinds, women singers and I love to listen to classical music.” And then, almost cutting across herself, she raises her hands skywards exclaiming, “And Adele! I love Adele! I adore Adele!”

I am conscious my time with Hillary is coming to an end, so there is only one question left to ask: the most obvious, perhaps. “You could be the first female president, Hillary. The first mother, the first grandmother…” I start. “How can you not do it?

“Oh gosh,” she laughs, “Look, clearly I’m thinking about it, and I will continue to ponder it, but I’m not going to make any decisions yet. I really want to be a grandmother first. I can’t wait to meet this new person in our family. This decision I have to make politically is going to be driven by what I want to do and what I think I can do for the country. And I’ll get to it when it’s the right time.”

And with that she rises from her chair and moves to leave. I ask for a photo and for her to sign her book to my sons. “Absolutely,” she replies, “We’ll make the time to do that. Nick, perhaps you could take it, huh?”

Nick obliges with the photo before moving Hillary on, keeping her hectic schedule on track. I say my goodbyes and watch them disappear down the long corridor. She’s off to do an interview with an American radio station, before she jets off to Berlin to start the media-whirlwind all over again.

I make my way out of Claridge’s, so deep in reflection I forget to be surprised when Ozzy Osbourne pops up in reception. Over the past few weeks I have scrutinised her life and attempted to understand her, but all I can say in conclusion is that Hillary was warm, engaging, charismatic, ambitious, smart, determined and busier than any other woman I am probably ever likely to meet.

I head home for the weekend and plan to put the finishing touches to this article. Noting Hillary’s advice about taking a day of rest, I duly follow it and promptly find myself falling behind schedule. My three-yearold son is poorly, and after trips to the doctor, I find myself sitting by his bed at 11.30pm re-reading the epilogue of Hard Choices. I had forgotten that Hillary quotes her favourite film, a somewhat surprising A League Of Their Own: “It’s supposed to be hard... Hard is what makes it great.”

Exhausted, ready for bed, and with a deadline fast approaching, I finally understand... And smile in absolute agreement.

Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton (£20, Simon & Schuster) available now

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