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Breakfast with Frost
Sunday 06 July, 2003 , BBC Breakfast with Frost Interview: Senator Hillary Clinton

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

Senator Hillary Clinton
Senator Hillary Clinton

PETER SISSONS: She inspires extraordinary emotion wherever she goes because Hillary Clinton has friends and enemies in places high and low across America. And she's just written a book - you may have noticed - about her career as wife, mother and politician.

In a moment she'll be joining me live in the studio but first our Washington correspondent Matt Fry charts the life and times of the former First Lady, now New York's senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

[CLIP]

PETER SISSONS: And Hillary Clinton joins us now. Welcome Senator.

HILLARY CLINTON: Thank you so much.

PETER SISSONS: When you and Bill first hit the national scene, he said "you get two for the price of one." Was this as much a political partnership as a marriage?

HILLARY CLINTON: No, it started off - I was looking at that picture which is on the back of my book - when we first met back in law school and I have had this ongoing incredible relationship for more than 30 years. But of course I supported his political career because I believed in what he stands for - I think he was an excellent president for our country and now in the Senate on behalf of New Yorkers I'm trying to stand up for the same policies that he represented.

PETER SISSONS: But as First Lady, you wanted to do more than flower arranging. You said you didn't want to stay at home and bake cakes, yet the system beat you.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, to be fair, and as I write in the book, being First Lady is not a job. It doesn't come with a job description, it is something that each of my predecessors, going back to Martha Washington, has had to invent and reinvent for herself. And I had worked ever since I was 13, I'd been a practising lawyer, a barrister as one might say here, and when my husband asked me to help with health care I was excited because when we had been in Arkansas I'd helped reform the education system there. But of course it was controversial and not only my role in it but the substance of what he wanted to do in terms of providing quality, affordable health care to everyone in our nation.

PETER SISSONS: If he had put somebody else in charge of it might it have succeeded?

HILLARY CLINTON: We've talked about that a lot and I don't think it would have under the circumstances in which we found ourselves - in part because it was really his plan, it wasn't my plan or anyone else's plan, it was what he had talked about in the campaign and it was too much too fast to try to get something through our Congress under those circumstances when there was so much opposition from many of the people who have a stake in the existing system as it stands today.

PETER SISSONS: But Cherie Blair has also found that there is resistance to the Prime Minister's wife being too involved in policy and other minor decision making - or major decision making for that matter. You revealed in the book that she did seek your advice.

HILLARY CLINTON: She's a friend of mine. I admire Cherie greatly. I think she's done a superb job as, you know, not only Tony's wife and help mate but as the mother of four wonderful children, as a barrister and a Queen's Counsel. I mean she's an extraordinary woman and of course I can only speak from my experience but when Tony became Prime Minister, Cherie and I became friends, we've talked about many things - raising children in the public eye, trying to find the help to answer all the mail that suddenly comes flooding in. PETER SISSONS: What advice did you give her?

HILLARY CLINTON: Oh to be herself. To be herself, to know that she was taking on a formidable task, to continue her profession, which she has trained for and is, by all accounts, absolutely superb at, while her husband held this position as the head of government. And I think given all that she's had to contend with, she has performed extraordinarily well.

PETER SISSONS: Now you call this book living history - you centrally made history by becoming the first First Lady to write about her husband's most damaging sexual lapse. Why rake it all up?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well I would have much preferred that what should remained private and personal did so but that was, unfortunately, the case. It was dragged into the public for partisan political advantage and certainly I didn't think I could write about those eight years in the White House, which were on balance an extraordinary positive experience for me and our country, without recognising that this had happened. You know, some of the commentators say that I say too much, some say I say too little, and so it strikes me I probably have struck the right balance, at least for me.

PETER SISSONS: But not a bad idea to get it all out in the open in that way than someone saying in eight years time when you could be running for something or other, you know, letting them rake it up and

HILLARY CLINTON: Well so many people have written so many millions of words about my life, and have imputed meaning to everything from my hairstyle to my political positions, that when I decided to follow in the tradition of my predecessors and write about this unbelievable experience in the White House, I wanted to give as full an accounting as I possibly could.

PETER SISSONS: Except that people looking for buying this book for salacious detail won't find any.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well I hope not. (LAUGHS)

PETER SISSONS: And you've barely added to it in other interviews you've given, so I'm not going to waste your time asking you to tell us what went on. Is the book now closed on Bill's indiscretions or could you blow him out of the water if you ever fell out permanently?

HILLARY CLINTON: Oh for goodness sake's. You know, we have a deep and profound relationship that I am both grateful for and very gratified about because what it's meant to us and our daughter and our family and I'm closing the chapter on this part of my life.

PETER SISSONS: So this marriage is now for ever?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well I don't - you know - I hope so, but, you know, one never knows, does one?

PETER SISSONS: What binds you together?

HILLARY CLINTON: Let's start with love and I think great respect and support for one another. So many things in common, including raising a wonderful child together. I, as I write in the book, I mean it is something that maybe defies explanation but I, I have seen in my life that most marriages are certainly a mystery to me including, from time to time, my own. And what I care deeply about is the life we've built together and the family we've made together and the work we've done together.

PETER SISSONS: What a number of people have asked me to ask you about Bill, apropos the Monica Lewinsky business: how could someone so clever be so stupid?

HILLARY CLINTON: You know I think I've said all I'm going to say on that subject and I think that anyone who knows my husband and knows the history of the Clinton administration realises that what will stand the test of time is, I think, the work that he did.

PETER SISSONS: But do you, do you subscribe to the view that power is an aphrodisiac?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well I think that certainly, you know, power can do many things to people. What I am more concerned about, rather than its aphrodisiac quality is its abuse. And I think that it's important, and I worry about what's going on in my own country, that we hold power accountable. That we make sure it is transparent, that people who have tremendous power over the lives and literally the deaths of others make sure that they wear that power lightly and with humility and I think my husband always did that.

PETER SISSONS: A theme you return to in this book is, as you mentioned, the vast right wing conspiracy, as you call it. You may have seen in one of the newspapers here today - the heavier newspapers - one of our more distinguished political observers writes of the whole apparatus of the Starr inquiry that so dogged you both, which tried to capitalise on Bill Clinton's infidelity, he writes "It is that same network and culture that is now animating American foreign policy and the choices made in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay." Are the conspirators now in power?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well I, as I say in the book and in many interviews, I don't think I'd call it a conspiracy any longer - there's nothing secret about it, it is wide open and very public that there's a well-organised, well-financed agenda that is quite right wing and many of the people in this current administration certainly ascribe to that particular political perspective. There's an excellent book by a good friend of mine, Sydney Bloomingthal, who I think has been here talking about his book called The Clinton Wars, in which he absolutely documents the connections and the relationships among these people. And certainly speaking on behalf of my constituency has meant many of the decisions that are being made now are far outside the mainstream of what traditionally had been American political and even legal thought. But these are very determined, well-organised forces and they are intent upon turning the clock back on many of the elements of social progress and social justice in our country and they have a very strong view of American unilateral power, they are not supportive of the multi-lateral institutions that were built up following World War II that sustained us during the Cold War.

PETER SISSONS: But how great is there influence on foreign policy?

HILLARY CLINTON: I think it's absolutely essential, you know if you look at the people who are running the foreign policy of this administration. They come out of a very conservative, some say neo-con background but they are people who have a very strong view of America's supremacy - which I agree with in terms of our standing in the world today - but pursue the end of that power and America's leadership in ways that are very different, not just from the Clinton administration, but the first Bush, the Reagan, on back to the Second World War.

PETER SISSONS: JFK once said, notably, forgive your enemies but remember their names. Do you hold a grudge? Will you try one day, if you can, to get even?

HILLARY CLINTON: I don't think like that, I think that on a personal basis I can certainly not only forgive but move beyond but this book is partly sounding the alarm about what those who pursued relentlessly my husband and I and did everything they could to end his presidency, who certainly did everything they could to deprive Al Gore of being inaugurated president after he obtained more votes than the current president, and that these are - PETER SISSONS: Would you say that George Bush stole the presidency?

HILLARY CLINTON: I would say that the Supreme Court's intervention into the vote counting in Florida was an unprecedented interference with an electoral process that I find deeply troubling. And that in the two and a half years since this administration came into office they have been consistently unwilling to share information.

They keep documents and other information away from elected officials, away from the general public. They run a very closed shop and I find deeply troubling.

PETER SISSONS: Does the appetite of the media for details of the private lives of public figures deter good talented people from going into public life?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well it may do that.

PETER SISSONS: There is some evidence that it does in the UK.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well it may do that but it also does something else. I mean it's a variant on breads and circuses that if what the press is focusing on is someone's personal life and not government policy, not decisions that literally will be charting the future for a nation, they are not doing their job and unfortunately we saw a lot of that during the 1990s and now they've gone to the other extreme where they, they don't cover critical issues.

Decisions that are being made by this administration - I'll give you one example, it's not reported much here, I don't know that it's reported anywhere else in the world and certainly not much at home - this administration is changing the nuclear strategy of our country.

They are asking to develop or at least to research the development of nuclear weapons, to change our silence about first use to a public statement that that might be a new doctrine that they could follow, the whole pre-emption strategy that they have promulgated. These are very serious differences. PETER SISSONS: But are they making - HILLARY CLINTON: But they're complicated. PETER SISSONS: Are they making the world a more dangerous place?

HILLARY CLINTON: I don't know that we know that yet. I supported the President's actions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I became convinced that Saddam Hussein, particularly in the circumstances of the new war on terror, could be a purveyor and user of weapons of mass destruction - he certainly has had a long history of attempting to find them.

But I don't go along with not doing the job in Iraq right now, not making the commitment of troops and resources, not internationalising it and not doing the same in Afghanistan, to demonstrate that the military action was the beginning, not the end of America's commitment.

PETER SISSONS: You are a very prominent lawyer, are you happy about what is going on in Guantanamo Bay?

HILLARY CLINTON: I am concerned about it. You know, I think that -

PETER SISSONS: The men may be tried by military tribunal, and may be sentenced to death.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well we, we have a history of using military tribunals during war time that goes back to Franklyn Roosevelt, with respect to some Nazis who were captured attempting to come into our country.

PETER SISSONS: But John Walker Lind wasn't tried by military tribunal.

HILLARY CLINTON: No he wasn't, and he was an American citizen. But the distinction the administration has drawn is between citizens and non-citizen combatants. But I believe, just as with so much else of the administration's policy, they would be far better served and it would be a much, much more in line with our history of traditions if they were less willing to do some of what they are attempting to do with respect to civil liberties, civil rights and judicial proceedings.

PETER SISSONS: What do you think Britain should be doing about the two Brits among the six who may be going on trial?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, well I think that Britain has a great stake in this and certainly you are not only our longest and closest ally in the Anglo American alliance but have been a very strong partner of this administration and our country when it comes to Iraq. And I think that there certainly is grounds for your asking that, you know, British citizens be subjected to whatever process Britain has.

PETER SISSONS: Both here and in America there's been concern about whether Blair and Bush over-egged the pudding on the existence of the weapons of mass destruction. Do you think they did?

HILLARY CLINTON: I'm not ready to say that because I made the same calculation that I, I believe both of our governments made. I, I not only knew that the intelligence had been consistent from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration, about the chemical and biological programme but that there was a great concern rooted in intelligence that Saddam Hussein was doing everything within his power to obtain nuclear capacity.

And as the senator for New York, having lived through the horrors of September 11th, I did not want to be on the wrong side of history when it came to trying to disarm this man.

And I have to ask myself, if he had no weapons of mass destruction programme, why did he behave the way he did, why didn't he say come on in, look around, you know, I, I'm still a very powerful leader but I, I don't have any of these weapons any longer. In fact he lost his regime over it. What I think the two questions to be asked are - and I applaud your parliamentary inquiry, I know it is contentious and controversial but I wish we were having something similar.

The administration in my country won't have that kind of inquiry - I think there are two questions. First, was their intelligence good? Was it rooted in reliable sources? That's imperative for us to determine, not only because of the past, but the present and future when we look at potential future threats.

And in the second, but equally important issue, is there anyone down the chain - and usually this has to be quite a distance from a president or a prime minister - you know, begin to manipulate or fabricate? And I think both of those questions democracies like ours should have answers for.

PETER SISSONS: Let's finish by talking about you. Is America ready for a woman president?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well I don't know the answer to that. I, I think that it would be something to hope for. I'm hoping that we'll have democrat elected in 04 and re-elected in 08. So far I think probably the most likely person will be a man but I think that it is important that we now have so many qualified women in the Congress, in governorship, that it won't be long before one emerges.

PETER SISSONS: Do you rule out running in 2008?

HILLARY CLINTON: I have no intentions to run. And as I say, I hope that we're re-electing a democrat to his, or her - but most likely his second term.

PETER SISSONS: If it were you, what role would the first man have?

HILLARY CLINTON: (LAUGHS)

PETER SISSONS: The late Denis Thatcher, who always used to say of his role next to Margaret Thatcher, "always present, never there". Was that the sort of role you'd expect Bill to fulfil?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well I'm not going to speculate about, about my husband, but I think whoever the first mate - if there is one - of our first woman president will have to do what first ladies have done historically and along with the president carve out whatever that role would be.


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