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Hillary Clinton's strengths and anger in White House revealed

The first lady's prominent role in her husband’s White House caused friction, which occasionally erupted in her anger.
Hillary Rodham Clinton attends an event on Nov. 21, 2014 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)
Hillary Rodham Clinton attends an event on Nov. 21, 2014 in New York, N.Y.

Hillary Clinton’s prominent role in her husband’s White House caused friction with the president’s staff, which occasionally erupted in her anger, according to newly released oral histories from the time.

The five dozen never-before-seen interviews with top officials offer a new window into the inner workings of the Clinton White House. The interviews, which were made public this month, were conducted in the mid-2000s by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which has an official partnership with Clinton’s presidential library.

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Both Clintons’ temper emerge as a theme in several interviews, but Hillary Clinton's “had much more sustained velocity, for a longer period of time,” according to former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. “She just let everybody have it,” Panetta recalled of one incident.

In another incident, he recalled an aide telling him: "The First Lady just tore everybody a new asshole.”

“The President could be a screamer too. But he was the kind who would scream and then within ten seconds he was back, ‘How ya doing?’ He’d put his arm around you,” Panetta added.

"Sometimes she’d be in those meetings and I’d think, 'Please don’t let her yell at me.'"'

Hillary Clinton, already an accomplished lawyer and activist before she married Bill Clinton, took on a larger role in her husband’s White House than previous first ladies — especially around the effort to reform the health care system. Her role inevitably caused friction with turf-jealous White House staff.

Joan Baggett, who served as assistant to the president for political affairs, said people didn’t feel comfortable pushing back on the first lady, even when she was wrong.

“She would blow up over something that she misinterpreted. Again, you can’t take her on, that’s not my boss. You can’t take on the First Lady,” Baggert said. “I remember one time in one of these meetings where she was blowing up about [Bill Clinton’s] staff and how we were all incompetent and he was having to be the mechanic and drive the car and do everything, that we weren’t capable of anything.”

Baggert added that Clinton would chew out staffers in front of their colleagues, which made things especially awkward. “Sometimes she’d be in those meetings and I’d think, 'Please don’t let her yell at me,'” Baggert added.

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Clinton had her own staff, which was widely known as “Hillaryland.” Hillaryland had its own rules and interests and largely kept to themselves. “They were a little island unto themselves,” said Betty Currie, the president’s personal secretary.

But the first lady also had the ability to veto or guide many of her husband’s major decisions. “[She] was not someone you got around,” said pollster Stan Greenberg. “She’s a strong figure in her own right, a strong figure in the campaign.”

"Hillary is not always right and she can be very difficult, but basically her judgments are pretty good. The problem is, she becomes so formidable, a lot of people are afraid of her."'

In 1974, Clinton worked for Bernard Nussbaum on the Senate Watergate Committee in one of her first jobs out of Yale Law. She was dating Bill Clinton at the time and mentioned to Nussbaum that her boyfriend was going to run for Congress. He was 28. Nussbaum suggested that maybe he set his sights a little lower for now. (Privately, he thought to himself “I’m working with a bunch of idiots! They think their boyfriend is going to President of the United States!”)

Clinton did not appreciate that. “She looks at me and says, ‘You don’t know a goddamn thing you’re talking about. You’re a blank. You’re a blank.’ She used a strong curse word that she uses,” he told the Miller Center interviewers, laughing. “She started bawling me out. I mean, she worked for me on the staff but she was reacting to this. She walks out and slams the door on me.”

Obviously, history proved Clinton correct on that score, but Nussbaum said that he rediscovered Hillary Clinton’s temper when he came to work in the Clinton White House as counsel. “Hillary is not always right and she can be very difficult, but basically her judgments are pretty good. The problem is, she becomes so formidable, a lot of people are afraid of her,” he said.

Panetta and Mack McLarty, who also served as chief of staff, said they understood the importance of gaining the the first lady’s trust. “Every Chief of Staff has had to integrate the First Lady’s staff into the West Wing,” McLarty explained. “But I do think it’s fair to say that you did have a stronger presence by not only the First Lady, but by the Vice President, than I believe at that time had ever been the case.”

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It was a challenge that went back at least to the 1992 campaign, according to Susan Thomases, Hillary Clinton’s scheduler and confidant. Some of the Washington political consultants resisted giving the candidate’s wife a major role, but Clinton and her allies pushed back. “They could not simply put her on the sidelines; they had to fully integrate her into the campaign and accept the fact that she had to be a major decision-maker in the campaign. They couldn’t just treat her as a campaign wife,” Thomases said.

Thomases was notably the only key Hillaryland figure who spoke to the Miller Center. Maggie Williams, Clinton’s White House chief of staff who would go on to manage her 2008 presidential campaign, did not sit for an interview.

Several of the interviews discuss Clinton’s more suspicious view of the press than her husband’s.

Regardless of the tensions between their staffs, many of the interviewees speak about the visible closeness between Hillary and Bill Clinton. Joel Lockart, who served as White House press secretary, said the couple bonded over her New York Senate run in 2000. “I personally think that given the fact that the Vice President wasn’t interested in his political counsel, if he had not had Hillary running, it could have been a very difficult time for him,” McLarty said.

“They managed to talk to each other a million times a day — constant contact,” Thomases said. “You had better know where each of them was at all times, because at any moment they’re liable to call you and ask, ‘Where is she?’ ‘Where is he?’ They’d want to talk to each other. They constantly were in communication with each other."