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The Most Famous Person You Don't Know: A Cultural History of Hillary Clinton

What we can learn from a history of Hillary Clinton and her likenesses on film and TV, and how do they relate to the major moments of her first ladyship and political career?
February 15, 2016, 5:12pm
Image via Flickr user Brett Weinstein

When I started thinking about the intersection of Hillary Clinton and popular culture—specifically, the history of her likeness in film and television—I immediately made a mistake: I conflated reality and fiction.

In August 1998, the morning after Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony and his "I misled people" speech (in which he finally admitted to the nation that he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky), the Clintons headed off to Martha's Vineyard. The image of Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea walking from the White House to a helicopter transporting them to the most awkward family vacation in history is somewhat iconic. With a vague recollection of the scene, I remarked to a friend that there was something striking about Hillary in that moment. I remembered her in a dark blue suit, self-possessed in the wake of the shit storm of the decade, holding a stack of files, which, in my imagination, included a blueprint for her senate run in 2000. (Many attribute Clinton's win to the surge in her popularity following the Lewinsky scandal.)

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My friend was skeptical of these assertions. "What files?" she asked. "Weren't they all just creepily holding hands?"

A quick Google search tested my memory. While Hillary was wearing a shade of blue (a turquoise button-up) my friend was right: the only thing she was holding was Chelsea's hand.


I didn't think much of my misremembering until I re-watched the movie Primary Colors (1998) and actually came across those mysterious files. In the film, which is directed by Mike Nichols and based on Joe Klein's roman à clef of the same name, Emma Thompson plays Susan Stanton—the Hillary of the story. In the thinly veiled account of Bill Clinton's improbable rise to the presidency, Susan weathers her husband's storm of infidelities with a Lady Macbeth-like resolve. One night, however, Jack Stanton's behavior becomes insufferable, and in a rare moment of vulnerability, Susan breaks down in the arms of a campaign aide. At a staff meeting the following morning, the aide is shocked to see Susan completely composed in a tailored dark blue suit. She's holding a stack of files and inquiring about polling data.

Screenshot via Primary Colors.

Apparently, I couldn't separate Hillary reality from Hillary fiction (albeit historical Hillary fiction). It was more entertaining to imagine that the humiliation of a scorned wife could turn into a Machiavellian move for power and personal gain—certainly more entertaining than picturing a grotesquely staged White House stroll.

Many histories have been written about Hillary Clinton: some written by her, many written by others. Slate has published history of the public's fascination with her hair; the Atlantic a history of her and Bill's scandals. What we can learn from a history of Hillary and her likenesses related to major moments of her first ladyship and political career?

In the course of eight years, Hillary became Secretary of State, a viral meme, and synonymous in some circles with the words "Benghazi" and "email server."

In the nearly eight years since Hillary lost to Barack Obama in the Democratic Primary—during which she became Secretary of State, a viral meme, synonymous in some circles with the words "Benghazi" and "email server," winner, by a razor-thin margin, of the 2016 Iowa Democratic Presidential Caucus, and loser, by a big margin, of the New Hampshire primary—there have been a proliferation of Hillaryesque characters. Some of these impressions—in Political Animals and Madam Secretary, for example—are idealized versions of Clinton. These Hillarys are seemingly stronger, savvier, more palatable, and, yes, sexier than real-life HRC—the Hillary some wish existed; the Hillary who embodies the virtues recognized by her supporters. Others, like Robin Wright's Claire Underwood in House of Cards—who is not a Clinton clone—are more nuanced: they are messy, imperfect, and morally corruptible. Depending on your opinion of Clinton, you might prefer fictional Hillary—especially the naughtier imprints—because they offer an interiority and complexity that the candidate, by virtue of her career, cannot provide. I'd go so far as to say the finest performances make Hillary, who has struggled her entire public life with appearing authentic, seem more real.

Image via

The 1992 Campaign

The cover of the September 14, 1992 issue of Time featured a photograph of Hillary Clinton above these words: "The Hillary Factor: Is she helping or hurting her husband?" She was an ambitious career woman and avowed feminist—a description that, when translated into power-hungry "feminazi," seemed to threaten the traditional image of First Lady. Never had the wife of a presidential candidate received so much media attention—coverage partly fueled by Republican misogynists. "For some of the speakers at the Republican convention," observed a New York Times reporter, "Mrs. Clinton was the symbol of feminism run wild, a chilly lawyer who equated marriage with slavery and was bent on radically altering the traditional family." This particular media image of Hillary was also fueled by the Clintons' own public relations blunders, from Bill's implication of a co-presidency (voters would get "two for the price of one" if they elected him) to Hillary's dismissive remark that she became a lawyer even though she could have just "stayed home, baked cookies and had teas."

Her trouble connecting with voters is the premise of a Saturday Night Live sketch that aired two weeks after Hillary's Time cover hit newsstands. Jan Hooks plays the Hillary to Phil Hartman's Bill, who takes questions from undecided voters during a special edition of Nightline. At one point, Hillary is asked to provide the ingredients in her cookie recipe, and her precise answer—a list Hooks rattles off with the utmost seriousness—is nevertheless unsatisfactory. Eventually Hillary unravels: "Go ahead, don't vote for him!" she shouts. "I'll be fine! I have a job! I'm a lawyer!"


The line "go ahead, don't vote for him" alludes to a now infamous Hillary soundbite. In January 1992, the Clintons appeared on 60 Minutes to address allegations that Bill had engaged in numerous extramarital affairs, including a relationship with Gennifer Flowers. Fifty million Americans tuned in to hear them defend their marriage (which they insisted, with a hint of outrage, was not an "arrangement"). In the appearance, Hillary's support for Bill was forceful—to say the least:

You know I'm not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together. And if that's not enough for people then heck, don't vote for him.

To many, Hillary Clinton had become, as reporter David Shribman observed in a Wall Street Journal article, "the major weapon" in Bill's campaign. "To a large degree, the fate of Mr. Clinton's political ambition rests in the hands of his blunt, strong-willed and, critics say, strident wife," Shribman wrote in January 1992. But by April, about as many people had an unfavorable impression (40 percent) of Hillary as a favorable one (38 percent), according to a Gallup poll. (Unfavorable impressions of her increased 14 points in May after the "cookies" remark.) To some, Hillary was a weapon; to others, she was a liability.

Many had a hard time reconciling how Hillary could at once dismiss "standing by your man" and do just that: insist we give her husband the benefit of the doubt in the wake of his infidelities (or "marital difficulties") because she did. "It would be much easier for her to play the role of the bitch or the scorned woman," Hillary's friend Connie Fails told a Washington Post reporter in 1992. "That's the pattern that women my age learn, what TV and the movies tell us is the position a woman should take."

It would be much easier for her to play the role of the bitch or the scorned woman.

Interestingly, a movie—Primary Colors—takes a close look at the very position Fails describes. One particular scene makes sense of an impossible situation—not being Tammy Wynette but standing by your man—as the film's Hillary character deals with her husband's philandering. In the scene, Susan sits at her kitchen table with Jack (John Travolta) and campaign operative Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), who is supposed to be Betsey Wright, Clinton's gubernatorial chief of staff and a key aide in the 1992 campaign. Wright coined the phrase "bimbo eruptions," referring to claims made by women that they slept with Bill Clinton—or, in some cases, were assaulted by him. Libby refuses to go negative on a candidate she believes is a decent man, and when the Stantons insist she sling mud, she turns the situation around. She reveals Jack slept with the babysitter and threatens to give the press this information. "You would do that? You would end his political career?" Susan asks, visibly shaken. Libby's matter-of-fact response is revealing.

You see, Jack. She hasn't even heard. She isn't even upset that you fucked your 17-year-old babysitter. And you know why? It's never the cheat who goes to hell. It's always the one he cheated on. That's why you still talk in that tenderhearted voice about being in it for the folks, and Susie here can only talk in that voice from hell about your political career. Now what kind of shit is that, Jack?

Despite how humiliating Hillary's voice-from-hell testimonies were—especially her later "vast right-wing conspiracy" defense at the start of the Lewinsky scandal—that shit eventually paid off. In retrospect, it's easier to see these declarations as more savvy than supportive: She was waiting in line. Twenty-five years later, it's Hillary's turn to talk in that tenderhearted voice about being in it for the folks, and she's more tenderhearted this time than she was in 2008.

First Ladyship

As we watch Bill stump for Hillary again, we could call the Clintons the "unsplittable atom of American politics"—a phrase used in House of Cards (2012– ) to describe Frank and Claire Underwood. In the third season of the show, following a string of preposterous murders and schemes, the Underwoods finally make it to the White House. Claire, who primarily served as a force behind Frank, reveals her own political ambitions in the season's first episode. She asks Frank to nominate her to the position of Ambassador to the United States, but he resists at first. "How am I supposed to run for office at some point if I don't have a legitimate track record?" she demands. After a failed nomination, Frank reluctantly gives her the job in a recess appointment, which proves to be a terrible mistake. She's ill equipped to navigate the nuances of the international relations—ruining a treaty between the U.S. and Russia—and must ultimately resign and return to her first lady post.

Though Robin Wright has insisted she's not trying to recreate the life of Hillary, Claire's disastrous ambassadorship evokes one of the biggest policy missteps of the Clinton administration: When Bill nepotistically placed Hillary in charge of a health care reform campaign that went up in flames.


In 1994, health care was supposed to be the defibrillator that revived Bill Clinton's already scandal-soaked presidency. (These early scandals—from Whitewater to the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster—would be the tip of the iceberg.) In the four-hour PBS documentary entitled Clinton, Hillary's mismanagement of the Health Security Act, aka "Hillarycare," is closely examined. According to a handful of insiders, Hillary, while crafting the 1,300-page plan, ignored outside perspectives and relied exclusively on her inner circle of advisers. "There was rigidity and an unwillingness to really listen," said Harold Ickes, former deputy White House chief of staff. The bill was dead by Labor Day, before it even came up for a vote in Congress.

You can be as influential as you want to be, but do it in private… In the bedroom at night, tell him what to do. But don't let it be seen in public.

The accumulation of scandals and damaging reports, however ludicrous (like the "Clinton Body Count," which posited, for example, that Vince Foster was murdered because he was having an affair with Hillary), combined with the failure to reform health care, contributed to the Democrats losing both the Senate and the House in November 1994. Hillary received some of the blame and was forced to rethink her first ladyship. In Clinton, political strategist Dick Morris, who had advised Bill on and off since the late 1970s, recalls telling Hillary, "You can be as influential as you want to be, but do it in private… In the bedroom at night, tell him what to do. But don't let it be seen in public."

Though Hillary was still able to affect change—she promoted women and children's issues and even helped create the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which brought health care coverage to millions of American kids—her first ladyship was filled with constraints and contradictions. I imagine she had to learn, perhaps not for the first time, that being married to man in power isn't the same as wielding power. House of Cards, in addition to Scandal (2012– ) and The West Wing (1996–2006), imagines this predicament too.


Claire Underwood's own "smallness" smacks her in the face when she resigns from her ambassadorship and reluctantly campaigns for Frank's reelection. Claire, struck with both a sense of self-doubt and a sense of regret about the sins she and Frank had committed in order to sneak into the White House, becomes the show's protagonist—the soul of the dimly lit political soap. In the last few episodes of the third season, House of Cards turns inward, focusing the drama on the splitting of a once unsplittable atom. "I should have never made you ambassador," Frank tells her during an argument on Air Force One. "I should have never made you president," Claire snaps back. In the season finale, we see Claire coquettishly sitting behind the desk of the Oval Office—perhaps testing it out—before she walks out of the White House and leaves Frank in the middle of his campaign.

(It should be noted that Hillary Clinton has admitted to binge-watching House of Cards, in addition to The Good Wife and Madam Secretary. In an ABC News interview, David Muir asks Hillary which character she relates to: Robin Wright as first lady or Kevin Spacey as the president. She clearly does watch the show, because she responded, "Neither.")

When a woman is president, they'll suddenly make first lady an official paid position. The minute a man has to do it, it'll become a real job.

In Shonda Rhimes's Scandal, former First Lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), now running for president in the show's sixth season, doesn't so much walk out of the White House as get thrown out: when her husband, President Fitzgerald Grant, decides to end their "arrangement," she gets the boot. Mellie, who became a senator while still first lady, is made from the mold of Hillary: she left her job as a high-powered attorney to marry, have kids, and prop up her husband as he pursued the presidency. Often stifled, pushed aide, humiliated, and manipulated—she manipulates too—Mellie never loses perspective. "I'll tell you something, when a woman is president, they'll suddenly make first lady an official paid position," she says in season four. "The minute a man has to do it, it'll become a real job." It's a great line—one that makes you think how the position might change if Bill Clinton becomes the first first gentleman.

Aaron Sorkin's near-perfect West Wing (the first three seasons at least) is more realistic than Scandal and certainly less nihilistic than House of Cards. Its first lady, Abigail Bartlet (Stockard Channing), plays an important though intermittent role in series. She both attended and taught at Harvard—Claire and Mellie went to Harvard too!—and is a world-class thoracic surgeon. Like other Hillary likenesses, she cut short her career to accommodate her husband's political life. Abbey is Sorkin's first lady wish fulfillment: She's modern enough to posses a medical degree but traditional enough, like Nancy Reagan or the Bush wives, to fulfill first lady duties and support her husband Jed (Martin Sheen).


But by season three, she become a "liability" when it's revealed she violated medical ethical codes by secretly treating Jed for multiple sclerosis—which they hid from nearly everyone until the end of his first term. He gets censored and she must surrender her medical license for the duration of her first ladyship. It's a huge blow. In a conversation with White House counsel Oliver Babish, she vents her frustration:

Oliver: Mrs. Bartlet, I want to talk to you about…
Abbey: Dr. Bartlet. When did I stop being "Dr." Bartlet? When in the campaign did I decide that women were going to like me more if I called myself "Mrs."? When did I decide that women were that stupid?

It reminds us of the tumultuous relationship Hillary Clinton has had with her maiden name "Rodham." As the first lady of Arkansas, she initially refused to adopt Bill's last name and went by Hillary Rodham. According to a New York Times op-ed, this ostensibly feminist act "rankled" many voters from the get-go, and Hillary eventually dropped Rodham for Clinton during Bill's second stint as governor.

Senator, Secretary of State, Contender

"Please don't give me that crap about how the people would love me if they just knew me," says Elaine Barrish (Sigourney Weaver), the former First Lady who has just conceded her run for the presidency. Elaine is talking to her philandering husband, Bud, a Bill Clinton carbon copy. "It's been 20 years, okay," Elaine adds. "The know me." This exchange happens in the first ten minutes of the miniseries Political Animals (2012).

Soon after this exchange, Elaine serves Bud divorce papers. The miniseries essentially asks us what would happen if Hillary had divorced Bill after losing the primary in 2008. What happens to Elaine is pretty great: After supporting her opponent (an Italian-American version of Obama) in the general, she becomes a wildly popular secretary of state—while Bud becomes a laughing stock—and is set up to succeed in her next run for president.


Political Animals, which ran for six episodes, is clearly about Clinton. "Certainly, we are inspired by Mrs. Clinton, who's such a remarkable woman and a great secretary of state. She was a great senator for New York state," Weaver told the Huffington Post in 2012. "It is a tribute to politicians like Mrs. Clinton, but it's both sides. It's the light and the dark."

It is a tribute to politicians like Mrs. Clinton, but it's both sides. It's the light and the dark.

For those who admire Clinton, Elaine is the ultimate alt-Hillary: She is tough but graceful, smart but never off-putting, and gorgeous. "At stake here is whether we know how to admire a powerful woman who isn't also a 10," wrote Katy Waldman in the piece "Political Animals Shouldn't Have Made Hillary Hot" for Slate. "Viewers may no longer regard a lovely face as sufficient ground for respect, but that doesn't mean it's not a prerequisite."

It's certainly a prerequisite on Madam Secretary (2014– ), in which the stunning Téa Leoni plays a sort of Hillary-Madeleine-Condi composite named Bess McCord: She is supposed to be a fish out of water, coming to the top job from the world of academia. Showrunner Barbara Hall has said Hillary is not the sole inspiration for Bess McCord, though the series was born while Hall watched the Benghazi hearings and wondered what was going through Hillary's mind. The second episode of the series is called "Another Benghazi."


Of all the Hillary impression, Bess McCord is the blandest and least Hillary-like. She always takes the moral high ground and is depicted as being exceptionally intelligent, but not overly ambitions. She was even reluctant to become secretary of state. "You quit [the CIA] for ethical reasons," the president tells her in the first episode. "That makes you the least political person I know."

Hillary Clinton may be one of the most political persons in recent American history, and her moral compass has been questioned over the past two decades. As first lady, for example, she barely survived the Whitewater controversy, which involved a failed Arkansas real estate deal in the late 1970s. In January 1996, Ken Starr, before turning his witch-hunt from Whitewater to the president and Monica Lewinsky, subpoenaed Hillary in a criminal investigation into the real estate deal. It was the first time in history a wife of a sitting president had been subpoenaed. Her emails are the latest addition to her long history of scandals—and it seems that she will survive that too.

I'm probably the most famous person you don't really know.

Both Political Animals and Madam Secretary present a world in which the public has a very clear understanding—not to mention a favorable opinion—of their Hillarys. That's not so much the case in real life. You may not like Hillary, but you probably don't feel like you really know the "real" person. As Clinton told NBC in 2007, "As someone close to me once said, 'I'm probably the most famous person you don't really know.'" While it's universally understood that she's smart, outspoken, and hard driving, there are other things—her evasiveness, her ambition, her integrity, her marriage to Bill (for years she has been accused of being a lesbian, for instance)—that are murky and hard to reconcile.

Last July, Mark Leibovich scored a rare interview with the Democratic frontrunner for his profile, "Re-Re-Re-Reintroducing Hillary Clinton." In it, he writes that for years, Hillary's family and friends wished that people could see the "Hillary They Knew"—the Hillary few see. These Hillarys have included "the great boss" and even "the chatty girlfriend." The real Hillary.

The problem is there is no real Hillary: She is as constructed as Susan Stanton and Claire Underwood and Elaine Barrish—to have lived so many lives and survived so many scandals, you'd have to be. But does any politician have a real self? Would any politician dare reveal that real self? (Would we ask so much of them?)

The ongoing issue of Clinton's likability—and the apparent need for likable Hillary likenesses, such as Susan Stanton, Abbey Bartlet, and Elaine Barrish—suggests that in female candidates, we seek ideal women who behave in ideal ways. (Bernie Sanders has been able to capitalize on being a curmudgeon; Donald Trump has created an entire campaign out of being a bully.)

In a brilliant SNL sketch featuring Kate McKinnon as Hillary, and the real Hillary as a bartender named Val, Hillary Clinton spoofs her own likability.

At one point, McKinnon turns to Val and tells her she's cool and easy to talk to. "That's the first time I've ever heard that," Clinton, as Val, says.

"I wish you could be president," McKinnon adds.

"Me too," Clinton deadpans.