On a January morning in 1998, Bill Clinton sat at the edge of the White House bed he shared with his wife, Hillary. “There’s going to be a story in the newspaper…” he said.
The new Hulu documentary series Hillary contains what may be the most detailed and emotionally candid account yet of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and how it affected the marriage of the then-president and first lady, featuring lengthy interviews with both Bill and Hillary.
Told in four hour-long episodes, Hillary premiered Saturday afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival, ahead of its debut March 6 on Hulu. Directed by Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes), the series juxtaposes the major themes, controversies, and mistakes of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign with the formative experiences and news stories from her early life, relationship with Bill Clinton, and time in the public eye as first lady, senator, and secretary of state.
Most of the content relating to Bill Clinton’s affair and impeachment trial comes in the third episode of the series, titled “The Hardest Decision,” which details the ways in which Hillary’s decision to stay married to Bill became a cultural and political lightning rod that followed her to the point that, for some voters, it was a defining issue in her presidential campaign almost 20 years later.
That first morning, Bill was adamant that nothing had happened between Lewinsky and himself that rose above the level of flirting. “It was convincing to me,” Hillary says.
When it later became clear that he’s going to have to tell the grand jury that there was a sexual relationship, he went to the edge of the bed again and told Hillary what had actually happened and when. “I was just devastated,” she says. “I could not believe it. I was so personally just hurt.” She told him that if this was going to be public, he was going to have to tell their daughter, Chelsea.
Bill’s interviews in Hillary are laden with remorse and regret. A producer asks him why he would take such a risk with not only his marriage and family, but with the country by foolishly engaging in an affair with a White House intern.
“Nobody thinks about that,” he says. “Nobody thinks about why did I take that risk. That’s not why people do stupid things. That’s not what happened. Nobody sits down and thinks I think I’ll take a really irresponsible risk that’s bad for my family, bad for my country, bad for the people that work with me.”
He likens it to a decision made by a person in a high-pressure situation and has been pummeled by it, like weathering a 15-round prize fight that’s been extended to 30 rounds. “Here’s someone who’s going to take your mind off it for a while. That’s what happened... It’s not a defense. It’s an explanation. I feel awful. I feel terrible about it.”
Immediately after, Hillary wanted to get away from Washington and go to Martha’s Vineyard where they could be near friends. “I still didn’t talk to him,” she says. “I didn’t want anything to do with him. He spent a lot of time I guess playing golf and talking to a couple of his friends.”
As footage plays of the family walking across the White House lawn to board the helicopter to Massachusetts, with Chelsea in between Bill and Hillary and holding both of their hands, Hillary tears up when talking about the moment. “That wasn’t anything other than her trying to keep us together. And when she did that, oh my gosh, I thought that’s just so incredible.” After a pause to clear the lump in the throat, she continues: “So strong and so wise.”
Friends and aides talk about the theory that Hillary must have known the truth about Bill’s affair the whole time, the suspicion that she was lying to protect him and her own proximity to power. But, they unanimously insist, she was hurt by him, blindsided by the affair, and devastated for a long time over the whole thing. If there was any sort of calculation behind it, it would have made the horrible experience so much easier.
Her feelings about what Bill had done to her aside, Hillary vehemently opposed impeachment. There was a purely professional reason for that. As a young lawyer, she was on the Richard Nixon impeachment staff in 1974, responsible for a memo that outlined the articles of impeachment and what merited the process.
“I defended and stood by him because I thought the impeachment process was wrong,” she says. “But that wasn’t the necessary answer to what I would do with my marriage. It was not to me the same thing. I still had to decide whether I wanted to stay in the marriage, whether I thought it was worth saving. We saw a counselor. Painful, painful discussions.”
Bill calls those counseling sessions the hardest things he’s gone through in his life, calling them “necessary” because Hillary deserved it and Chelsea deserved it. As he reiterates his remorse and regret again, he surprisingly includes Monica Lewinsky in the list of people to whom he owes amends.
“I feel terrible about the fact that Monica Lewinsky’s life was defined by it, unfairly I think,” he says. “Over the years I watched her trying to get a normal life back again. But you gotta decide how to define normal.”
Asked about the fact that her decision to stay with Bill has been a talking point that has defined everything from the women’s movement and gender wars to the 2016 election for nearly 20 years, Hillary is even-handed about the whole thing.
“I made a decision to stay with my husband,” she says. “Look, I think that some people thought I made the right decision and some people thought I made the wrong decision. I have gotten both affirmation and criticism for the decision I made. That was true from the very beginning of deciding that. It’s a funny time we live in. Public opinion shifts and people say, ‘Oh, it’s noble she stayed in the marriage’ to ‘oh, it’s so incomprehensible she stayed in the marriage.’ There are forces at work in society that people are working out themselves.”
As for Bill? “I’m grateful she made the decision to stick it out. God knows the burden she paid for that.”