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An Exclusive Interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton, First Lady MAG
Nadine: What has been your most memorable time at the White House?
Hillary Rodham Clinton: That is such a hard question to answer, because there are so many memorable moments, starting with the very first time you come in. (We're not permitted to come in until after the president is inaugurated). It's so exciting, but it's also very scary because you don't know what to expect. So, I've had so many different moments here, moments of great joy and sadness and what I consider to be very historic times that I just can't pick one out. Every day you live here, you live with such a sense of history and awe and joy about having the privilege to be here that most days, and most moments, end up being memorable in one way or another.
Julia: What can teens do to preserve America's historic heritage?
HRC: Well, that's an especially good question, given what we're doing here in the White House to promote saving America's treasures.
Recently, I had a wonderful trip through Baltimore, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, pointing out places that were well known and places that were not very well known.
In every community there is a place or monument, or someone's records, that can be saved because they tell us not only about our past but also something about our future, and point us in a certain direction.
As part of history classes, extracurricular activities, and just as an individual interest, young people should find out what is in their own community and visit.
I've often thought that we don't pay enough attention to where we live unless we have someone visiting and we show our visitors around. But we should do that for ourselves. And I would hope that every teenager learns more about his community and tries to be involved in some project to save something.
We're going to be announcing a project in the fall, which will be, "Your History is Our History," because we also think that young people should interview, as you are, people in their families and in their communities to get a better sense of what's happened in the past and the struggles and sacrifices that people have made. You learn more about what life was like before and what kind of lessons they can draw from that.
Nadine: As First Lady, you've traveled extensively throughout the 50 states. In what specific ways do we all share the same values and in what way have our regional differences and backgrounds divided us?
HRC: Well, that's another question I've thought a lot about. Certainly, as diverse a nation as we are, there are differences. Just in the short time I was on the Treasures Tour, I went to Harriet Tubman's home in Auburn, New York, where I met with African-Americans who were trying to save that treasure, and then I went to western New York where I met with people from the Iroquois Nation and talked with them about their traditions. They all have many of the same experiences as Americans in common, and have a lot of the same sense of what it means to be an American, and wear the same clothes and eat the same fast foods, but they have differences in how they see the world and what their experiences have been.
What I want to do, and what the president has been trying to do with his race initiative, is to encourage people to celebrate our unity as a nation and be proud of what binds us together as Americans, and at the same time respect our differences and understand more about what makes people from different backgrounds think or act a certain way that wouldn't be your own experience.
So, as I travel I see many examples where we have much more in common than, sometimes, we give ourselves credit for, but there are differences we should respect and honor.
Everyone doesn't have to wear the same clothes and eat the same food and celebrate the same holidays and go to the same religious services to be an American, but we do have to recognize that, as Americans, we're bound together by the common ideals and founding principles in our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence. We've been through an amazing historic experience as we've tried to bring people together to live in harmony with each other across dividing lines.
Julia: As a teenager, what advice did your parents give you that you found most important or helpful?
HRC: My parents always stressed the importance of education, working hard in school and learning as much as possible.
They also encouraged me to value myself and believe in myself and do what I thought was right for me, not follow the crowd or be influenced by the fashion of the day. My mother always told me that every day I had a choice, whether I was going to be the actor in my own life or a bit player in somebody else's performance. I had to make my mind up how I wanted to live and that I then had to try to do what was right for me. I think that is still good advice today. I believe that certainly there isn't any more important investment that anyone can make than in education. And individuals, particularly young women, have to be true to themselves and find what is best for their lives and make the decisions that will enable them to pursue their interests. We should all be supporting young people more than I think we do, as you navigate this period toward adulthood, and give you more ways to learn about what interests you, like The 21st Century, by giving you a chance to write and interview. It's really saying, "We have a lot of faith in you. We think that you've got something to contribute," and I'd like to see more opportunities like that for young people.
Nadine: When you were a teenager, what was your biggest fear?
HRC: You know, I can't really remember. I think that I had fears about natural disasters or nuclear war, or something happening to my family. I don't know that I had any unique fears; it was more what kids worry about as they grow up.
Julia: As a mother, what do you perceive are your strengths and weaknesses?
HRC: I don't know. You'd probably have to ask my daughter. I just tried to do the best I knew how, and I think that it's such a challenge for any of us who are mothers or fathers. The vast majority of parents try to do the best they can, given what they were given as children, how they were raised and what they understand about themselves and the world. But no matter how hard you try, you're going to make mistakes.
That's why I think that parents and children have to develop a sense of forgiveness and support for each other. I remember when Chelsea was a baby, one night she was crying and crying (I talk about this in my book), and I didn't know how to comfort her, and I finally said to her, "I've never been a mother before, and you've never been a baby before, we're just going to have to learn how to do this together."
Well, certainly as your child grows, you have to keep adjusting that relationship because how you treat a two-year-old is not how you treat a twelve-year-old or an eighteen-year-old. But it's hard for parents, because we want so much to do what is right and sometimes we don't always know; we think we do and we're trying very hard, but it may not be right for our child for these times.
And, certainly, for parents who have more than one child, unlike me, you can't treat any child the same as any other child because each has a different personality and what works in terms of parenting for one child with a certain temperament may not work with another child in the same family of the same gene pool.
So, it's a challenge constantly to try to be as alert and open and flexible and knowledgeable about yourself, about your child, about circumstances, to do the best job you can. And I think everybody has to relax a little bit and try to be understanding of each other.
It's always remarkable how, as you go through stages of development, you do understand each other a little better, and as young people get older and think what it would be like to be a parent, they also have a little more sensitivity toward what their own parents went through.
Nadine: Who have your role models been?
HRC: Well, when I was growing up, I didn't really know any women who worked, other than my teachers, the librarian and a few people like that. So, I didn't admire one individual as much as I admired characteristics of people, people who were resilient and courageous in the face of whatever life threw their way, whether it was an illness or some other tragedy.
And then, as I got older and I learned more about the kinds of contributions women like Eleanor Roosevelt had made, I grew to admire a lot of women, because of what they'd done with their lives. So, I can't say that I had one role model, but I can say that I really learned a lot by not only watching and following the women I personally knew, but also reading about the lives of women I never had the chance to meet, but whose lives and choices I thought were either brave or admirable.
Julia: What is a myth about you or about White House life that you would like to dispel?
HRC: I think that certainly from the outside, people see the White House as a mysterious place. It's a place of history and certainly of importance, and it symbolizes our democracy. But it's hard to even imagine, until you live here, what it's like. I'd like to help people understand that my husband and I have tried to make the White House as accessible to people as possible so that it doesn't have a forbidding, formal image in people's minds, but a welcoming one, so people feel it is the people's house and they are invited whenever the occasion arises.
We've certainly increased the numbers of people invited here for events of all kinds, because I think that in today's world it's important for people to feel as connected as possible with their government or with their president, and this house symbolizes that for many.
So, although we obviously can't invite every American, we take every chance we can to invite as many Americans as possible, and the number of tourists has increased. The large events we've tried to have and the number of people who have been invited to something, I hope, sort of destroys the myth of it being a forbidding place.
Nadine: How can young people educate themselves about what media reports are real and what are just allegations or rumors?
HRC: You know, that's very hard, and it's getting harder because there are so many sources of information. It certainly seems to be the case that many journalists and reporters, or people with access to the Internet, feel compelled to put anything out there that will get them attention.
I think it's becoming harder and harder for the average person to wade through all of the information, to try to figure out what they believe and what they don't, and what could be partially true and what's untrue. I think it's going to get worse, so I'm very concerned about this.
In a democracy like ours, where people have to make the majority of decisions about how they're going to be governed (either by voting or by supporting other actions at the local, state, and federal level), it's going to be very difficult for people to make good decisions if they can't believe the information that they've been given. I guess it really requires a lot of work because you have to read or view a lot of different sources and then try to make sense of it. I don't think the average person has time for that; if I didn't know things firsthand and I were just following the news from what is reported, I would be totally bewildered and confused much of the time.
And if I were working and raising my family and involved in my community, how would I ever have time to read a bunch of newspapers, get news off the Internet and watch the nightly news and then say, "Okay, ten people said this, and eight people said that, and I think the eight people are more right than the ten people and therefore this is what I believe"?
So, I'm really worried about what's going to happen. There's so much stuff, for example, on the Internet that has no editing, no fact checking, which can sound good, and can convince you at first reading, but it's not true.
I hope journalists will realize they are undermining their own profession by not policing it better and not giving people ways of arriving at accurate information. If journalists don't perform that function, then I think people will see it as just entertainment. They won't take it seriously and won't use it as a basis for making decisions, which undermines the journalistic enterprise for the future.
So, I think it poses a lot of very serious questions about how we're going to run our democracy because over all these years, I've seen so many things printed and said that I know for a fact are not true. It just becomes so overwhelming - such an enormous pile of factoids and allegations that are out there - that I worry that people will just turn away from the political process and the democratic process and will say, "Who can believe any of this? I don't want to follow it; I'm not interested in it." They stop voting, stop caring, and I don't think that's good for our country. This is something we have to work on.
Julia: Have you ever pulled a practical joke in the White House? Is there anything humorous or funny that has happened in the White House?
HRC: Oh, yes, both by intention and unintentionally. We do a lot of surprise parties and surprise events and occasions around here. The best one that was ever pulled on me was in 1993. I arrived back at the White House one night after having been out working on health care reform and the house was dark. I got out of the car and one of the guards said there'd been a power outage and I was going to have to find my way into the House without any lights. I thought that was really odd because I know there are extra transformers, but I thought Okay. So, I found my way in and one of the women who worked for me met me and said, "I'm going to take you up to the second floor because all the lights are out, even in the elevator," and she had a candle.
It turned out they had planned this elaborate surprise party. I did not have a clue. They had rented costumes, and told people to come in costumes. They knew that Dolly Madison was one of my favorite predecessors, and so they cooked up this Dolly Madison costume with a wig that they made me put on. It was really a great night; we had a wonderful time.
We like to have a lot of parties and a lot of jokes. When my husband has his birthday, the people who work for him (like the medical office and the Secret Service and people in the West Wing) sometimes act out funny skits and give him gag gifts in front of hundreds of people.
So, we try to keep a light atmosphere and to keep people's morale and enthusiasm up, because working here is very hard. The hours are very long; the responsibility is rather intense, as the outside pressures and stresses are constant and never go away.
So, one of the things we try to do is to humanize it and make it fun and give people some laughs and humor from time to time.
Nadine: If you could change something about yourself, what would it be?
HRC: I don't know. I think I would like to know more about the world and what happens. I'd like to have more time in the day, and be able to do all the things that I am working on that I hope will help people. I would like to be able to do all the things that I'm still working on and that I care about. So that would mean I'd have to sleep less, so I'd like to change that about myself - the number of hours I need for sleep, so I would have even more hours in the day to work and be involved and meet and spend time with people like you.
Julia: In what ways is Chelsea like you and in what ways is she like the president?
HRC: I don't talk about Chelsea so I can't answer that question directly, but I can tell you that she's had a great first year at Stanford and has made a lot of friends and in that way she's very much like her father, who makes friends everywhere he goes.
And she's really having a great time with her life. And I guess as a mother, my hope is that no matter what she decides to do, she'll always be as happy as she is right now.
Nadine: As a founder of my school's substance-free club, I've taken a position contrary to that of many of my peers. What techniques have you used to stand up for something you believe in when it goes against public opinion?
HRC: Is this a club against drug and alcohol abuse?
Nadine: Yes - and tobacco.
HRC: Good for you. First of all, you have to do what you believe is right, and that often is very hard. Sometimes even your friends don't understand and make fun of you or give you a hard time. But you've got to live with yourself and, at the end of the day, what's most important is that you've been true to yourself. And that's advice from the ancient Greeks, and it's as good today as it was then.
I think it's also important, though, to be sure that you're communicating effectively with your friends and your fellow students.
And I've learned over the years (because there are a lot of things I feel very strongly about) that you have to be careful not to come on too strong about what you care about. Oftentimes it's not as effective to be really adamant about something as to be matter-of-fact and humorous and constantly supportive, so you can help people make very hard choices.
For a lot of young people, the peer pressure is so intense - they want so much to be popular and liked and not left out - that just preaching at them or coming up with a million statistics isn't as helpful or mind-changing as maybe just being there for them or providing an opportunity for alternative activities that they can feel a part of and accepted in, so that they don't have to be pressured into using drugs, alcohol or tobacco.
So, believing what you believe - and standing up for it - is critical. Then find ways of communicating your strong beliefs that will be effective with people (and not just turn them off), so they don't feel like you're judging them as much as that you're concerned about them - and you want to help them understand the consequences of choices they make now.