Hillary Clinton talks back in 1992 

The exclusive interview.

  • John Watson

Hillary Clinton was in her milieu: at the University of Arkansas Medical Center, at a press conference with Health Department Director Joycelyn Elders, talking about health, babies, money, and public policy. Holding up a pastel-colored booklet, Clinton announced a new program aimed at lowering Arkansas's infant mortality rate by getting pregnant women to prenatal checkups. Coupons in the book that are validated during monthly visits to a doctor can then be redeemed for discounts on milk and baby products.

It's clear that to change behavior you have to have either incentives or penalties, Clinton was saying. Well, we don't want penalties. We want people to feel good about their pregnancies and their babies. And so these incentives will be used."

The moment was vintage Hillary Clinton: the activist First Lady at the microphone, announcing a plan to benefit women and children — and along the way save some money. It was also grist for the election mill: The kind of scene Republicans have jumped on in the past couple of weeks in their attempts to portray Clinton as a radical feminist, a law-loving liberal bent on bringing government into families most personal decisions.

If, amid all the medical doctors present, there were also some Republican spin doctors, they probably weren't disappointed. Clinton did not hold back. "There will probably be a small group of people who no matter how hard one tries to offer incentives do not access health care," she was saying. "And so at some point we will also be tying — I hope we will be tying — the continued receipt of benefits from the government to fulfilling the health care requirement to one's own family."

She called the decision to link parents' responsibilities with welfare payments "the ultimate step" one necessitated by the needs to get all children adequate care and to keep medical costs down through prevention. "Obviously," she said, "we would like to see incentives broadly tried, but we would also like to see, where it is absolutely necessary, that final step taken; that one would not receive, for example, welfare benefits, without proof that one had immunized ones children or taken care of their other kind of health care needs."

If anyone had thought Hillary Clinton had toned down her talk or altered her agenda because of the month-long Republican attack, she made it clear she will not be stifled.

In an interview with the Arkansas Times immediately following the press conference, she made even more clear her views on the bashing she's taken from opponents.

Q. Here you are, back in Arkansas, talking about women, health care, and babies — issues you've been talking about here for years. At the same time, you're being attacked by your husband's opponents as being anti-family. Why have you not been more vocal in response to what they're saying about you?

A. "I'm not going to dignify those distortions and deliberate political hit jobs engaged in by Pat Buchanan and Rich Bond. It's clear what their agenda is, and from my perspective, the editorial writers — and there was a long article in The New York Times yesterday — have clarified completely what I've said, what I meant, and what my record is."

"I don't want to get into some kind of tit-for-tat argument with these people about Hillary Clinton. I know who I am. I know what I stand for. I know what I've done. And the people who I care about know as well, and I think that in the next month that word will make its way around the country. The campaign is not about me. It is about these issues that I've worked on for a very long time. And it is about who has the best plan for the people of this country the day after the election."

"I think there was a very deliberate strategy behind these Republican attacks, which was to distract attention from their failures, both in the past and in the future, to come forward with any sensible strategy for dealing with America's problems. To engage with them in some kind of tit-for-tat argument would be playing into their hands, which I have no intention of doing. I intend, in every way possible to keep my energy focused on what will make a difference to this country when Bill Clinton and Al Gore get elected."

"Because no matter what happens in the election, I'll be fine. I'm one of the lucky people in America. I mean, I'm healthy, I'm able to support myself, I can contribute to my family. Bill, and Chelsea and I will be just fine. That's not why Bill's running. And that's not what gets me up every day in this election. So I took those attacks as what they were meant to be, which is as a distraction and a diversion, and treated them in a way that I thought they deserved to be treated."

Q. How did it make you feel, after your work on these issues, to hear yourself described as anti-family?

A. "At first I was bewildered by it. I thought surely this has to be out of left field somewhere or out of right field, as the case may be. I didn't take it personally, because I viewed it for what it was, which was a crass, political manipulation aimed at distracting and diverting people from what was really at stake. The attacks on their face were absurd, and I thought to myself, Why are they saying this?"

"I mean, Barbara Bush wrote a book in which she highlighted the HIPPY [Home Instruction Program for Pre-School Youth] program and gave me credit for bringing it to Arkansas, as one of the best programs for children and families in this country."

"I introduced George Bush to the problems of infant mortality in this country, which I was amazed at having to do." "In 1989, I sat at a dinner in Charlottesville, Virginia with George Bush during the education summit, and I thanked him for the administration agreeing to go along with my husband and the governors on a goal to make children ready for school. It was something I'd worked really hard on and which I thought was so important. It would encompass prenatal care and Head Start, those kinds of issues. And in my thanking him I said, I view this as a very important step in dealing with our problems of infant mortality and child health issues."

"He said, 'What are you talking about,' "I said, 'You know, Mr. President, if you look at any list of advanced countries, were at the bottom depending which statistics you use, either 17th or 19th in infant mortality.' "He said, 'Hillary, our health care system is the envy of the world.' "I said, 'Sure, if you want a heart transplant. But not if you want your child to live to be one year old.' "He said, 'I just don't believe you.' "I said, 'All right, I will give you the statistics which show it.' "He said, 'Well, I won't believe your statistics.'

"I said, 'Fine. Get your own statistics, Mr. President. But you will see that what I'm telling you is absolutely true.' "The very next day he writes a note that says, 'Hillary was absolutely right.' We have a copy of the note. We could give you a copy in old George's handwriting. [A copy of the note reads: "Hillary — I was wrong on the figures. You were right!"]

"Now that's the good news about George Bush. I mean, the bad news was he didn't know anything about infant mortality. The good news was he listened to me and went to the trouble to find out. He then had a White House group empaneled to look at infant mortality and children's health issues. I was delighted by that. I really felt we were going to have a change from the denial and neglect of the Reagan years."

"In the summer of 1990 the report was leaked, because the White House had concluded that, yes, with a relatively small investment we could make a major dent in infant mortality and morbidity and low birth weight, et cetera, but there was no short term political gain in doing it so nothing would be done."

"Now that is my own personal experience with the good-guy, bad-guy, calloused, political approach of the Bush administration. They knew I was concerned about these issues for the right reasons. They have validated that. So this whole week of attacks and carrying on that you saw down in Houston, where the Republican Party was basically turned over to the Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell right-wing extremists is a sure sign of their bankruptcy, in my view, and we have to go beyond that."

Q. You obviously think the strategy will fail. Why?

A. "Well, number one; it's untrue. I mean you know you can't have a strategy premised on inaccuracies and distortions that is going to withstand scrutiny. Now if we had ignored it and editorial writers and others had just reprinted what the Republicans had said, then maybe they could have sold the big lie. But that didn't happen, and so I think, number one it will fail because it's untrue."

"Number two it will fail because it is not on the issues that are most important to the American people. The American people want to know which person running for President can do, a better job to help them and their family. And who has the best plan for getting that job done."

"I think that because they threw everything they could think of at Bill, at me, at Al, and even the President made a swipe at both opponents' wives at Tipper, and they're still 10 to 12 points behind in every poll, that shows that the American public, at least at this point in the campaign is saying, What does this have to do with whether or not I have a job? Or my family has health care? Or this country is going to be strong enough to compete in the world?"

Q. Do you see an element of sexism in what's happening?

"This is a really interesting question to me. I'm sure there is. But I can't quite sort it out in my own mind. I view it as a hit on working mothers. I view it as kind of an attack on what's happening in the lives of most Americans today, as we balance families and work responsibilities. And I don't know how to characterize that beyond what I just said."

Q. Do you ever feel caught in a clash of roles; the traditional versus some more contemporary expectations of women?

A. "I don't think about it quite like that, because this is my second time around on this. I mean, back in the late '70s, if you remember, people were saying, 'Oh my gosh, she's going to keep working. I can't believe it.' You know? This issue has been played out at every level except the presidential one."

"I haven't had questions like this in Bills last three campaigns. If he was running for the Senate or he was running for the governor of New York or California, these questions wouldn't be asked. So in a funny kind of way, the presidency is the last step to recognize the transition that has already occurred in both our private and public lives. And I think that's really what is going on here."

"It is a new time for the presidency to recognize the reality of people's lives. And it's not just about me. It's about not knowing there are scanners in grocery stores. I mean, it is the whole range of issues that have been kind of off the radar screen for the past 12 years. So I'm just a part of that."

This story originally appeared in print with the title, "The Exclusive Interview. Hillary Clinton Talks Back." On August 27, 1992.


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