Before her husband ran for president in 1992, Hillary Clinton had become an accomplished attorney and was widely known in Democratic policymaking circles as a successful children's advocate. She was a Yale-trained lawyer who had made partner in one of Arkansas's most prestigious law firms. But most Americans became acquainted with Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1992 as she defended her husband, Arkansas governor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, on the television show 60 Minutes.
Amidst charges of Bill's infidelity, Hillary Clinton accompanied her husband and announced to the nation that she was “not sitting here because I'm 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." She further declared, "If that's not enough for people, then heck, don't vote for him." But Americans did vote him, and in some respects, they voted for her as well.
For throughout the campaign, Bill Clinton had assured the nation that if they elected him, they would essentially get "two for the price of one." While Americans might have liked the gregarious, smooth-talking Bill Clinton, they were less sure about Hillary. Though her performance on 60 Minutes had saved her husband's candidacy, it placed her at the center of a national firestorm; supporters praised her strength and frankness, while detractors criticized her harshness and insensitivity to women who had "stood by their men."
Hillary Clinton further polarized public opinion during the 1992 campaign when she remarked, "I've done the best I can to lead my life. I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas." Though Clinton's comments are reminiscent of Sarah Polk's 1845 assertion that she would "neither keep house, nor make butter," Americans seemed less tolerant of such statements than their fellow citizens some 150 years earlier. Indeed, the press and Republicans accused her of belittling those women who had decided to stay home to bake cookies and have teas. Despite the best efforts of political opponents, Clinton’s comments did not sink her husband's candidacy. Instead, they resonated with many women who were trying to balance their own careers, that of their husbands', and family life. To these women, Clinton was not a militant feminist who should be attacked but a visible and vocal representative of the new American woman who was emerging in the financial and political worlds as a potent force.
The controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign was only the beginning of her run-ins with the media and her antagonists. Within days after moving into the White House, Clinton claimed an office in the West Wing and emerged as head of a task force looking into the feasibility of a nationalized health care system. Although Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalynn Carter had also tried to take on substantive roles in their husbands' administrations, neither assumed a role as public and as central to policy development as Clinton. This made her a political lightening rod, and many observers believe it was a strategic mistake to have placed her in such a politically charged situation.
But the health care issue was not the only contentious matter in which Clinton would involve herself. Even as political opponents decried the First Lady's policy-making role, she became embroiled in a number of other controversies. "Travelgate," Whitewater, the suicide of close friend and administration official Vince Foster, profits earned from a particular financial deal, the Paula Jones sex scandal, and dubious contacts between the White House and Treasury Department—all of these involved Clinton, in one way or another, and placed her in a hot seat that never seemed to cool off.
Hillary Clinton was not blind to the criticism and began to retool both her image and her role in her husband's administration. By 1995, she had moved out of the policymaking spotlight of major domestic reform, choosing instead to focus on the rights of women and children. She discussed parenting in her book It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us. She addressed the importance of education in improving the lives of women in the developing world during a 12-day trip to Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Believing that "where women prosper, countries prosper," she discussed the benefits of female-run small businesses in Chile and Nicaragua. But it was at the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women, held in Beijing, that Clinton asserted herself as an advocate for the world's women and children. She attacked the policies of certain countries—including those of host nation China—that violated the human rights of women and children. These efforts brought her international acclaim.
At home, however, controversy continued to swirl. In 1996, missing records from Clinton’s law firm, which had been subpoenaed by a special prosecutor, were found in a storage area of the White House living quarters. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, suspecting a cover-up, subpoenaed her to discuss the recently found records before a grand jury—making her the first First Lady to testify before such a body. Clinton’s problems would continue to mount; by January 1998, she was telling the world that the Monica Lewinsky scandal was simply the work of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" that had opposed her "husband since the day he announced for president." Ultimately, however, it became clear that the president had lied about his relationship with Lewinsky not only to his lawyers, administration officials, and to the nation, but to his wife and child as well. As further charges about Bill's sexual licentiousness became public and impeachment proceedings became a grim reality, the First Lady endured the scandal and again "stood by her man," although from several steps away.
Even as Hillary Clinton worked to save her husband's presidency and his legacy, she was carving out a future for herself, becoming the first First Lady to run for and win public office. In 1999, she explained her reason for wanting to become a United States senator from New York: "I want independence. I want to be judged on my own merits. Now for the first time I am making my own decisions. I can feel the difference. It's a great relief."
Although Clinton courted further controversy when announcing her candidacy, the job of senator, unlike the position of First Lady, involved responsibilities that were more clearly defined. Indeed, in 1997, she commented on the amorphous nature of the role she had held for five years: "Being first lady is a very different position than I've ever had before....I've always had jobs and worked for a living. I'm here, as everyone else in the White House is here, because of one person, the president. It was bewildering to me and has taken a while to get used to." Though she may have "gotten used to" becoming First Lady, Clinton never embraced the role in quite the same way as her predecessors. Her love of policy planning and her desire to be a major government player were qualities that Americans had seen in First Ladies before, but never to the depth and breadth exhibited by Hillary Clinton. Some welcomed her decision to break new ground as a First Lady, but others abhorred the idea and wanted her to pursue the more traditional duties and obligations associated with being the president's wife.
Although she had never lived in New York, Clinton sought and won the Democratic nomination to replace the retiring incumbent senator, fellow Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in 2000. To acquaint herself with the state and to allow its voters to become acquainted with her in a new role, Clinton embarked on a “listening tour” of all of New York’s many upstate urban and rural counties, along with the more familiar New York City and its suburbs. When popular New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination because of health problems, Clinton faced Representative Rick Lazio in the general election, handily defeating him by 55 percent to 43 percent.
Arguably the most famous member of Congress from her first day in office in January 2001, Clinton eschewed the spotlight in favor of hard work on legislation as a way of showing her colleagues that she was more than a celebrity senator. Clinton did, however, publish Living History in 2003, a best-selling memoir focused mainly on her formative and early professional years and her nearly two decades-long tenure as First Lady of Arkansas and then of the United States. She was reelected to a second term in 2006 against Yonkers mayor John Spencer by 67 percent to 31 percent.
Clinton had devoted most of her first term in the Senate to working hard within the body, often co-sponsoring bills with Republicans as well as Democrats. Her truncated second term was mostly spent campaigning for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Service in the Senate traditionally has been a leading springboard for a presidential candidacy but it also forces one to cast votes on many controversial issues. One that later came to haunt Clinton was her 2002 vote to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force to topple the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. In the mid-2000s, the war became increasingly unpopular, especially among Democrats, when it settled into stalemate and none of the expected weapons of mass destruction that Saddam supposedly had been stockpiling were found.
Clinton entered the 2008 Democratic nominating contest as the strong favorite over a field of less well-known candidates. But one of her opponents, freshman Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, rallied a coalition uniting new voters eager to elect a young and inspiring African American as president with black voters and narrowly defeated Clinton for the nomination. Conceding defeat in late June, Clinton reassured women that “although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it”—the number of votes she received in her party’s presidential primaries that year.
Clinton’s effort to become the first woman president in 2008 foundered in part because of the greater enthusiasm for Obama. In addition, those who voted against her because they did not want a woman in the office outnumbered those who voted for her because they did. Clinton’s flawed campaign strategy also contributed to her defeat. Convinced that she had to emphasize strength and other qualities traditionally associated with men over warmth and other qualities traditionally associated with women, she did not capitalize on the distinctive advantages a woman candidate might have, especially in the more liberal Democratic Party. Concerned that voters would confuse flexibility with weakness, for example, Clinton refused to recant her 2002 Senate vote to authorize the war in Iraq, which by then had become overwhelmingly unpopular among Democratic voters.
After the election, President-elect Obama recruited Clinton to serve as secretary of state. She an active diplomat and world traveler, earning widespread praise for her performance in the office. In one major decision, Clinton strongly urged the president to launch the attack against the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was thought, but not known, to be hiding. The attack was successful, and bin Laden was killed. Clinton stepped down as secretary at the end of Obama’s first term, wrote a second memoir, Hard Choices (2014), about her tenure as head of the state department, and prepared to launch a second campaign for the presidency in 2016.
In her second bid for the presidency Clinton decided to emphasize rather than downplay her gender, arguing in campaign speeches that “one of my merits is I’m a woman, and I think that makes a big difference in today’s world.” Clinton wove women’s issues such as paid leave for new mothers and equal pay for women employees into most elements of her campaign speeches. Although as in 2008 younger women supported her opponent in the 2016 nominating contest (this time, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont), older women strongly backed her, enabling Clinton to run more strongly overall among women than men against Sanders in every primary by an average of 11 percentage points. Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination for president and chose Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia as her vice-presidential running mate.
In the general election contest against Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, certain aspects of Clinton’s service as secretary of state haunted her candidacy, notably her improper use of a private email server and her hesitancy in responding to a mob’s fatal attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Clinton won the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes but Trump prevailed narrowly in enough large southern and Midwestern states to defeat her in the Electoral College by 304 to 227.
After her defeat in the 2016 presidential election, Clinton started a political action organization, Onward Together, to focus on civic engagement and progressive values.