Hillary Clinton in New York during her senate campaign in 2000
Hillary Clinton in upstate New York during her senate campaign in 2000 © Robert McNeely

What kind of president would Hillary Clinton make? Since she has already lived in the White House for eight years (1993-2001), we ought to have a surer feel for the prospect than for any previous incoming president. Yet America remains as bitterly divided in its view of her as any public figure since she came to prominence 24 years ago. It is hard to think of another name — Donald Trump included — whose mere mention can more quickly turn a placid dinner party into a shouting match. Everyone has a deeply held opinion. They just don’t often overlap.

“Hillary Clinton is an intensely private person — she gives away so little,” says Robert McNeely, who spent six years with the Clintons as the official White House photographer. “If she weren’t in politics, she could be a world-class poker player.” As Clinton admitted in her Philadelphia acceptance speech last week, she far prefers the “service” part of public service to the public dimension, which she sees as a necessary evil. In that regard — and many others — it is hard to think of two characters less alike than Bill and Hillary Clinton.

“Bill craves attention,” says McNeely, whose photographic book of Clinton’s years as first lady comes out in January. “Hillary really doesn’t care if people like her or not.”

Clinton answering questions about Whitewater, April 1994
Her first press conference as first lady, answering questions about Whitewater in the East Room of the White House, April 1994 © Robert McNeely

You know a person by the company she keeps, goes the saying. But Hillaryland is too large, and far too political, to trust any single portrait that emerges. The result is invariably impressionistic. It is hard to shake off the suspicion that whoever is talking to you is pushing a hidden agenda. Those who know won’t talk, goes the quip. And those who talk don’t know — particularly with Clinton.

Among those who know her well, only a handful spent as many hours in close proximity to the Clintons as McNeely. And while he was there, she barely noticed his presence. His job was to be unobtrusive. For six years, he was director of White House photography. He took black-and-white photos that he developed in a dark room in the White House basement, since closed following the move to digitalisation.

McNeely followed the first couple almost everywhere — not even the family’s private apartment was off-limits. He was one of a small handful to receive advance copies of the presidential schedule. There was almost no meeting from which he was debarred. The result is more than half a million photographs, taken between 1992 and 1998. “The only time my access was curtailed was during the Monica Lewinsky scandal,” he says. “The Clintons were worried that my pictures might be subpoenaed by Kenneth Starr [the special prosecutor]. I suspect the real reason was they didn’t want anyone to witness the shouting matches they were having.”

A moment of levity between Hillary Clinton and vice-president Al Gore
A moment of levity between Hillary Clinton and vice-president Al Gore (at right) in the Oval Office, as President Clinton speaks with aides, April 1994 © Robert McNeely

Each of his pictures tells a story. One of the most revealing shows a 1994 press conference with Hillary Clinton seated in the East Room facing the assembled media. It was her first such event since becoming first lady. She was told it might be her last.

The White House had been besieged by rumours about the death of Vince Foster, a Clinton family friend from Arkansas and presidential counsel, who took his life following revelations over the Clintons’ failed Whitewater property deal — and a swirl of related subplots. Among the journalists it’s possible to spot some big names, including Helen Thomas, the veteran reporter who covered every president since Dwight Eisenhower, and Andrea Mitchell, the news anchor married to Alan Greenspan, then US Federal Reserve chairman.

The first couple in a meeting about healthcare reform – or 'Hillarycare'
The first couple in a meeting about healthcare reform – or 'Hillarycare' – in the Roosevelt Room, c1993 © Robert McNeely

The first lady’s attempt to stop the firestorm dramatically backfired. Whitewater led to the appointment of Starr as special prosecutor, whose investigative peregrinations eventually chanced on that fateful semen-stained dress of a White House intern. The picture shows an earnest Clinton trying in vain to put a lid on a pressure cooker. But her husband’s evasions over his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky resulted in his impeachment — and the temporary breakdown of America’s most high-profile marriage.

“Those were tough years,” says McNeely. “The whole atmosphere in the White House turned paranoid.” A wounded Clinton reportedly threw crockery and ashtrays at her husband, often finding her target. She has faced innumerable press firing squads since then. Should she win in November, she will face many more. Should Bill Clinton thus become America’s first First Gentleman — or First Guy, as some have suggested — there will be as much amateur psychology, if not more, about the couple as there was in the 1990s. With the Clintons, the marital psychodrama is rarely far from the politics.

Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in San Diego, California
Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in Balboa Park, San Diego, California, October 16 1996 © Robert McNeely

Another picture, also from the early White House years, shows Clinton standing in the Roosevelt Room near her husband, who is seated with aides. Mandy Grunwald, a political adviser, and Michael Sheehan, are in the frame. They are working on her healthcare reform bill, whose subsequent demise on Capitol Hill in 1994 triggered the second-biggest crisis of the Clinton years. She is clutching a sheaf of papers while casually running her hands through her hair. At one level, the picture is unexceptional. At another, it depicts the shattering of a 200-year precedent. Clinton was the first first lady to take charge of a serious policy initiative — Hillarycare was her husband’s top legislative priority.

Clinton’s detractors, of whom there were many, had already bristled at her disregard for tradition. “I suppose I could have stayed at home and baked cookies,” she snapped during the 1992 campaign, thus offending the influential “stay-at-home Mom” vote, and legions of sexists. Though “Buy one Clinton, and get one free” was one of the campaign’s informal mottoes, the idea of Hillary taking an overtly political role in the White House only further inflamed her critics. They thus took special glee in Hillarycare’s defeat. But the pragmatic way in which she handled that humiliation revealed another side to her character. Much the same could be said 14 years later, when she dusted herself off after losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. She quickly fell in behind his candidacy and later agreed to be his secretary of state. “After Hillarycare failed, she did not sink into gloom, as Bill was prone to do at times,” says McNeely. “She dived into the next project with the same workaholic zeal. Nobody should underestimate how tough she is. There aren’t many men like her.”

Hillary Clinton having her hair and makeup done for a photo shoot
Having her hair and makeup done for a photo shoot for Elle magazine, May 1993 © Robert McNeely

Many of McNeely’s pictures show Clinton listening intently on the edge of presidential huddles — one on an MD80 plane during her husband’s 1996 re-election campaign. These, too, speak volumes. The president would happily allow Oval Office meetings to run on until the early hours. People would wander in and out. “Sometimes, people with no standing to the issue being discussed would just turn up and Bill would welcome them into his circle,” says McNeely. “It would infuriate the first lady.” Often, she would bring her husband’s rambling meetings to a close and force him to take a decision. It was she in 1988 who convinced him it was too early to run for president — they were both in their early forties. She also persuaded him in 1993 to hire David Gergen, a former Republican adviser, to bring perspective to a White House in disarray after the failure of healthcare reform.

“People say she is only able to run for the presidency because she is married to Bill Clinton,” says McNeely. “That could be true. But I can’t imagine Bill would have made it to the White House without Hillary.”

A trainer steadies Hillary Clinton’s shoulder as she fires a rifle
A trainer steadies Hillary Clinton’s shoulder as she fires a rifle at the Secret Service training centre in Beltsville, Maryland, October 4 1997 © Robert McNeely

One of most recent pictures in McNeely’s portfolio shows her on a campaign bus when she was running for a New York Senate seat in 2000. As first lady, this also broke precedent. Surrounded by reporters, she looks almost Zen-like. Is her expression a blank mask, or does it convey inner composure? For her by then lame-duck — though still popular — husband, the New York Senate campaign was something of a life-saver. Al Gore, the vice-president, who was running as the Democratic presidential nominee, pictured sharing a joke with Hillary, spurned the president’s help, possibly fatefully. (If Gore had won the Clinton home state of Arkansas, there would have been no need for that Florida recount.) President Clinton thus poured his energy into his wife’s campaign. “After the Lewinsky scandal broke, Gore never regained his respect for the president,” says McNeely. “But Hillary and Gore always got along really well. There was often a running banter between them.”

Over the next three months, Bill Clinton will play a key role in arguing for his wife’s historic bid. Speculation about his dicey health only rose last week when he gave his most personal address to date about the origins of their marriage. Though he had lost none of his rhetorical command, he looked gaunt and his hands shook at various points.

On the campaign trail with adviser Bruce Lindsey and Bill Clinton
On the campaign trail with adviser Bruce Lindsey, left and Bill Clinton, October 1996 © Robert McNeely

Clinton clearly enjoyed the celebrity glamour of the first lady role. Though she never paid much attention to her wardrobe — “What she chose to wear often seemed to be the last and least important decision of the day,” says McNeely — she liked it when others did. One of the pictures shows her being touched up for a shoot for Elle magazine. “They were adjusting her blouse and brushing a bit of rouge on her cheek and she seemed to be really loving it,” says McNeely. “I said: ‘You’re really good at this,’ and she just laughed.”

Another shows Clinton, trailed by Diana, Princess of Wales; Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue; and Katharine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post; at a breast cancer awareness event in the White House. Ralph Lauren is just in the frame. Clinton was in her element, says McNeely. “She sensed Diana was a little tongue-tied and she just did all the talking,” he says. “If you’ll forgive me for saying so, Diana wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. But she knew enough to know that it was better not to say too much.” Another photograph from this period shows the Clintons relaxing with the Blairs — the very pinnacle of Third Way power coupledom. Cherie Blair is kicking off her shoes, somewhat to the surprise of the Clintons.

Hillary Clinton with (from left) Ralph Lauren, Anna Wintour, Katharine Graham and Diana, Princess of Wales, September 1996
Hillary Clinton, foreground, in the White House’s Blue Room with (from left) Ralph Lauren, Anna Wintour, Katharine Graham and Diana, Princess of Wales, September 1996 © Robert McNeely

One of the most striking photographs is of a youthful-looking Clinton in 1992, on her husband’s first presidential campaign trail, holding a voter’s baby. She does not seem to notice it chewing on her sunglasses. An anxious onlooking parent seems unsure what to do. Even those most cynical about Clinton’s authenticity will concede her abiding interest in children’s rights — starting with her work for the Children’s Defence Fund in the 1970s.

After Hillarycare failed, she turned her attention to expanding children’s health insurance. That initiative did pass Congress. In 2007, I had to switch a one-to-one interview with Clinton into a telephone interview because I had to catch an urgent flight to New Delhi to do paperwork for my daughter’s adoption. Clinton asked where she was. I mentioned the name of the orphanage. “You mean the one behind civil lines in old Delhi?” she asked. “Yes, I’ve visited it.” She then spoke knowledgeably on the subject for several minutes.

The Clintons with Tony Blair and his wife Cherie
The Clintons with Tony Blair, UK prime minister, and his wife Cherie, before a state dinner in their honour, February 5 1998 © Robert McNeely

My favourite photograph — and the most telling — shows Clinton at the Secret Service firing range in Beltsville, Maryland. A trainer steadies her shoulder as she fires the sniper rifle at a target. You can just make out the haze of an exploding glass bottle at the other end of the range. “Hillary is secretly a tomboy,” says McNeely. “She loves this kind of stuff.” She also takes the preparation seriously.

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail for Bill Clinton, 1992
On the campaign trail for Bill Clinton, 1992 © Robert McNeely

I ask McNeely what Clinton’s years as first lady tell us about the kind of president she would be. McNeely evaluates what he sees as her core traits. “She is very quick to judge people,” he says. “If Bill senses someone doesn’t like him, he will spend hours trying to convert that person. Hillary doesn’t bother.” Second, her White House would be “highly feminised”. Her East Wing was a very female counterpoint to her husband’s overwhelmingly male West Wing. She has already pledged that half her cabinet will be female. McNeely says the calibre of her hires was generally higher. But she is also less Socratic. “She would spend a lot of time selecting the right people,” he says. “But my sense is that any aide who disagrees with her on the big subjects won’t last very long in the job.” Most importantly, she will always know more about her brief than anyone else. Grasp of detail will never be her weak point, though lack of an overarching vision has been. “There isn’t a person in the world who can outwork Hillary Clinton,” says McNeely. “Isn’t it funny that her opponent in this election is the laziest mind in the western world?”

Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US columnist and commentator. ‘The Making of Hillary Clinton’ is published in January by the University of Texas Press

Photographs: Robert McNeely; © 2017 by The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article