Books & Culture

A review of “Hillary” (Nanette Burstein, executive producer; Hulu, 243 minutes, TV-MA)

Hillary on Hulu

It is ironic that the former secretary of state fought for much of her life trying to prove that being a woman didn’t hold her back, but when it came to running for president she couldn’t forget the fact herself.

After two failed presidential runs, many Americans might expect Hillary Clinton to fade gracefully into the background, her political life now history. With her recent public endorsement of Joe Biden and the release of a highly glamorized documentary series, however, Hillary is trying to claw her way back into the limelight. For what ends, we don’t yet know.

Hillary,” the four-part documentary created by Nanette Burstein and aired on Hulu attempts to put Hillary Clinton into context for a generation that did not grow up with her as their First Lady. Collective memories are short—when many today think of Hillary Clinton they picture her 2016 run for president, her time as Secretary of State, or maybe her 2008 run for the Democratic nomination, but the documentary puts Hillary in the context of over 50 years of cultural transformation. Each episode pivots back and forth from the presumed end of Hillary Clinton’s political career to the beginning. It weaves a narrative of a woman who was “too right too soon,” and who stood up for women’s rights when most women saw their options as limited.

The documentary features segments of more than 2,000 hours of behind-the-scenes campaign footage, some of the 35 hours Burstein spent interviewing Hillary, as well as interviews from Hillary’s friends, family, supporters, friendly journalists, and campaign staff. Missing are interviews of any Hillary opponents or critics.

Overall the documentary was as favorable towards Hillary Clinton as possible without coming across as a self-serving inauthentic campaign ad—not that one should rule out that this very well could be a future campaign ploy. Whether you voted for Hillary or not the series offers a compelling narrative, one that entices the viewer into believing that they know Clinton better. For the close observer, however, the veneer of authenticity wears thin, as when Clinton refuses to talk about her marital issues and when she avoids eye contact with the camera when talking about why the film crew was shut out of her hotel room on the 2016 campaign night.

Clinton as Feminist Icon

The biggest theme in the series is something that was forgotten or ignored about Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election: that she is a radical feminist. Hillary’s campaign staff admit that running next to Bernie in the primaries made Clinton look like a moderate.

The series goes to great lengths to remind younger generations of Hillary’s radical, groundbreaking past. Each episode opens with still portraits of Hillary through the years as the punk anthem, “Take Back the Power” plays. At the beginning of the documentary, Hillary explains that she was born in a classic post-World War II “Leave it to Beaver” upbringing. “I never knew a woman who worked outside of the home except for my teacher and librarian,” she said.

Hillary Clinton’s life moves in tandem with the second wave of feminism. The documentary paints a portrait of Hillary’s life-long struggle to demonstrate that women are equal to men and the push-back that this elicits.

The documentary lingers on Hillary’s feminist awakening while in college and how Hillary gained national attention for her impromptu politically charged remarks at her college graduation. Hillary only became more enmeshed in the Feminist movement while attending Yale Law School. One of Hillary’s classmates said that there was no way to be at Yale Law School in 1969 without being part of the second wave of feminism.

The documentary then describes the battles Hillary had to fight as the unconventional wife of the attorney general and then governor of Arkansas: from being maligned for not changing her last name to Clinton to being discounted because she worked full time as a lawyer and refused to dress the part of matron.  “Every battle we fought at Yale abstractly, she was actually fighting,” Nancy Gertner, Hillary’s Yale classmate said.

Hillary may have been “too right too soon,” but now she is not right enough for those taking over the Democratic Party.

According to the way Hillary tells it, these types of battles never ended. She describes the misogyny she faced while running for president, being told to smile more, people bringing “Iron my shirt” signs to her rally or John Edwards commenting on her jacket during the 2008 debate.

Hillary is continuously portrayed in the documentary as a feminist icon, the leader of the 1992 “Year of the Woman.” Burstein even inserts footage of Liza Minnelli singing at the 65th Oscars, “Its ladies’ day at last . . . Hillary will lead the way.”

As first lady, Hillary famously spoke at the United Nation’s Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing declaring “women’s rights are human rights.” Hillary gained more sympathy from women generally after Bill Clinton announced he’d had an affair with Monica Lewinsky.

After serving in the Senate there was tremendous pressure put on Hillary to run for president. One of her Yale classmates stated that she and Hillary’s other friends believed that Hillary would be letting the movement down if she didn’t run. Little time is spent on Hillary’s bitter primary battle with Barack Obama except to make the point that everyone was so enamored with the idea of electing the first black president that the thought of electing the first woman president paled in comparison.

It wasn’t until her concession speech to Obama that people seemed to wake up to the fact that Hillary herself was making history. In her speech, Hillary said that from now on it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories and unremarkable to think that a woman could be president. Now the glass ceiling has about 18 million cracks in it, she said.

The documentary shows that as Secretary of State, Hillary was one of the most respected and most powerful women in the world. However, by the time Hillary ran against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 democratic primary her reputation had been severely marred in scandal and controversy. Further, next to Sanders, Hillary looked anything but radical. When asked if she would give free college to all or get rid of ICE Hillary couldn’t answer in the affirmative, “I suffer from the responsibility gene,” she said, “I don’t like to say I’m going to do something that I know is not doable.”

Hillary was exasperated at not getting as much attention or credit as she believed she deserved for being the first woman to win the Iowa caucuses, because everyone was too busy being surprised at how well Sanders had done.

It is ironic that Hillary fought for much of her life trying to prove that being a woman didn’t hold her back, but when it came to running for president she couldn’t forget the fact herself. When Donald Trump accused Hillary of playing the woman card she leaned into it, making her campaign slogan, “I’m with Her,” and stating at one campaign rally,

“Well, if fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in!”

Should be Rejected by the #MeToo Movement 

The documentary ends with Hillary Clinton trying to find a silver lining to her 2016 election loss. She says that even though she lost she was pleased with the reaction that came from it, the fact that a record number of women won seats in Congress and millions of women gathered to march in opposition to Donald Trump. She believes that 100 years from now her loss will be seen as an historic turning point, the thing that lit the fuse.

There are a few problems with Hillary’s hope. Though she is admittedly a leader of second-wave feminism, as the documentary makes abundantly clear, it was a new wave of feminism or really a new wave of liberalism that took to the streets the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated president, a wave that does not quite accept Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Amy Chozic, a New York Times reporter, saw a generational divide during the democratic primaries between young women and their mothers. While older women loved Hillary their daughters had no reflexive gender allegiance. Instead many of them supported Bernie Sanders.

While Hillary tried to claim the #MeToo Movement, it does not claim her. Their mantra, “Believe all women” sounds sour when applied to a woman who helped protect her husband against the consequences of numerous allegations of sexual harassment.

Further, the documentary conveniently neglects to mention the Clintons’ disturbing relationship with either convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein or accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Apart from being a major fundraiser for the Clintons and Obamas, Weinstein threw Hillary Clinton a birthday party in 2000 when she was running for New York Senator and was the one originally set to produce the Hillary documentary. Several people have come forward claiming they warned the Clinton campaign about Weinstein’s reputation. Hillary’s connection to the real catalyst for the #MeToo movement doesn’t quite fit with Berstein’s feminist icon theme.

How can Hillary credibly talk about topics like “toxic masculinity” and the innate privilege of white men while being married to Bill Clinton, a man who took over a dozen rides on Epstein’s Lolita Express and has been accused himself of sexual assault or harassment by four women, not to mention his admitted infidelity? Obviously staying in the marriage was a political calculation that Hillary believed would come out in her favor, but this is akin to the calculation #MeToo advocates made when considering whether to declare “I’m with Her.”

There is no doubt that this new form of feminism and identity politics has come out of second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution, but the two are not the same. The divide between Hillary’s incrementalist approach and the radical bent of identity politics was made clear in the documentary when Hillary Clinton, a strong civil rights advocate, was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protestors during one of her campaign rallies. Metrics on the Left have shifted and Hillary did not move quickly enough to the left for many of these groups.

Anything short of complete support for a criminal justice revolution, sanctuary cities, and reparations is not woke enough. Yet in the documentary, Hillary offered no apology for her remarks in the 1990s about “superpredators” or the 1994 crime bill. In fact, this is one of the moments Hillary gets most defensive in her interview with Burstein. “I was always . . . trying to explain things that people didn’t want to hear,” she tells the filmmaker.

This is unforgivable for the increasingly extreme Left. Hillary may have been “too right too soon,” but now she is not right enough for those taking over the Democratic Party.

In the end, Hillary’s assessment of her own career and success might be a bit optimistic. It does not seem that Hillary put as many cracks in the glass ceiling as she imagined. Yes, there were a record number of women who entered the 2020 Democratic primaries, but all were bested by two white men in their seventies.