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Hillary Clinton talks politics and future

From the moment Americans met her 12 years ago, it was clear she was a woman to be reckoned with. Smart, tough, ambitious, she seemed tailor-made for the world of politics. Hillary Clinton speaks with NBC's Katie Couric.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

As a candidate's wife, then as first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, never did seem comfortable on the sidelines. From the moment Americans met her 12 years ago, it was clear she was a woman to be reckoned with. Smart, tough, ambitious, she seemed tailor-made for the world of politics. So it should come as no surprise that the title senator fits her like a glove.

It's springtime in Washington. The monuments of the nation's capital are framed by the cherry blossoms. But like the blossoms themselves, this serene impression is fleeting, and fragile. It's always political season in this town, and this year the skies look angrier and more turbulent than ever.

Washington is gripped by the political equivalent of war, and one of the Democrats' not-so-secret weapons is the junior senator from New York. Just as Hillary Clinton is hitting the stump and hitting the Republicans, the paperback version of her best-selling autobiography "Living History" is hitting the bookstores.

We spoke at the Clintons' home in Chappaqua, New York, a suburb of New York City.

Couric: “In the afterward to your paperback version of your book, you deplore the partisan atmosphere we've seen in Washington. ‘Too often,’ you write, ‘ideology and partisanship, not evidence or value, dictate policy choices.’ But it seems at times you yourself were as partisan as many Republicans. So aren't you being slightly hypocritical?”

Clinton: “Maybe. You know I hadn't thought about it like that. Because of course I think I've put forth evidence and facts. I mean I think that when you talk about the increasing deficit, and you say their economic theory is not going to work, is that a statement or fact or is it a statement of partisanship?”

Many Republicans would say there are few politicians more partisan than the former first lady. 

In fact, many Democrats have urged Senator John Kerry to choose her as his running mate to appeal to guarantee enthusiastic support among hard-core Democrats. On Wednesday, the two senators campaigned for the first time together in New York. But now it's official. Hillary Clinton says that is as close as we'll ever come to seeing a Kerry-Clinton ticket.

Couric: “If John Kerry called you tomorrow, and said, 'Hi' -- whatever he calls you -- 'Senator, Hillary, I'd like you to be my vice president?'"

Clinton: I'd say, 'John, I really can't do that. And I will help you, and support you in every way possible.'”

Couric: ‘”But Hillary, the party really needs you.’"

Clinton: “Well, you know, I don't think that will happen. I made it clear I don't want that to happen. And what my answer will be, no, if it does happen. I'm not prepared to do that.“

Couric: “When you hear that people say, she can't really be supporting John Kerry. Because if he wins, that screws up her political future."

Clinton: “You know, people make a lot of money talking about me, don't they? They just get on those shows, and they talk away. There's nothing I can do. And that's one of the great lessons I try to convey in my book, which my mother implanted in me as a young girl.  Is you can either be an actor in your own life, or a reactor in somebody else's.”

Couric: “Do you think it would be appealing to you to be President of the United States? I'm asking a hopeless question...”

Clinton: “It's not the way I think. I never thought I would end up being the Senator from New York. I never thought that the long haired, bearded guy I married in law school would end up being President. I don't think like that.”

Whatever her aspirations, these days she seems to be the life  of the party -- the Democratic Party. And at times she's received like a rock star. She works on economic development in upstate New York, gives foreign policy and civil rights speeches, shakes hand after hand, signs book after book.

Clinton: “For me it feels like I'm doing everything I possibly can do. I also feel strongly that not only do I have first and foremost, my responsibility to New York, but I do want to help elect Democrats.”

Yet, much to her dismay, she's also used to help elect Republicans.

Couric: “You're used to galvanize your opposition.”

Clinton: “That's right.”

Couric: “That can be weird.”

Clinton: “And, you know, I've had some of my colleagues now in the Senate whom I've gotten to know and work with, who almost sheepishly say, well, you know, we're sending out another one of those really mean letters about you because you raise so much money for us. Well they see it as part of the political game And I understand that. But it's a little bit disconcerting because we do know each other as people now. We didn't before.”

Couric: “You do have a lot of fans, and a lot of…”

Clinton: “Un-fans… whatever that is.”
Couric: “Critics. And do you think you've changed any minds?”

Clinton: “I think now that I've been a senator and on my own for three years in the public eye, where I'm judged for what I do and what I say, people can draw their own conclusions more accurately, I believe, than they could from a distance in the White House.”

But when she first arrived on Capitol Hill, it was a rocky start. At a benefit concert for 9/11 victims at New York's Madison Square Garden in November, 2001, Senator Clinton was booed by the assembled firefighters and police officers.

Couric: “And one report said you had tears in your eyes as you came off that stage.”

Clinton: “Well, I felt terrible. Because for so many of them, it was a chance to, for the first time since September 11th, just to let loose. And, you know, I didn't take it personally. I took it as a sign that I had a lot of work to do.”

Couric: “But it had to hurt your feelings.”

Clinton: “No, it did, it did in the sense that it just showed me that, you know, there was a lot of pain.”

By last week, some of those jeers had turned to cheers. New York Fire Department and Firefighter Union officials praised her for securing an $81 Million grant for post 9/11 health screenings for rescue workers. And this week, a poll of voters in New York State showed her job approval rating as risen to 62 percent, up from 38 percent shortly after she entered the Senate. Even one-third of New York Republicans approve.

Clinton: “Well, it's very gratifying, because I've tried to work really hard. The people of New York took a big chance on me. And I'm well aware of that.”

But in the middle of her six-year term, Hillary Clinton knows her political fortunes can change at any time, and the issues this year are fraught with political peril. She voted for the war with Iraq.

Couric: “Are you sorry you gave the President authority to go to war?”

Clinton: “I don't regret giving the President authority. I regret the way he used that authority.”

She says the administration should have built a bigger international coalition, done more planning, and sent more troops.    

Clinton: “We should've had more going in. The administration thought that they could win the war on the cheap with few troops and not much of a commitment.”

Couric: “You say commit more troops. But that's the same thing LBJ did in Vietnam. Do you worry that this is another Vietnam?”

Clinton: “I don't know whether it is or isn't at this point. Obviously, people who have a lot of experience, who lived through that in the Senate, in the military are raising those questions. I'm not prepared to do that.”

She says she's also not prepared to draw conclusions about the September 11 Commission hearings, which are investigating the actions of the Bush and Clinton administrations.

Couric: “How do you feel when people say, "Well the Clinton administration should've done this., they should've responded more forcefully to the USS Cole. There were many things that could've been done prior to the Bush administration taking over, things that weren't done.’"

Clinton: “I think that is one of the questions that this commission should help us answer. It's been said, and I think it's accurate, that my husband was obsessed by terrorism in general and al-Qaida in particular.  And they did a lot. But there's always room for analysis about what more could've or should've been done. And I think that's true with the Bush administration.”

Couric: “Do you dislike President Bush personally?”

Clinton: “No. Not at all.”

Couric: “You seem like you do.”

Clinton: “After 9/11, for example, I personally told him I would do anything to support him publicly or privately… and I have tried to support him and the war on terrorism, and many other ways. I had such empathy for the situation that he found himself in. But I fundamentally disagree about his vision for America.”

Now, at 56, Hillary Clinton has a vision for herself. She's a powerful U.S. senator, and something of a phenomenon in the publishing world. The hardcover edition of her book sold more than three million copies worldwide.

Couric: “When you think about it, why do you think it did so well?”

Clinton: “Well, as I wrote in the afterward to the paperback, I think a lot of it was just curiosity.  You know, we've seen this woman. We want to know more about her. I think for some it was, you know, just whatever the gossip value would be.”

Couric: “I noted in this book, you write quite candidly about the whole Monica Lewinsky affair. And I know you probably hate to talk about it, hate to think about it. But it is in the book. It is in the paperback. Is it hard for you to know that once again, that part of your life is out there?”

Clinton: “Well, you know, Katie, I wish that none of that had ever been made public. But that unfortunately happened, for, I think partisan, political reasons.”

In the book, she writes of the scandal, "I didn't know whether our marriage could -- or should -- survive such a stinging betrayal, but I knew I had to work through my feelings carefully, on my own timetable."

Couric: “You and President Clinton have a marriage that obviously survived the ultimate public test. Still people insist on analyzing and scrutinizing your relationship, in a way that I find fascinating. Lots of drug store psychiatrists out there with their take on your relationship.”

Clinton: “I know. And you know, it's another one of those aspects of being in the public eye that you can't control. And that's why it's so important that every day you get up, and you know who you are.  You know what you believe.”

Couric: “How would you describe your relationship with President Clinton? Do you guys get to even see each other that much, because you're running around?”

Clinton: “All the time.  And you know, this house has been just such a labor of love for both of us, because we've worked on it together. We've made all the decisions together. And it's been just a wonderful time for us.”

The Clintons bought their converted 1880s farmhouse on one acre of land for $1.7 million back in 1999, even before leaving the White House. The former president is now holed up, writing his memoirs, expected to be published sometime this summer:

Clinton: “I'll be so glad when he finishes this book, and we can you know, go back to going out, and going to the movies, and having friends over, and doing all the things that you know, we now have both the freedom and the time to do.”

Couric: “Let me ask you to finish, let's play complete this sentence. If I weren't a politician, I would be ...?”

Clinton: “A teacher.”

Couric: "The thing I hate the most about myself is ...?"

Clinton: “Hmmm. Probably my impatience from, you know, time to time. I just think I have to take some deep breaths, and just accept things the way they are.”

Couric: "My guiltiest pleasure is..?"

Clinton: “Chocolate. Any kind, any time, anywhere.”

Couric: "I'm proudest that...?"

Clinton: “I'm proudest that I raised a wonderful daughter, that you know, I got to be a mother. And had such an extraordinary experience doing that.”      

Couric: "I would like my tombstone to say ...?"

Clinton: “I hope no time soon. She did her best to live every day, to the fullest.”