WASHINGTON — As a young lawyer for the Watergate committee in the 1970s, Hillary Rodham caught a ride home one night with her boss, Bernard Nussbaum. Sitting in the car before going inside, she told him she wanted to introduce him to her boyfriend. “Bernie,” she said, “he’s going to be president of the United States.”
Mr. Nussbaum, stressed by the pressure of that tumultuous period, blew up at her audacious naïveté. “Hillary, that’s the most idiotic” thing, he screamed. She screamed back. “You don’t know a goddamn thing you’re talking about!” she said, and then called him a curse word. “God, she started bawling me out,” he recalled. “She walks out and slammed the door on me, and she storms into the building.”
It turned out she was right and he was wrong. Ms. Rodham, who later married that ambitious boyfriend, Bill Clinton, believed even then that life would take her to the White House and now may seek to return not as a spouse and partner, but on her own terms.
In recent months, as Mrs. Clinton has prepared for a likely 2016 presidential campaign, she has often framed those White House years as a period when, like many working mothers, she juggled the demands of raising a young daughter and having a career. She talks about championing women’s rights globally, supporting her husband during years of robust economic growth, and finding inspiration in Eleanor Roosevelt to stay resolute in the midst of personal attacks.
What Mrs. Clinton leaves out about her time as first lady is her messy, sometimes explosive and often politically clumsy dealings with congressional Republicans and White House aides. Now, the release of roughly 6,000 pages of extraordinarily candid interviews with more than 60 veterans of the Clinton administration paints a more nuanced portrait of a first lady who was at once formidable and not always politically deft.
Her triumphs and setbacks are laid bare in the oral histories of Mr. Clinton’s presidency, released last month by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. The center has conducted oral histories of every presidency going back to Jimmy Carter’s, interviewing key players and then sealing them for years to come. But more than any other, this set of interviews bears on the future as much as the past.
These were formative years for Mrs. Clinton, a time of daring and hubris, a time when she evolved from that headstrong young lawyer so impressed with the man she would marry into a political figure in her own right. She emerged from battles over health care and Whitewater a more seasoned yet profoundly scarred and cautious politician with a better grasp of how Washington works, but far more wary of ambitious projects that may be unpopular.
Now carefully controlled at 67, then she was fiery and unpredictable, lobbing sarcastic jabs in private meetings and congressional hearings. Now criticized as a centrist and challenged from the left, Mrs. Clinton then was considered the liberal whispering in her husband’s ear to resist the North American Free Trade Agreement and a welfare overhaul.
“She’s much more politically astute now than she was in early 1993,” said Alan Blinder, who was a White House economist. “I think she learned. She’s really smart. She learns, and she knows she made mistakes.”
An Independent Force
No president ever had a partner quite like Hillary Rodham Clinton. She attended campaign strategy meetings in Little Rock, Ark., and later became the first (and so far only) first lady with an office in the West Wing. She would bring his meandering meetings to a close. She plotted out his defense against scandal.
“The thing he lacks is discipline, both in his personal life and his intellectual or decision-making life, unless he’s rescued by somebody,” observed Alice M. Rivlin, who served as White House budget director. “I think for a good part of his career, he was probably rescued by Hillary by her being a more decisive, more disciplined kind of person who kept things moving.”
She was an independent force within the White House, single-handedly pushing health care onto the agenda and intimidating into silence those who thought she might be mishandling it. She was prone to bouts of anger and nursed deep resentment toward Washington. She endured a terribly complicated relationship with her philandering husband. And yet she was the one who often channeled his energies, steered him toward success and saved him from himself.
“She may have been critical from time to time with temper tantrums and things like that,” said Mr. Nussbaum, who went on to become Mr. Clinton’s first White House counsel. “But she was very strong, and he needed her desperately. He would not have been president, I don’t think, without her.”
Mrs. Clinton created her own team in the White House that came to be called Hillaryland, and “they were a little island unto themselves,” as Betty Currie, the president’s secretary, put it. She inspired more loyalty from them than the president did from his own team, said Roger Altman, who was deputy treasury secretary, probably because she was not as purely political. “She wears her heart on her sleeve much more than he does,” he said.
But the Clintons were fiercely protective of each other, acting at times as if it were just them against the world …