Hillary Clinton worked to expand health care, improve failing schools and served as “America’s foremost ambassador.” And that was just during her time as First Lady.
That’s the portrait painted by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, which despite the name has no shortage of material on Hillary. Around every corner of the Little Rock museum is another testimonial to Hillary’s role in his administration and a reminder that—as he put it in the 1992 campaign—voters got “two for the price of one.”
These days, Hillary Clinton is running as her own woman, stressing her time as U.S. Senator from New York and Secretary of State in the Obama Administration. She’s also moving away from her husband’s record on issues as varied as trade deals, gay rights and policing.
(Bill Clinton can hardly take offense. He even does a bit of that in his own library. In one display, the library tries to distance him from the now-scrapped Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that barred gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. “The law was never applied as intended,” reads a placard.)
Throughout the modern and spacious library, Bill Clinton offers nothing but the predictably glowing account of his wife’s skills and experience as a public servant. Even in failure, as was the case in her push to overhaul the nation’s health care system, Clinton’s library pitches success. “The effort to expand coverage, led by the First Lady, set the stage for step-by-step improvements to our health care system over the next seven years,” reads one caption.
Similarly, Hillary Clinton was tapped to “spearhead” education reform. And in describing her landmark address in China, in which she declared women’s rights are human rights, the library’s displays lauded her: “As America’s foremost ambassador, she brought to Beijing a message of hope, empowerment and social development.”
An inquiry to the library about how the former First Lady is represented and how the exhibits might have changed since they opened in 2004 was referred to a public relations adviser, Jordan Johnson. He did not return phone messages.
Yet not all depictions of Clinton are exactly flattering. After all, it isn’t every museum that has depictions of a spouse on needlepoint or on a quilt. Or includes a pair of cream cowboy boots emblazoned with her initials in gold leather, a gift from a Houston admirer. Or a stitched blanket from a California supporter that includes not just the Clintons’ October wedding date but also daughter Chelsea’s birthday.
At the same time, the scandals of the 1990s are obviously whitewashed and political scores are settled, as is the case at most presidential libraries. The Clintons single out House Speaker Newt Gingrich as pushing the “politics of personal destruction.” The museum reminds visitors that in 1994, shortly before becoming Speaker of the House, Gingrich publicly described Clinton Democrats “the enemy of normal Americans.”
In describing the government shutdowns the followed GOP takeover of Congress, the Clinton library describes Republicans as “rejecting compromise” and bringing “an ideological agenda.”
The library’s take on independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who discovered Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky? “A conservative activist who had never before prosecuted a case.” The resulting impeachment had “no constitutional or legal basis.”
And on the failed land deal known as Whitewater that set off the string of scandals that threatened Clinton’s presidency, the library is terse: “No evidence of wrongdoing was ever found.”
But there is no escaping some of the awkwardness that crept into the Clinton presidency amid the tumult. In a 1998 holiday portrait taken in the White House’s formal Blue Room, the pair is not touching or even looking at each other. Bill Clinton admitted to having an affair with Lewinsky during the summer of that year.
By the following year, facing a shared Republican enemy and the threat of impeachment, the Clintons again were embracing and working as political partners, as the library is fond of portraying them.