'Hillary' director explains Hillary Clinton's Bernie Sanders criticism: 'She wasn’t impressed with him as a senator at all.'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
'Hillary' director explains Hillary Clinton's Bernie Sanders criticism: 'She wasn’t impressed with him as a senator at all.'

With Super Tuesday in the history books, the previously wide-open Democratic Party primary field has been winnowed to a two-candidate race between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Now comes the part where the party endorsements start flowing in earnest, and both men have already picked up significant support from Democratic leaders and rising stars. Former candidates Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke are backing Biden, while Sanders has the support of popular congressional representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

But some of the party’s biggest names have yet to go on the record, and that list is topped by Hillary Clinton. While the two-time candidate hasn’t offered an official endorsement, she tips her hand in Nanette Burstein’s new documentary, Hillary, which launches on Hulu on March 6 ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8. When the four-part film premiered at Sundance in January, Clinton’s on-camera comments about her 2016 primary foe, Sanders, instantly made headlines: “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done,” she remarks in the film. “He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.”

Hillary Clintion is the subject of the new Hulu docu-series, 'Hillary' (Photo: Hulu)

Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment on Super Tuesday as voters were still going to the polls, Burstein says that Clinton’s opinion of Sanders was formed when they served together in the U.S. Senate. “She wasn’t impressed with him as a senator at all. If you look at his record, too, it’s not wrong. He’s a socialist, but he’s running now under the Democratic Party, which he didn’t do when he was running for the Senate. And, you know, when Bernie and Hillary were running against each other, she was positioned as a centrist. Ironically, she had positioned not long before that as bra-burning liberal. She’s kind of been the same politician all along — it’s really about how the media spins you.” 

Documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein spoke to Hillary Clinton for 35 hours for her new documentary, 'Hillary' (Photo: Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Despite Clinton’s personal feelings about Sanders, Burstein says that she would support the Vermont senator in the general election against President Donald Trump. Just don’t expect her to publicly pick a side before the party officially chooses its candidate at this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. “I know she doesn’t want to have an opinion publicly, and I don’t even know what her personal opinion is,” Burstein says, adding that she conducted her extensive 35-hour interview with Clinton in late 2018 and early 2019, before the 2020 election cycle kicked into high gear. “She’ll endorse whoever the candidate is after the convention. “She is absolutely determined to change the administration, so whoever it is — a blade of grass! — she will support it.” 

While Hillary Clinton is front and center in Hillary, Burstein also spoke with such generation-defining political figures as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for their perspective on her life and career. We talked with the filmmaker about how she approached the Monica Lewinsky saga, what she wanted to ask Obama, and the “cheesy” Bill Clinton story that didn’t make the final cut. 

Yahoo Entertainment: Hillary moves back and forth in time, but it feels like the overall arc of the movie is the story of a young idealist who enters politics and finds herself having to make compromises. 

Nanette Burstein: Yeah, you see that play out in Hillary’s plan for health care [in 1993]. She takes on universal health care, and is very progressive and uncompromising in how she approaches it, and then the whole thing doesn’t even make it beyond committee and she’s burned in effigy. It was disastrous for a lot of reasons. But then in Bill Clinton’s second term, she ends up helping get the Children’s Health Insurance Program [CHIP] passed. So you realize, OK, you can take a smaller piece of the apple and actually make it happen. You learn by doing, but nobody wants to hear that: that's a very unappealing notion that you have to make change incrementally. Everyone right now wants revolution on both sides in a different way, so we're at a very divided place. 

That tug-of-war between progressivism and pragmatism is very much reflected in the current Democratic primary.

I know, and it's really striking in the selection [between Biden and Sanders]. But I also don’t feel like there’s as big of a divide as it’s made out to be between our candidates. I think it's posed that way to make it more of a horse race. And the candidates certainly jump on it to distinguish themselves. But we have a Congress in order to bet [legislation] passed, and they are so unyielding. I mean, you've Mitch McConnell [as Senate majority leader] who will not pass anything. So how do you get anything done? The way that elections work now — and you saw this in 2016 — is that someone like Bernie speaks in quick, fast, provocative sound bites about free education for all and universal healthcare. Hillary was advocating some of those same policies, but in a way where she explains how she's going to get it done, which is through very complicated funding streams. But that doesn’t not drive the media, and it doesn’t drive constituents. And this year, Elizabeth Warren has a lot of the same policies as Bernie Sanders and, again, has more of an explanation of how she would do it, but she's not nearly as popular. 

It’s been much remarked upon how the Super Tuesday contest has come down to two elderly white men after a very diverse primary field. 

I heard from people at the very beginning of the primary, ‘We have to elect someone that can beat Trump, and that’s going to be a white man.’ So that becomes self-fulfilling. If everyone believes that, they’re going to vote for the white man, and he’s going to be the candidate. It made me angry, but that’s where we are. I interviewed [Hillary] right after the midterm elections, so much of my brain was like ‘Wow, look at all the women that just got elected to Congress. Isn’t this awesome?’ It was a very different mindset, the world changes quickly. It’s hard to keep up. 

Bill and Hillary Clinton in a vintage still included in the Hulu docu-series 'Hillary' (Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Some of my favorite material in the film are the Clintons’ memories of how they met at college when they were just young kids and the future was still ahead of them. Were there things they said about each other back then that you weren’t able to include in the film?

There was one story where Bill talked about how he imagined them growing old together and sitting on a park bench. But it was a little cheesy to include! I mean he was being truthful, but he can be a cheeseball sometimes. [Laughs]

Did you consider interviewing them on camera together?

No, I hate interviews with two people because I feel like one person's always sitting there and not knowing what to say. I also think people are much more honest when they're by themselves. Can you imagine him having to talk about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and the impact it had on her and his family while she's sitting right next to him? He wouldn't — it would be so uncomfortable.

Speaking of the Monica Lewinsky saga, it’s a story that’s been chronicled almost exhaustively. How did you want to approach it with them?

I really wanted to ask both of them how they personally dealt with it in their marriage. There has been a lot said about whether or not they have a real marriage or if it’s an arrangement. This affair rocked their marriage in a public and private way, but we haven’t really heard about the private way. So that was extremely important to me. I also wanted to understand how she made the decision to fight his impeachment. Was she with him at the time? Was she not with him? How does she compartmentalize and why does she compartmentalize. During the last election, the number of women who would say to me, ‘I can’t vote for her, because she didn’t leave her husband,’ made me realize how much that influenced the way people felt about her and how much she was judged for it. More than he was judged for it! And also his level of guilt for how it affected how people perceived her for years to come. I think that’s why he’s so candid in the interview, because he realizes the impact it’s had on her. They had never shared those kinds of feelings publicly before. 

Even when he speaks about Lewinsky in the film, he seems to be apologizing to her — I don’t think he’s gone that far in the past.

Yeah. And I think he does feel terrible about how he just hurt a lot of people. 

Did you ask Lewinsky to participate in the film?

There was another series that was going on while I was making this on A&E [The Clinton Affair] that had exclusivity to interview her, so that was logistically off the table. And because that documentary was doing such an exhaustive treatment of her point of view and experience, I felt, ‘Okay, that's been done, and what I'm doing is what hasn't been done,’ which is understanding how that affected her and her marriage. I was in my twenties in the ’90s, so I lived through a lot of it. I remember reading about Whitewater, health care and Lewinsky in the paper everyday, but yo don’t pay attention in the same way you can with hindsight. I had an opportunity to frame it for an audience to help them understand how she’s so polarizing and why those events mattered.

The generation of Democratic politicians that are coming up now are represented by people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What do you think the future promises in terms of the leaders we may see emerge? 

I think it's very exciting that you can have young progressive women and minorities that have a new voice that’s so progressive and optimistic. It’s always a challenge to get anything done, but it's good to have so much enthusiasm. On the other hand, Ocasio-Cortez is going to be one of these very polarizing figures; we’re already seeing that, and this is only her first term. Anytime you step out into the public eye — especially if you're a woman — there’s really dark, dark rhetoric that comes out and you’re just going to have to face that kind of onslaught. But she also has the advantage of Twitter and speaking to her audience that way, and not through the filter of the news. 

I don’t know if you feel this way, but I’m sometimes frustrated thinking about where the Generation X political leaders went. This current election will be between Biden and Sanders, and the future belongs to Ocasio-Cortez, but that middle generation seems to be largely missing. Barack Obama probably came the closest.

We were in the midst of a lot of change. Having a new kind of first lady was revolutionary in the ’90s. And we were coming off of 12 years of Republicans, don't forget. Just getting Bill Clinton elected to office seemed like a big deal to me at the time! I spent most of my lifetime — with the exception of four kind of sad years of Jimmy Carter — dealing with Republicans. So that seemed like just a huge shift. And Clinton was facing a lot of what Obama was facing in terms of a very difficult Republican Congress, which meant he had trouble getting things passed. Those first few years [when the Democrats controlled Congress] he worked on the economy, whereas Obama picked universal healthcare. You get that one issue you can get done, and then there’s a backlash and then you end up with a Republican Congress that doesn't let you do anything.

You interviewed Obama for Hillary; how did he characterize their working relationship when she was Secretary of State? 

He talked about facing an economy that was in trouble and he really needed to focus on that, but also had two wars and a lot of countries that were very angry at the United States that we had ignored for a long time. So it was important to have a very qualified secretary of state, which he felt like Hillary was. He respected her as a politician and a candidate. He also knew that she had star power abroad, and would be able to bring that excitement when she visited these countries. So when he wanted to do important trade deals or the nuclear deal with Iran, he knew he would have this goodwill around the world, which America very much needed at the time.

Was there anything he said that you weren’t able to include, but still made an impression on you?

No, I used everything. He was very specific that he wanted to talk about her secretary of state years, so it was an extremely efficient interview. I would have loved to have asked him about the 2016 campaign or the email question, but our time was limited in scope and I don’t think he’s interested in publicly litigating a lot of that stuff.

Once the primary is over, do you hope to see Obama and Hillary Clinton joining the nominee on stage at the convention?

If they want them to, I’m sure they’ll do it. It depends on the candidate. If it’s Biden, I think that would happen, especially with his relationship with Obama. I don’t know if Bernie would be interested in doing that because he’s really trying to separate himself from previous Democrats. Not that he’s trying to be disrespectful, but I think he sees himself as a different kind of candidate and he’s been critical of a lot of Obama’s policies. 

The other concern would be, would they ask her to be there based on what happened in 2016?

They may or may not, you know what I mean? And she’s not going to impose herself. If they want her help, she’s there to do it. 

Hillary premieres on Hulu on March 6.

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