The Arkansas Years
In 1977, after her husband Bill Clinton was elected Arkansas’ attorney general, Hillary Rodham, as she then was known, joined the Rose Law Firm. Years later, the New York Times learned that just before Bill was elected governor in 1978, she made $100,000 in one year’s worth of commodities trading, which helped the Clintons put a down payment on a house. She was advised by a top Arkansas lawyer and close friend who also was the primary attorney for Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest poultry company in the country, which benefited from some of Gov. Clinton’s actions. (The Clintons wouldn’t release tax returns during his 1992 presidential campaign. When they came out later, they showed her trading success.)
In 1978, the Clintons partnered with James and Susan McDougal—a Clinton friend and former gubernatorial aide and his wife—to buy some 220 acres of land in Arkansas and create the Whitewater Development Corp., to sell sites for vacation homes. In 1985, Rodham became a billing partner at the Rose Law Firm, doing legal work for McDougal’s Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan. She called the state Securities Commissioner on behalf of McDougal’s firm. Within four years, the S&L went under after making bad loans, and McDougal eventually was convicted of fraud. The Clintons said McDougal got no preferential treatment because of their Whitewater investment. (See below: Whitewater would come back to haunt the couple 16 years later, during Bill’s presidency.)
During Bill Clinton’s second successful gubernatorial run in 1982—he had been ousted in 1980—his wife began to go by Hillary Rodham Clinton. He appointed her chair of the Arkansas Educational Standards Committee. Her reform of what was one of the nation’s worst-performing school systems was her first public policy initiative, and was generally judged a success.
In the White House
When Bill Clinton started on his 1992 presidential run, it was clear that Hillary Clinton would be a different kind of first lady, with her own policy opinions and ideas. In the White House, she served as a silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) partner. The president put her in charge of an effort to overhaul health insurance in 1993. She won praise for her deep knowledge and commitment, yet the initiative fell behind schedule, failed to get enough congressional allies, and came under criticism for holding closed-door meetings. The 1,342-page bill failed. Documents released in 2014 showed that Hillary Clinton didn’t always follow advice from her aides that later proved to be on target.
Whitewater resurfaced in 1992, when the failure of Jim McDougal’s S&L was referred to the Justice Department. A special federal prosecutor was appointed to investigate the Clintons’ past connection to McDougal, and to look into the 1993 suicide of Vince Foster, a White House deputy counsel from Arkansas who had been a Rose Law Firm partner. In 1994, investigators subpoenaed the Rose Law Firm’s billing records about the S&L from the first lady, but they were nowhere to be found. The White House denied having them. Two years later, the papers turned up in the White House residence, discovered by a White House aide who used to work at the Rose Law Firm and recognized the records when she stumbled onto them.
A special Senate committee held 13 months of hearings into Whitewater, ending in 1996 without major revelations but with Republicans and Democrats disagreeing about whether the Clintons breached any ethical boundaries. The McDougals and Arkansas’ then-governor were convicted of fraud in a trial that ended in 1996.
In 1997, the Whitewater special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, expanded his investigation into allegations of Bill Clinton’s affairs, including accusations that he used Arkansas state troopers to arrange sexual encounters. The probe led to Clinton’s impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with his sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. He was acquitted in February 1999.
Throughout, Hillary Clinton stood by the president and helped with strategy behind the scenes. Concerning her own involvement in Whitewater and her legal representation of the S&L, The Washington Post concluded that the first lady demonstrated “a four-year pattern” of “avoiding full disclosure, occasionally forgetting places and events that might embarrass her, and revising her story as documents emerge and the knowledge of her questioners deepens.”
The ultimate significance of Whitewater continues to be debated, with Hillary Clinton suggesting the investigation was part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to undermine her husband’s policies, and with some critics saying the news media blew the matter out of proportion. Some pointed to a report prepared for the federal Resolution Trust Corp., which investigated failed S&Ls, that determined the Clintons actually lost money on their original investment. Others say the questions went beyond the investment itself and it was important to investigate possible abuses of power.
The federal investigation into Whitewater wasn’t officially over until September of 2000.
Clinton won a New York Senate seat in the 2000 election cycle. One of her key actions was to cast a vote in 2002 in favor of invading Iraq. (In her pre–2016-campaign book, Hard Choices, she apologized for the vote.) She had a mixed record on Wall Street regulation: Several of her bills to regulate Wall Street died early in the Senate, and she never signed onto the bill to end the carried-interest loophole. She voted in favor of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan during the 2008 financial crisis. An article in the Atlantic characterized her Senate tenure as one of “systemic caution.”
Clinton launched her 2008 bid for president as the presumptive front-runner—only to be upset by then-Sen. Barack Obama. Her campaign struggled to keep up with the newly digital world—something Obama’s team excelled at—and couldn’t overcome its own infighting. At one point she returned $850,000 in donations after one of her campaign’s fundraisers came under investigation for fraudulent practices. She was routed in the Iowa caucuses and came back to a win in New Hampshire with a passionate speech, but ultimately conceded in June. “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it,” she said as she ended her campaign.
Despite their nasty primary, Obama appointed Clinton to be his Secretary of State, and she became one of the president’s most trusted advisors. Obama relied on her relationship with Egypt’s then-president, Hosni Mubarak, from her time as first lady as the administration navigated the Arab Spring. Clinton proved a more hawkish voice at the table than Obama, weighing in on the side of the eventual intervention in Libya. When the attacks in Benghazi left four Americans dead, Clinton took heat from Congressional committees in the aftermath and eventually sat through 11 straight hours of Congressional grilling in 2015.
The Clinton Foundation presented a minefield during Hillary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State: It had to disclose its donor list, which showed hefty sums of money from foreign governments including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Several Clinton aides working at the State Department, like Huma Abedin, were simultaneously on the foundation’s payroll. Several companies with ties to the Clinton Foundation—such as UBS and Boeing—had business before the State Department, and Clinton advocated strongly on behalf of both.
By the time Hillary Clinton stepped down as Secretary of State at the end of Obama’s first term as president, she had visited 112 countries and expanded the role of the State Department, including initiatives against gender violence.
Clinton entered the paid speech circuit, charging around $200,000 per speech. Both Clintons had kept up a vast donor network, which proved both helpful in terms of Hillary Clinton’s eventual war chest but at times a political hindrance. She published a memoir of her State Department tenure, Hard Choices, in 2014 and went on a much-scrutinized book tour.
The Second Presidential Campaign
Clinton launched her second bid for president in 2015. She moved to the left, endorsing gay marriage and criticizing Wall Street.
In March 2015, the New York Times broke the story that Clinton had used a private email server during her entire tenure at the State Department. She later called the decision a “mistake.” The email system remains the subject of an FBI investigation.
Editor’s note: Jeff Gerth, a former New York Times reporter who joined ProPublica in 2008, wrote several of the stories on the Clintons cited in this survey. Gerth is also the co-author of “Her Way,” an investigative biography of Hillary Clinton. He was not involved in selecting items for this report.