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'It's an intense, overwhelming experience'

In an interview with "Today" host Katie Couric, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton reflects on her role as first lady and how it compares with her job as the junior senator from New York.
/ Source: TODAY

In day two of “Today’s” special series "America's First Ladies," Katie Couric talks with America's 42nd first lady, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. As anyone in recent memory will remember, Hillary Clinton had one of the most trying tenures of any first lady, with a variety of challenges, both personally and professionally. Now three and a half years since she left the White House, she's the one wielding the political power, not her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Today she is the junior senator from New York — and though she's a highly visible presence on Capitol Hill, it's nothing compared to the glare of the White House spotlight.

Couric: “You're the first, first lady to become a U.S. senator.”

Hillary Clinton: “Right.”

Couric: “What's the harder job?”

Hillary Clinton: “They're so different. They can't be compared. You know, the first lady role, as I say, isn't really a job. It's an intense, overwhelming experience. And you could fill 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but there's no guide book that tells you how to do that. Being in the Senate there are certain obligations. You know, you're voting. You're attending committee meetings. You're working on legislation. You're helping your constituents. So it's a much more structured job.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton was born 56 years ago in Park Ridge Illinois. The only daughter of Hugh and Dorothy Rodham, she grew up with two younger brothers. She graduated from Wellsley College first in her class. And later, at Yale Law School she met the man she would marry... William Jefferson Clinton. She first became first lady of Arkansas in 1978, and juggled her time in the governor's mansion with raising a daughter, Chelsea and becoming a partner at the Rose Law Firm.

She was also actively involved in policy, chairing commissions on health and education. It wasn't controversial then, but when she got to the White House, it was a whole new ball game.

Couric: “Every first lady who has the job, brings their unique set of values or talents to the job. And you certainly tackled some things that no first lady had before you.”

Clinton: (Laughter)

Couric: “What made you decide to do that? And were you trepidatious at all going into those areas? For example, health care.”

Clinton: “For example, health care, right, exactly!”

Couric: “The elephant in the room. We can't ignore that!”

Clinton: “I was asked to work on it by my husband. And I believe passionately that we could do a better job in our country providing high-quality, affordable health care to every American. And, so I dove into it.

I wish that I had known then what I know now about the way Washington works and some of the pitfalls. And there was a lot of criticism that went with that. But —"

Couric: “Were you prepared for that backlash?”

Clinton: “Well, I'm not sure anyone is prepared for the whole role that comes with being first lady.”

In many ways, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a new breed of first lady much like her role model Eleanor Roosevelt. During the campaign the Clintons promised two for the price of one. But some Americans, apparently, wanted their money back, bristling at the notion of a first lady who was too involved in policy.

Couric: “Why do you think you're such a polarizing figure? What is it?”

Clinton: “Well, I don't know the answer to that.But I think as best as I can tell that some of it has to do with that Rorschach test about women and women's roles. Some of it has to do with the positions I've taken my entire life, but that I particularly was identified with while in the White House. And then there's some people who just don't like my hairstyle or just don't like me. And that's perfectly fine too. But so much of the opposition is driven by political and ideological and even partisan differences.”

Couric: “When you look back on your White House years, what was the most memorable experience?”

Clinton: “You know, so many of the memorable moments were those that were public, like meeting some people whom I admire greatly, like Nelson Mandela. And then there were those that were more private, like my daughter graduating from high school. And I look back on it now and I'm so grateful for that experience that I can't pick one moment, because there were so many highlights to it.”

In fact, raising a daughter in what can be a fishbowl was a primary concern. Chelsea was 12 when the Clintons moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and was a senior at Stanford by the time they moved out.

Couric: “It's hard enough to raise a child. But to raise a child not only in the White House but in the public eye must have been pretty daunting.”

Clinton: “It was daunting. And I gave a lot of thought to it after Bill was elected because I was determined to give my daughter as normal a life as possible with as much privacy as we could possibly give her. Because no child signs on to a presidential campaign. But we tried to continue to expect her to do chores. I know that sounds ridiculous. But we also had her friends over all the time. We did everything we could to make her time in the White House as positive as it could be.”

Hillary Clinton's choices — in just about everything — have been scrutinized and analyzed by almost everyone. She hopes as more women themselves assume positions of power, voters will be less judgmental and more forgiving.

Clinton: “We should I think give more space and respect to the choices that each woman makes. Because some day I hope there will be a first man or a first mate, whatever we're going to call him. And I'm not so sure that there'll be as much second-guessing or pigeon-holing. I've certainly seen that with women governors, their husbands are given much more freedom to just be whoever they are and pursue their career.”

Couric: “You said that you hope one day there would be a first man or a first mate or a first gentleman, whatever he's going to be called.”

Clinton: “Right.”

Couric: “Might there be one in 2008?”

Clinton: “Oh, I have no idea. I have no idea. [Laughter] Very good. Very good, Katie. But I think it is something that I hope happens in my lifetime because it would be such a great moment for our country to cross that barrier. And I think at some point it will.”

Couric: “At some point will you ever answer the question?”

Clinton: “I hope not.” [Laugher]

Couric: “Well, you might have to, right?”

Clinton: “Well, maybe—“

Couric: “No, really, when it gets down to it.”

Clinton: “Maybe you'll keep asking and I'll keep—“

Couric: “And one day you'll shock me?”

Clinton: “—not answering. [Laughter] I don't know.”

Couric: “What was the best piece of advice you got when you became first lady?”

Clinton: “Be yourself. Just be yourself. Warts and all, you know? Good, bad and ugly. Just be yourself. And, you know, change your hairstyle if you want because that's basically trivial. But stay true to who you are and that's what I tried to do.”

And as this election season starts to gear up, still no word from Senator Clinton as to which Democratic candidate she's likely to endorse. Tomorrow: a rare interview with Nancy Reagan.