Audio: Clinton Foundation Head Accused Clintons of ‘Paranoia’

Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Rodham Clinton / AP

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Clinton Foundation head Donna Shalala privately expressed concerns about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s mental state in the mid-1990s, saying they had become "paranoid" and fixated on "right-wing conspiracies," according to previously unpublished audio recordings obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

In 1994, four years before Hillary Clinton said a "vast right-wing conspiracy" was trying to take down her husband’s presidency, top aide Shalala said this theory was already embraced by the Clintons.

"They’ve become paranoid. Paranoia. Thinking people are out to get them, this right-wing conspiracy stuff," said Shalala, who was the head of Health and Human Services during the August 1994 interview.

Shalala was recently appointed president of the Clinton Foundation.

The tapes are part of a series of interviews with Hillary Clinton and top aides, conducted by the late Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Haynes Johnson and obtained by the Free Beacon from the Wisconsin Historical Society on the University of Wisconsin campus.

Some segments of the interviews are transcribed in Johnson’s 1996 book The System, written with David Broder, which gives a meticulously reported account of the 1990s health care debate. However, many of the quotes in the book are not attributed to the aides by name.

The recordings provide additional insight into how Hillary Clinton was affected by her unsuccessful push for health care reform, one of the highest-profile battles of her time in the White House.

Aides feared at the time that Hillary Clinton had become "paranoid," "burnt out," and prone to angry outbursts, according to the tapes.

"[The Clintons are] feeling sorry for themselves. They talk about [conspiracies] all the time," said Shalala. "That there really is a conspiracy out there to get us. That we don’t have a chance, people don’t understand how much good we’ve done. Our message isn’t getting across because these people are beating us up."

Shalala said documents about supposed right-wing conspiracies were also being distributed to White House staffers.

"There is a feeling in the White House, and I don’t know whether it’s [James] Carville or [Paul] Begala or who’s giving them the materials," said Shalala. "But sitting on the desks of their staff there’s these materials on this right-wing conspiracy."

The remark was a rare acknowledgement by a close aide that there were reservations about the Clintons’ "right-wing conspiracy" theory within their inner circle. The quote was not attributed to Shalala in Johnson’s book. However, the audio recording and an interview transcription do include her name and are open to the public.

Since leaving the White House, Hillary Clinton has been dogged by accusations that she has an insular leadership style and lacks transparency, although aides deny that her approach is driven by "paranoia."

At a Clinton Global Initiative conference last year, a New York Times reporter said a Clinton press handler trailed her throughout the event, even following her into the restroom.

More recently, Clinton came under fire for using a private email server to conduct State Department business. The former secretary of state eventually turned over a collection of emails to the State Department, but the full server was "wiped clean," according to her attorney.

In 1995, the Clinton White House drafted what became known as the "Conspiracy Commerce Memo," which purported to show how negative stories about the Clintons’ filtered into the mainstream media from conservative outlets and talk radio. The existence of the memo was reported in 1997, but it was not published in full until earlier this year.

Hillary Clinton appeared to reference this theory during one August 1994 interview with Johnson.

"You’ve got a well-organized right-wing media operation, everything from talk radio, radical right religious broadcasting, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Washington Times, which are advocacy journalists," said Clinton.

"And then you’ve got respectable mainline journalists basically in a kind of either-or, even-handed mode, you don’t have any counterbalance to this incredible 24-hour a day hate that is being spewed out."

Clinton blamed this "right-wing media operation" for fueling public opposition to health care reform—which peaked when the First Lady was heckled by hundreds during her July 1994 speech in Seattle.

She said the protesters were recruited by a "[Rush] Limbaugh clone" on local radio and that the backlash against her health care plan was "fueled by abortion, gays, and guns."

Clinton also said she was physically frightened, and that police "took some pretty tough guys with automatic weapons and assault weapons out of that crowd." 

The Associated Press reported at the time that police detained one man at the rally who was carrying two unspecified guns, but he had a permit to carry and no charges were filed.

According to Clinton, widespread unemployment made people vulnerable to the "right-wing media operation," which she compared to the anti-Semitic provocations of radio host Father Charles Coughlin.

"Take a place like Washington [State]. How many out-of-work loggers are there?" said Clinton. "How many out-of-work fishermen because we’re depleting the salmon in their rivers? I have a lot of sympathy. What I don’t like is it’s just like [Father] Coughlin or any other demagogue."

The obstacles blocking health care reform took a deep emotional toll on the First Lady, according to Clinton aide Robert Boorstin.

"She’s a much sadder person than she was when she started this job," Boorstin said in another taped interview. "As she’s gotten more sad she’s gotten sharper at times." 

"She’s always had a very caustic edge to her, but it’s even gotten sharper, that edge," he added. "It’s razor sharp now."

During the interview, Johnson asked if Clinton ever "flipped out" at the staff.

"Yeah, but verbally. It’s sad," said Boorstin.

He recounted a time when Clinton instructed the staff to go after Jim Cooper, the Democratic congressman whose own health care reform proposal posed a major threat to Clintons’ plan at the time. The Clintons made Cooper one of the main bogeymen of their health care push, along with the insurance companies.

"She did Jim Cooper in front of us. Then she instructed us to go and get him, basically," said Boorstin. "We were in her office in the West Wing and there were seven or eight of us around the table, and basically, I don’t know what happened, I guess she had a bad meeting with him."

"She just got this kind of evil look," Boorstin continued. "And she said we got to do something about this Cooper bill. We’ve got to basically kill it before it goes any further. And [one aide] suggested he fly down to Tennessee and plant some stories. And then we put a couple people on the radio down there from here to be up on the plan."

While he said Hillary Clinton’s outbursts were not as severe as her husband’s, she was sharper and more scathing.

"I’ve seen her lose it, she gets caustic," said Boorstin. "That’s really what happens to her, when she loses it around a group of us. She gets dismissive. She gives you the look of death basically, like you’re an idiot. You know how some people can just tell you that with their eyes."

Boorstin told the Free Beacon that these incidents had to be placed in the context of the broader health care debate at the time.

"Imagine that you’re a Democrat in the White House and you’ve poured your guts and heart into developing a health care plan. Now imagine there are three Democratic members of Congress [including Cooper] who would have none of it, and who each, for reasons they believed, and ego, were pressing separate plans," said Boorstin.

"It was a pretty frustrating situation. How do you think the White House feels right now about trade? When their plan is being balked by their own party? People like Cooper were completely off the reservation. And obnoxious and self-righteous about it."

Shalala said in the tapes that Clinton went through other changes during the health care fight, and by the summer of 1994 was "numb at this point."

"She’s tired, she’s exhausted," said Shalala. "Burnt out on the issue."

The Clinton Foundation, the Clinton campaign, and Shalala did not return a request for comment.

Alana Goodman   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Alana Goodman is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Beacon, she was assistant online editor at Commentary. She has written for the Weekly Standard, the New York Post and the Washington Examiner. Goodman graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 2010, and lives in Washington, D.C. Her Twitter handle is @alanagoodman. Her email address is goodman@freebeacon.com.