CHICAGO, Iowa — Hillary Clinton kicked off her “Hard Choices” book tour on Monday by doing what most high-profile politicians considering a presidential run do: sit down for a sweeping interview to talk about well-known issues — tenure, past achievements, presidential aspirations — and some issues that haven’t been addressed in years.
In the interview with ABC, Clinton honed what is likely to be her book tour message — one of a thoughtful diplomat who is prepared to reintroduce herself to voters, especially women.
“When you’re in the spotlight as a woman, you know you’re being judged constantly,” Clinton said about sexism. “I mean it is just never-ending. … Your natural tendency is how do you bring people together so that you can better communicate? I’m done with that, I’m just done.”
But as Clinton begins to polish her message, Republicans have seized on how the former first lady described the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack and the reported $5 million she has made on the speaking circuit since leaving the State Department.
The interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, the first of her tour, comes just as Clinton’s new book, “Hard Choices” — about her years as Barack Obama’s first secretary of state — hits bookstores on Tuesday. It’s the latest look at her storied career in the global spotlight as first lady, U.S. senator, presidential candidate and top diplomat.
For the first time in years, Clinton was asked during a television interview about Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who had an affair with her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Lewinsky has resurfaced in the last month because of a Vanity Fair essay where she reflects on her infamy and her life after the Clinton affair.
“She is perfectly free to do that,” Clinton said about Lewinsky’s essay. “She is, in my view, an American who gets to express herself however she chooses. But that is not something I spend a lot of time thinking about.”
Clinton added that she has “moved on” and if she had the chance to talk to Lewinsky she would “wish her well.”
“I hope that she is able to think about her future and construct a life that she finds meaning and satisfaction in,” Clinton concluded.
Much of the interview focused on Clinton’s tenure at State, including her relations with Russia, sanctions imposed on Iran and the 2012 terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Clinton, as she has done before, portrayed herself as someone who moved the ball forward on diplomatic issues, not someone who fixed everything. On Iran, she said the United States is in a “better (position) than what we inherited,” acknowledging that prospects of a deal were slim, and later added that no secretary of state can “eliminate every threat, every danger.”
“Let’s talk about what was accomplished and then talk about the continuing threats,” Clinton said when pressed about her State Department record.
On Benghazi, Republicans contend that the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans illustrates Obama administration foreign policy failures. Democrats say ongoing Republican-led scrutiny is political and designed to undercut any potential Clinton candidacy.
“I view this as really apart from — even a diversion from — the hard work that the Congress should be doing about the problems facing our country and the world,” Clinton said, noting that the United States should be “in the majors” on world affairs.
Clinton has taken responsibility before for what happened in Benghazi, and she did so again in the interview. But the former secretary of state also defended herself by saying she “was not making security decisions” for the Benghazi compound.
“Well, I certainly would give anything on earth if this had not happened,” she said. “And I certainly would wish that we had made some of the changes that came to our attention to make as a result of the investigation. But I also am clear in my own mind that we had a system and that system, of course, ended with me.”
Clinton also argued that while security in Benghazi was an issue, the security issues at the compound were “maybe in the top upper 10″ of threats and that “there were places where we had much more concern.”
In possibly the most eyebrow-raising comment of the interview, Clinton told Sawyer that her family was “dead broke” and in debt when it left the White House more than a dozen years ago. Clinton made the comments in defense of the hefty speaking fees she has commanded since stepping down as secretary of state last year.
Clinton later added her family had “no money” at that time and “struggled to piece together the resources” for mortgages and her daughter, Chelsea’s, college education.
“You know, it was not easy,” she said.
The Clintons departed the White House in debt due to enormous legal fees. By the end of 2000, their debt totaled somewhere between $2.28 million and $10.6 million. But former presidents and first ladies have the ability to make a lot of money. The Clintons were no exception and have done so. Their assets grew quickly.
Bill Clinton made more than $9.2 million in speaking fees in 2001 and more than $9.5 million in 2002. They paid off their legal fees by 2004. A CNN analysis of the family’s financial records in early 2013 showed that Bill Clinton had earned $106 million from paid speeches since leaving the presidency behind. In 2012 alone, he earned $17 million in fees.
Although she regularly speaks for free at certain events, Hillary Clinton has made roughly $5 million on the speaking circuit since stepping down as America’s top diplomat, Mother Jones reported earlier this year. Clinton did not dispute the figure when Sawyer asked about it.
Though not as profitable as her husband — who has made as much as $750,000 in one speech — Hillary Clinton reportedly commands $200,000 per speech. The two also have received hefty advances for their books.
Hillary Clinton said the former first family eventually turned around its finances, noting that her husband has “worked really hard and it has been amazing to me.”
She noted that they had to pay off debts, get their houses arranged and “take care of family members.”
American Rising, the pro-Republican opposition research shop that, along with the Republican National Committee, takes the lead in criticizing Clinton, was quick to ping her over her comments to ABC, saying they “reveal someone who is extremely out of touch with financial reality facing Americans.”
On its website, America Rising said the two homes the Clintons purchased in Chappaqua, New York, and Washington after leaving the White House cost around $4.5 million combined.
In her first live interview of the book tour, Clinton slightly clarified her “dead broke” comments, telling Robin Roberts on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday that while she understands the reaction to her comments, she also remembers how the Clintons were “something like $12 million in debt” when they left the White House.
“Let me just clarify that I fully appreciate how hard life is for so many Americans today. It is an issue that I have worked on and cared about my entire adult life,” said Clinton, who later noted that getting out of post-White House debt “was something that we really had to work hard.”
Clinton also cast herself as someone who understands what many Americans are going through because she and Bill Clinton had to support themselves at a young age and pay their way through college.
“We understand what that struggle was because we had student debts, both of us, we had to pay off, we had to work,” Clinton said. “We have a life experience that is clearly different in very dramatic ways from many Americans, but we also have gone through some of the same challenges as many people have.”
Roberts pressed Clinton about her record at State and whether she will distance herself from Obama if she runs for president. “Where I disagree with President Obama, I will be clear,” Clinton said. “But in many areas, he and I worked together and I think we saw positive results. I am very proud of what we did during the time that I was there.”
Clinton’s memoir and book tour have garnered a great deal of attention, largely because the former first lady is considering a presidential run in 2016.
“I am going to decide when it feels right for me to decide,” Clinton told Sawyer, adding that it is “probably likely” that she won’t announce until next year.
A world of pro-Clinton groups has sprung around the prospect that she will run for president. Super PACs, many headed by longtime Clinton aides, have started to urge the former senator to run.
What does Clinton think about them? “I am so appreciative of everyone who is encouraging me, I am grateful that they have that confidence in me, but this is a really personal decision,” she said.
Clinton also entertained the idea that she may not run, citing the top reasons that she “really” likes her life.
“I like what I am doing,” she said.
Clinton’s book tour continues on Tuesday. Besides the live interview with ABC, she plans to sit down for a radio interview with NPR, attend her first book signing in New York and headline a conference at night in Chicago.
People began lining up on Monday afternoon for Clinton’s first book-signing at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble, and lines swelled overnight. As of 8 a.m. Tuesday, the line wrapped around three corners with up to 400 people waiting to get into the bookstore.
CNN Political Research Director Robert Yoon contributed to this report.