“A Burden That I Carry”: Huma Opens Up Like Never Before

Huma Abedin and Hillary Clinton
Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images
Peter Hamby
December 15, 2021

As Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman for over 20 years, Huma Abedin has spent most of her adult life in the public glare. While Clinton cycled from the campaign trail to the Senate to the State Department, the Saudi-raised Abedin became famous in her own right, cultivating an air of glamour, power and mystery. A Clinton loyalist to the bone, she rarely talked to the press, insisting on I’m-just-a-staffer privacy—unless a red carpet or Vogue photo shoot was involved.  

Her carefully-crafted image was ultimately blown up—not by the right-wing conspiracists who slandered her as a closet terrorist, but by her ex-husband Anthony Weiner, whose addiction to sexting repeatedly dragged Abedin into one lurid scandal after the next. It was Weiner’s confiscated laptop that prompted the F.B.I. to announce they had reopened an investigation into Clinton’s use of a personal email server just days before the 2016 election, an October surprise that may have thrown the election to Donald Trump

Today, Abedin is finally talking to the press in service of her new memoir, Both/And—an attempt, she says, to reclaim her story from the pundits, tabloids and politicians who have been telling it for her these many years. She talked to me for my Snapchat show “Good Luck America,” about what she regrets about giving her life over to politics, whether she blames herself for Trump, and what advice she has for another powerful woman in politics, Vice President Kamala Harris. (This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.)

Peter Hamby: You write in the book about taking off on your first advance trip, to Argentina, for Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady—and that you didn’t even realize at the time what you were giving up. What do you think you gave up? And what do you regret about spending 20 straight years just going hard? 

Huma Abedin: One of the first pieces of advice that my father gave us when we were little, was that a good life is a balanced life. And I did not practice that. I did not know moderation, as you said, Peter. There is something very addictive about that lifestyle, about getting on that plane, getting on that train, walking into those gymnasiums, the thunderous applause, the sound of people walking those rope lines. I still remember those conversations I had with people, carrying hopes and dreams and aspirations of Americans all across the country. It’s empowering. It’s inspiring. It’s liberating. But it’s also not good for your physical health. And in some cases it’s not always good for your mental health. 

And in that chapter you’re referring to in the book, I write that here I am, a brand new White House staffer. I get a call saying, do you wanna travel to Argentina for the First Lady, or do you wanna stay at a family wedding? That was my choice. And I say, that was my fork in the road. And I picked work. And I always picked work. But as a result, I missed family weddings. I missed family funerals. I missed nieces and nephews being born. I knew my family was there, and I had this whole group of friends. But, you know, experiences of going for walks, taking care of yourself … I don’t think I started working out for the first time in my life, Peter, until after the 2016 election. Just all the ways you need to take care of yourself, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Because the job is going to end. The campaign is going to end, and what is on the other side? 

And if you read to the end of my book, I share what can happen to somebody when the train has stopped. There’s no more candidate. The mission is over. And can you live with yourself? The isolation, the loneliness, the stress, the guilt, the ill health. At least for me, it all added up and it took me to a very dark place. So that’s a bit of a warning for the younger generation. Although I have to say, I think this generation after me is much better about balance. It is the one thing I would change, if I could go back: finding more balance in my life. 

You’ve talked a lot about it in other interviews, so I don’t wanna ask you very much about your relationship with Anthony. But one related thing I am curious about—and part of this is about your faith—you talk about how you didn’t really date anybody for a very long time. And if I’m getting the timeline correct, you didn’t even start dating Anthony until you were in your 30s. And you write about your breakup and how you thought you could fix it. That was your first serious relationship. Do you wish that you had actually dated and had boyfriends earlier in your life? So you could have at least understood a little better how these things work?

The answer is yes. When I wrote the chapter about meeting Anthony, I write that when he came up to say hello to me at this event on Martha’s Vineyard, he was this really charismatic, rising star congressman. The first thing I thought of was that when he asked me to go get a drink, I said I have to work. Because for me it was always about work. Hillary came first, work came first, the mission came first. And anything about a personal life, at least the way I perceived it, was a distraction. 

To give some context, I grew up in the Middle East. I come from a Muslim family. It’s a more conservative background. So anyone with my background will understand. But my parents were not strict per se. They more taught us by example. That this is how we live our lives and the values and principles. But you choose, you decide. But I think I said no a lot. And I regret that. 

In fact, one of the things I’ve had such a little opportunity to talk about is, a few years after the campaign, this man asked me out and he was somebody I found very attractive. I was really interested in him. But he was also another public person. And I thought, no, I can’t do it. I’m not gonna do this. It is, like, now a big regret that I have. Which is why I closed myself off to personal relationships. Anthony had such persistence and such determination. And he is certainly the reason we ended up together. I mean, I was not the instigator of that relationship. But I would go back, if I could talk to my 20 year-old self, and say it’s okay: These relationships are actually the important things in your life. 

You write in the book that when the scandal with Anthony is breaking again during the 2016 campaign, you were on the phone with him and you said, “Anthony, if she loses this election, it will be because of you and me.” Do you believe that? Do you believe that now? 

I do. Hillary, as you know, wrote a book right after the 2016 campaign called What Happened. And in it, she detailed all the reasons about how her standing in the polls changed after that unprecedented announcement, 11 days before the election, and specifically the numbers in certain suburbs in certain parts of the country. An election, Peter—and you know this better than me—in an election this close, every little thing mattered. And this was a big thing. So even people who were considering voting for her, to have that doubt planted in their mind. To be traveling around the country and having somebody say multiple times a day, “Lock Her Up.” So people who had doubts about her, I think it really solidified their decision to either not to vote for her, or not turn out to vote. And, sure, she won by 3 million more votes. But those 77,000 votes in those three states, it made a huge difference. So, yes, I do believe that. 

You really blame yourself and Anthony?

I write in the book that I carried that guilt and that trauma for a long time. It took me to a very, very low, bad place. To get up every single day and to see all the damage that was being done in this country, by that administration, every day. Even today, I get up and think of all the things that would’ve happened or wouldn’t have happened had she been elected in 2016. All the messes that Joe Biden is now trying to fix. Yeah. That is a burden that I carry. Now I’m resigned to live with it and I don’t carry it in the same way I carried it years ago. I’ve processed it, but I do believe that.

So Hillary just did this Masterclass video where she reads aloud from her 2016 victory speech, the one she would’ve given. Why did she decide to do that?

So I’m gonna make some breaking news here: That was my idea, for her to read that speech. And I’ll tell you why. In almost every interview I’ve done —and I appreciate you not asking me this—I’m asked why are you writing your story? Why did you write this book? I don’t think a lot of men, when they write their books, people are like, ‘Why’d you write your story?’ And I’m like, well, it’s a good story. But one of the things I do say, in all seriousness, is that I feel as if I don’t write or speak my own truth, somebody else is writing my history. And I take that to Hillary Clinton, times 50. It’s one of the reasons why I really did encourage her to do her own documentary, that she did for Hulu. I was a big supporter of her doing that. And I really was proud, really honored to be part of the team that worked on that documentary. 

But that speech! We are going to have a woman president in this country one day. I don’t know when that’s gonna be, whoever it is. I mean, God give her power because it’s gonna be really, really hard. But I do believe she would’ve been an extraordinary president and the speech was extraordinary and it’s inspiring, if you listen to the speech from beginning to end. And I wanted her to read it and for people to listen to it from her, because she wasn’t allowed or given the ability to give that speech to the center that night.

So that clip was sent to me by people who are conservatives and liberals and people who like Hillary and people who don’t. And they were kind of universally dunking on it. And then I watched it, and the part when she starts crying is really moving. And it reminded me of 2008 in New Hampshire, when she teared up in that event right before the primary, and came back from like 20 points down to win New Hampshire. The narrative at the time was this showed Hillary’s true self, and that women in particular could identify with her in that moment. And so in thinking about the Masterclass video, and thinking about New Hampshire and Hillary crying, is that what it takes for a woman to show vulnerability in politics? How is a woman supposed to show vulnerability as a candidate and a political leader? 

I write in detail that in both 2008 and 2016, and even frankly, in 2000, about sexism and misogyny and what we expect from both men and women. But it’s hard for us to see women in executive positions. I mean, this is just a fact. It’s not just in public service. I think this is just a fact in leadership. And forget Commander-in-Chief. That’s a whole different level. We don’t close our eyes and see a woman in that place. And I think because Hilary’s always been the barrier breaker, no one can understand what the model is, because she’s always the model. It was never right for everybody. And I write extensively that in 2016, it was like, ‘She talks too loud! She talks too low! I don’t like her jacket! She should wear this! She should do her makeup!’

We got constant feedback about how she looked or how she acted. And I think it’s because we don’t really know what we want in or, or we don’t agree on what we want in, in a woman, as a leader. Now, as to the crying, I don’t know. That could have worked either way. Who knows? In New Hampshire, that was such a moment. I was there that day and I thought, ‘Wow.’ To some people, I think they see Hilary in this very two dimensional way. She’s the serious policy wonk, but like, is she actually human? And then she goes on a late night show and she’s laughing and joking. And everyone says, ‘Oh my God, Hillary should be like this all the time!’ I feel like you’re constantly on this high wire, and you don’t know which way is right or wrong.

People just see her as having this very serious kind of poker face. And so to see that humanity is something that breaks through. But I think it could go either way. I think people could look at it and say, ‘A woman’s crying. She’s weak.’ So that was completely, obviously not planned. We just did that in one take, she read that speech. We did it in one take and I’m not sure she thought she was going to break down either. It was the first time she’d read it out loud in full.

Speaking of another powerful woman: Vice President Harris has been getting a lot of scrutiny in the press. You’ve been around politics long enough to know that it’s not just necessarily reporters out to get her, or just sexism at work. There is clearly some drama in her office. But how do you make sense of her watching her from afar. How she’s handling the job? Do you have any advice for her? 

I end my book on Vice President Harris. The notion that she has now filled that space. She is the barrier-breaking one. And by the way, she had made records and broken barriers in California long before she became vice president. But she has now taken that space of the woman who we expect so many things from. And so we expect perfection, but we don’t even know what perfection means. I think that they’ve been very honest and saying that, you know, turnover is normal. I started reading about staff leaving and people thought, ‘Oh my God, this is some big, terrible thing.’ I think turnover after the first year, especially after the campaign, is normal. And I think certainly they anticipated that. I haven’t had the privilege of giving her any advice.

But you have to not listen to your detractors. You have to just stay focused on the job, focused on the mission and focused on getting things done. And I think, unfortunately, she has inherited from Hillary that everything she does, the attention is microscopic. I remember that headline when she went to Paris to see Emmanuel Macron, and the headlines suggested she was out on some murky agenda when she went to Paris. No, it was not murky, not murky at all. She was sent on a mission. This was the mission after the misunderstanding related to that submarine. And so here she is.

So, I think her job is going to be hard. They’re going to have to work at it every single day. I know a lot of people who work for her, I admire them. They’re members of my family in my opinion. And so it’s very easy to criticize from the outside. I have been on the inside and I know the complexities and the challenges and all the things that they’re having to deal with. I don’t know them firsthand, but you know, any advice and help I can offer them, I’m always happy to do. I just think they have a long road ahead of them. They have a lot of work they have to do. I know they certainly are capable of doing it.