NEW YORK — “Oh, s—. She’s here, she’s here.”
In the small dressing room backstage at the 92nd Street Y, Huma Abedin looks up from a makeup bag on the counter, meeting her own eyes in the mirror. Her back is to the door, but by some familiar instinct, she can feel her boss enter the space behind her.
“Hi, everybody!” Hillary Clinton says to a small collection of staffers, hanging up her coat and scarf. The two women don’t greet each other right away, but instead settle into a comfortable silence, the conversation continuing around them. Clinton lays her purse on the counter, fishes out a powder case, and side by side, the two women prepare to take the stage, hovering around each other. Abedin addresses Clinton as “Madam Secretary.” Clinton addresses her back: “Yes, dear?”
Over the last 25 years, in rooms just like this, Abedin has become the most famous and least understood right-hand woman in politics: adviser, surrogate daughter, friend, “all-around gatekeeper.” When Hillary Clinton meets the world, she says, she is the “bridge.”
On this occasion, Clinton is support staff for Abedin, here to promote her aide’s new memoir, Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds. The panel discussion — “Huma Abedin and Hillary Clinton in Conversation” — is the first time they will share a stage. The book is a raw and detailed account of Abedin’s childhood in Saudi Arabia, the way her late father shaped her view of the world, the career she built in “Hillaryland” and the slow disintegration of her marriage to Anthony Weiner, saturating her life with personal and professional shame. Throughout, Abedin examines the underside of a one-note public scandal — the complicated mix of gratitude, confusion and pain that she felt along the way. A nod, she says, to the title: Two things can be true at once.
More than that, it’s the most Abedin, 45, has ever talked about herself in public.
In one week, shepherded by a black SUV and a publicist from Scribner, she does CBS Sunday Morning, the Today Show, Morning Joe, Tamron Hall, Joy Reid, Stephen Colbert, The View. She talks to the Associated Press, USA Today, New York magazine, NPR, WAMU, BBC. She does live hits from her East Village apartment. She attends two book parties, one surrounded by celebrity friends at Anna Wintour’s townhouse. For the first time, on the sets of live tapings, she sees footage from the press conference where she stood by her husband in 2013, after his second scandal. “I’m doing the thing that scares me the most,” she says at one event, “which is this.”
In the book, there is constant attention paid to Abedin’s silence. “When I did speak out,” she writes, “it was more with a whisper than a megaphone.” She describes serving Clinton, that “brightest flame,” as like living in a “glass jar,” circling a person whose life “took precedence” over her own, she says. In one scene, before the 2013 press conference, her colleague Philippe Reines asks if she’s sure she wants to make a statement on camera: When he tells her, “This will be the first time most Americans will hear your voice,” he means it literally. During the waves of scandal, when Weiner’s political career collapsed after having sexual conversations with women he met online, including a 15-year-old girl, she saw a widening “chasm” between her own experience and the version she saw reflected in the eyes of reporters and photographers. “I defiantly stared right back,” she writes, but publicly, she said almost nothing. Backstage on her book tour, she is nervous and relieved, almost giddy to be talking. “I’ve never seen her this happy,” a former Clinton aide says in passing. The word Abedin uses is “unburdened.”
There’s pent-up demand to hear something from Clinton’s closest aide, but it’s not to ask about her childhood, or her travels at the State Department. As she presents herself to the public, almost every interview begins with the same question: Why did you feel the need to write this book? Abedin is being pressed for an explanation, though the ask is never made explicit. Why bring it all up again, they seem to say. The laptop, the emails, the betrayal, James Comey. Why write the book at all? Did people want an apology? A defense? A justification? And then comes the second question, the same one her boss got in 1998: Why did you stay with your husband?
The memoir offers 500 pages of answers — on every page, she tells us what she was feeling, when and why. “There’s been a lot of speculation over the last 15 years,” Abedin says. “What is wrong with her? What is she thinking? I tell you exactly what I am thinking in this book.” She details therapy sessions with her husband. She pulls from journal entries and letters. She accounts for the different stages of despair and self-doubt that haunted her marriage. The index entries for Weiner take up almost three pages. But she doesn’t sell outright scandal (her portrait of Weiner, a partner who was as much a source of happiness and financial stability as trauma and anger, doesn’t begin until you’re more than 200 pages in). She doesn’t give up scoops on Hillary and Bill Clinton (her publisher had to ask for a section on the impeachment). She details the unwanted advances of a male senator in the mid-aughts, but when pressed to name him, she refuses. She writes at length about her own silence, but the way in which that reflex to retreat might have been shaped by the Clintons’ own bunker mentality — always digging in rather than out in the face of scandal — is a parallel she examines without criticism or question. Abedin is finally talking, but as she explains her side of the story — “I realized that other people were writing my history,” she says — there’s a nagging sense that some find the answers unsatisfactory.
She discovered this early on, before the manuscript was done. For a while, the book’s working title was “Clarity.” The idea was scrapped, “because, to people on my editorial team, it wasn’t ‘clear.’ I’m not joking,” she tells me. “People who haven’t gone through what I have gone through, as it relates to my marriage and betrayal — they find so much of it confusing. Like, ‘But I don’t understand! Why did you stay?!’ ‘Why didn’t you leave?!’ ‘I don’t get it!’ ‘It’s not clear.’”
“It’s the way the senator story was covered, too,” she says. The memory of the incident, when an unnamed male senator tried to kiss her, only came back to her after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. “This is more about having a discussion, knowing that it’s my truth, knowing that it was a trauma that was buried for 20 years!” she says. “Like, guess what? It’s not about him.”
At the 92nd Street Y, Abedin is talking about the interview she just finished taping with Jake Tapper and Christiane Amanpour on CNN. “I kept saying, ‘My boss, My boss …’” She still serves as Clinton’s chief of staff. “Both Christiane Amanpour and Jake Tapper were like” — she shifts into an anchor impression — “to be clear, when she says ‘her boss,’ she means Hillary Clinton.”
“I think they wanted me to say: ‘Secretary Clinton.’”
Clinton takes out a tube of lipstick and laughs, shaking her head.
“Oh, for goodness’ sakes. Oh, for goodness’ sakes.”
Lifting a bottle of hairspray in the air, Clinton aims and fires, accidentally hitting Nick Merrill, her former press secretary, in the eyes with aerosol. “Oh, my god, I’m so sorry!” she yells. Merrill turns away. “Jesus!” Clinton digs through her cosmetics. “Oh, wait! Wait! Wait!” She takes out another bottle, a small can of the Evian facial spray she used to use on the campaign trail — “a walk down memory lane” — and starts spraying people in the room. Abedin barely notices.
Another former staffer, on loan to volunteer for the event, comes over to brief Clinton on the sequence of events — quick photo line, introductions, take the stage — but there is no real prep for the panel. Abedin doesn’t ask Clinton how she wants it to go, and neither does she.
Outside the room, friends and former colleagues are lining up to take pictures.
Clinton turns to her aide and tells her get in the middle.
“You are the person in power,” she says.
One of the prerequisites to being “enigmatic” is some measure of silence.
The public’s perception of a figure like Abedin solidifies imperceptibly and gradually. Almost always, it’s the one that we project, filling the void with paparazzi stakeouts, speculation, snippets of reported insight. Often, it says more about us than the person at its center. “Señora Danger,” one New York Post cover asked in 2013. “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?”
In Abedin’s case, she has been cast as either (1) private, (2) glamorous or (3) mysterious. In the final act (4), she is the cautionary figure and punchline of a three-step Greek drama we all know well: Clinton stays with her husband after a public betrayal, Clinton supports her closest aide as she does the same, Clinton finds that the aide’s husband — due to his laptop, the scene of the betrayal — is the cause of a new FBI inquiry, 10 days before the election that’s supposed to make her president.
Fifteen minutes into the 92nd Street Y event, the moderator asks about the most difficult moment they’ve shared — the question maybe everyone wants. Abedin says Sept. 11, 2001. Clinton goes there.
“I will say, because she writes about it — I wouldn’t talk about it if she hadn’t written about it — toward the end of the 2016 campaign, there was a decision made by the then-FBI director to reopen the closed investigation into emails, based on a computer that Anthony Wiener had used. I think that was, in many ways, one of the worst days for her.” Of course, “it was terrible for me, too,” Clinton adds. “It obviously impacted the outcome of the election.”
When the news broke that day, they were on the campaign plane, headed for Iowa.
The public, and the press, never saw a reaction from Abedin. What I remember from the back of the plane was the way events carried on, surreally, as if nothing had happened. All day, Clinton held her smile. She did her two rallies in Iowa. She sat for her scheduled photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz. On the press bus, aides passed out Halloween candy. There was no mention of the news until 7 p.m., after the last event of the day, at a 10-minute press conference in a high school choir room in Des Moines, Iowa. Abedin, always present, always just off to the side, wasn’t there.
Five years later, the book describes what we couldn’t see.
On the plane, Abedin started sobbing. “The moment she made eye contact with me, I just broke down.” Clinton came over to give her a hug. That night, Abedin says in the book, she wrote down one line in her notebook: “I do not know how I am going to survive this. Help me God.”
The experience of reading Both/And is, in part, to finally understand why Abedin is the way she is: You see the reticence and discipline shaped by her Muslim faith, her life as an American in Saudi Arabia, her two parents, an Indian father and a Pakistani mother, both Fulbright scholars who came to the U.S. Her father, Zain, wrote poetry and received his master’s degree in English literature. Cosmopolitan and intellectual, he could be a “mystery” to his own children, shielding them from his fatal diagnosis of renal failure. Abedin was 16 when he died. When you open her book, the first thing you see, opposite the title page, is a handwritten note from Zain: “If you can’t stand the heat, then as Truman said, get out of the kitchen. But your exit should be graceful, decent and above board.” Really, the book is written as a kind of letter back to him. “It’s me having this conversation with him,” she tells me, “saying, ‘Look! Look what I’m doing! I want you to be proud. I’m so good at this job! I work at the White House! I wrote this book! I am a good writer!’”
Abedin’s preoccupation with stories, the ones we write ourselves and the ones that are written for us, begins as part of that dialogue with her father. As a child, she read novels in order according to his instruction, each one numbered by level of difficulty. When she was 9 or 10, he gave her Silas Marner, one of George Eliot’s most challenging novels, labeled “L1,” entry-level. As an adult, Abedin became an astute observer of the public glare, adopting her boss’s instinct to “battle” in the face of scandal. She remembers the way reporters and photographers moved around the Clintons “in unison as a single amoeba.” Watching the first lady navigate her husband’s impeachment, she began to view the public gaze as a stalking presence — like “suffocating layers on a hot day.” Fifteen years later, when she finds the same hungry eyes set on her, she loses track of the story. “We were all so far down into the minute details of my personal life,” she writes, “I no longer knew what belonged to me and what did not.”
After Clinton’s loss in 2016, Abedin found refuge outside of politics, starting with Anna Wintour, who offered to take her to dinner and a movie. She wrote most of the book in 2018 and 2019 at the editor’s vacation house in Mastic, N.Y. The fridge was always stocked for her arrival. At the book party Wintour hosted at her home in Manhattan, Abedin was at ease with celebrities and designers: Sienna Miller, Karlie Kloss, Michael Kors, Tory Burch, Adrien Brody, Nicky Hilton Rothschild, Vera Wang, Prabal Gurung. Toward the end of the night, on a low chaise in the middle of the room, Clinton sat half-reclined, flanked by Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller.
The public fascination with Abedin grew in part from her own encouragement. Early on, she went along with it. In 2007, she agreed to a New York Observer profile, so long as she didn’t have to directly participate. The piece ran under the headline, “Hillary’s Mystery Woman.” Ten days later, Wintour sent a fax to Clinton’s Senate office, asking her to sit for a Vogue interview. It was true that she believed staffers were “meant to be rarely seen, and certainly never heard,” that the attention was uncomfortable. It was also true that she “loved fashion as much as politics” and saw the offer from a beloved magazine as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Abedin said yes. When Vogue called during the 2016 campaign, she said yes again.
“Did I like wearing nice clothes and getting dressed up and getting my hair done?” Abedin tells me. “Yeah, absolutely. I’d be lying if I didn’t. To get to go to the Met? I mean, that’s like a pinch-me moment every year.”
But apart from the red flags she says she saw on the eve of their wedding, when she discovered his inbox full of fans, women, whom he seemed eager to engage, the hesitation she felt about Weiner revolved around her fear of a more public role. He was a sitting congressman, loud and attention-seeking. She liked her life “on the periphery,” knowing exactly where to stand to monitor her boss but remain “just outside the camera’s frame.”
“So much of it was, did I want to step from here to there?” she says. “But it’s a little bit more nuanced. I also never wanted to be wrong about anything. It’s one of the reasons I was always so silent. I think it was a ‘both/and.’”
“I never wanted to screw up for my boss. And then we had Comey,” she says, like it’s hitting her again. “Jesus!”
The morning after the 92nd Street Y event, Abedin is in her living room, considering where to stage a remote hit for BBC News. In the span of five days, she’s done three radio interviews, three print interviews and nine television appearances, and she is visibly more comfortable.
“I think it’s weird if you can see the kitchen.” Four elaborate bouquets, gifts for the book launch, sit on the counter. “And I have my funeral flowers,” she jokes. At her apartment, a large unit in the same East Village building as her husband, where the two co-parent their son, Jordan Zain, there are books everywhere: novels, nonfiction, self-help (The Alpha Female’s Guide to Men and Marriage). Bill and Hillary Clinton’s memoirs, multiple copies of each, line the shelves.
She is happy about the night before. “She’s so cute, right?” Abedin says of her boss. “Normally, I’m like, ‘Here’s what they’re gonna ask you.’ We didn’t even really talk about it.”
“I mean, look, her doing the Comey thing was, you know, hard. But I’ve been doing it. It was kind of nice to have somebody else do it.”
The relationship between the two women is difficult to define. Others have tried: co-dependent, mother-and-daughter, confidants. Reines, the friend and former Clinton aide, described them at her Washington book party as “the same, an extension of each other.” In the book, the most telling glimpse at their relationship comes early on. Abedin is still in her early 20s. The impeachment scandal is raging. At an event one night in the White House, the young aide dithers on whether to fix her boss a plate of food. Clinton becomes frustrated. “This is not working,” she says. Abedin takes it as a death sentence until later that night, when her boss pulls her aside to apologize. Rather than scrutinize the moment on the page, Abedin is searingly earnest about her admiration. “I would walk to the ends of the earth if you asked,” she remembers thinking. Depending on your view, the relationship is as uncomplicated, or complicated, as just that.
It’s one of the topics Abedin has been asked to explain. “Maybe this is my naivete,” she says, “but I thought there would be much more: ‘What is the book about?’ And there hasn’t been any of that. It’s been, ‘I know exactly what this book is about.’ In Abedin’s eyes, the message of her story, in part, is “it’s OK to not be OK.”
Whether people want something more from her — what that thing is, and to what end — is a question she considers carefully. She is aware that people will come to her story with ideas about when she should have left, or what she should have done — that the same instincts to weather the scandal meant it just sat there, waiting to implode again, which it did in spectacular fashion. She is a bit “judgey” about women who ask her the same question people asked her boss more than 20 years ago. On the one hand, the Comey intervention, and Clinton’s loss, is something she has to carry to her grave. “And I will,” she says. “That’s just something I have to live with.” On the other, the marriage was hers to figure out, more complicated than anyone knew. Both things can be true.
“You asked me about whether people want an apology. I don’t feel like I owe an apology,” she says, sitting in her living room. “I think society should maybe start thinking about how we talk about addiction and mental health in a really open, honest way. Which is why I am very open and honest about it. People often say, ‘Well, you can’t defend Anthony’s behavior.’ I’m not defending his behavior. He doesn’t defend his behavior. But I needed to try to understand it.”
Behind Abedin, an old Clinton hand, Mike Taylor, quietly lets himself into the apartment, carrying equipment for the TV hit.
“Oh, thank God. Mike brought a ring light!”
Abedin realizes her interview is in less than 10 minutes, and the two rush to figure out the setup. “It is live, right?” “OK.” “Hold on, hold on, hold on.” “What’s happening?” “We’re trying to build the thing.” “Should I put my table of flowers here, or is that cheesy?” They decide on a spot in the corner of the living room, dragging a bar stool from the kitchen to prop up a laptop. “Do we have a copy of the book to put in the shot?” All they can find is a paperback publisher’s edition. They use a tall stack of books on the floor as a pedestal. “This looks horrible,” Abedin says.
The soundcheck is starting. “OK, I can hear you perfectly. Excellent.”
“Just move about an inch to your left.”
And Abedin is on air.
First question: “You’ve written a searingly honest account here,” the anchor, a woman, says. “Why did you feel the need to write this book?”
Second question: “People might say, ‘Well, you know, men behave in all sorts of ways, but they didn’t necessarily feel the need to bear all,’ and yet you seem to feel that need — is that because you wanted to do that, personally? Is it for your son? Is it because of your future career?”
Abedin gives her responses.
Somebody else has always been telling my story, she says.
This was me reclaiming my story, telling my truth, she says.
I don’t feel a need to justify my story, she says.
After 10 minutes, the interview is done.
She pauses, perfectly still and silent as she waits for the live feed to end. When she’s sure she’s off camera, she looks up from the computer screen and says, “Did you hear what they asked?”