In the run-up to the publication of this book, Democrats have been privately expressing their dread, fearing it will be a distraction and reopen old wounds.
I wonder if, after reading it, they will feel otherwise. Are there moments when “What Happened” is wearying, canned and disingenuous, spinning events like a top? Yes. Does it offer any new hypotheses about what doomed Clinton’s campaign? No. It merely synthesizes old ones; Clinton’s diagnostics are the least interesting part of the book. Is there a full chapter devoted to her email, clearly intended to make her own closing arguments in this case? Yes. She can’t shake her inner litigator.
But this book is not just a perseverative recap of 2016. It is the story of what it was like to run for president of the United States as the female nominee of a major party, a first in American history. The apotheosis of Leaning In. Doesn’t this experience rate an account from Clinton herself? Especially when, after sticking her neck out, the only place some people could envision it was in a stockade?
More generally, something truly extraordinary happened in American politics last year, and Clinton was at the center of it. Fifty years from now, are historians going to complain that she had no business offering her perspective?
“I was running a traditional presidential campaign with carefully thought-out policies and painstakingly built coalitions,” she writes, “while Trump was running a reality TV show that expertly and relentlessly stoked Americans’ anger and resentment.”
The first two chapters of “What Happened” are wry and dramatic. Clinton recounts the otherworldliness of Inauguration Day — she briefly imagined herself in Bali — and the bleak weeks following the election, when she watched bad television, got in touch with her inner Marie Kondo and did lots of yoga. “If you’ve never done alternate nostril breathing,” she writes, “it’s worth a try.” An admirer sent her a note instructing her to watch “Gilmore Girls.” An old pal sent her mildly vulgar doggerel. “Friends,” she writes, “advised me on the power of Xanax and raved about their amazing therapists.” She declined both the drug and their referrals.
The best, most poignant parts of “What Happened” reveal the Hillary Clinton that her inner circle has assured us was lurking beneath the surface all along: A woman who’s arch but sensitive. She writes that she’s astonished whenever someone else is astonished to discover she’s human. “For the record,” she writes, “it hurts to be torn apart.” It stung when schoolmates in junior high teased her about “the lack of ankles on my sturdy legs.” It stung when they teased her about her glasses, too. She doesn’t even bother describing her reaction to the ticker of contumely that’s whirred above her head for most of her adult life, though she does write about how “incredibly uncomfortable” it was to be stalked on stage by Trump during the second presidential debate.
Far more controversial and complicated, surely, is the rest of “What Happened,” starting with Clinton’s arguments about the role of misogyny and sexism in the election. It’s hard to buy the idea that she suffered disproportionately from charges of untrustworthiness or inauthenticity simply because she was a woman. Her husband was considered so eely that the tabloids christened him “Slick Willy,” and plenty of male presidential candidates (Mitt Romney, John Kerry) were regarded as catastrophically insincere.
More persuasive is Clinton’s contention that presidential politics, especially compared to parliamentary politics, favors arena-filling showmanship rather than the quieter, detail-oriented realism she prefers. (How many times has Clinton been praised for being “a workhorse, not a show horse”?) And 2016 was nothing if not the year of the blusterer. One of the things that drove Clinton bonkers about Bernie Sanders was that he always managed to outdo her proposals with something larger and less feasible. “That left me to play the unenviable role,” she writes, “of spoilsport schoolmarm.”
You may have heard that “What Happened” is angry. It’s true. Or defiant, anyway. Love it or loathe it, chafe at it or cheer it; you will now see, for the first time, what it looks like when Clinton doesn’t spend all of her energy suppressing her irritation. Former FBI director Comey gets it on the chin; so does the mainstream media, this newspaper very much included. She’s got a special rucksack of descriptors for Trump (“hateful,” “a fraud”), whom she says is pulverizing democratic norms into a paste. “He doesn’t just like Putin,” she writes. “He seems to want to be like Putin, a white authoritarian leader who could put down dissenters, repress minorities, disenfranchise voters, weaken the press, and amass untold billions for himself. He dreams of Moscow on the Potomac.”
Her digs at Trump are not surprising. But her dig at Joe Biden is. Over lunch in 2014, Clinton explains, Barack Obama made it clear that he believed she was the Democrats’ best hope to keep the White House. “I knew President Obama thought the world of his vice president,” she writes, “so his vote of confidence meant a great deal to me.”
It’s a grim reminder of the worst we’ve read about Clinton: She needs a separate storage unit to hold her grudges — and her sets of tiny knives.
As her book’s title implies, Clinton has her own version of what happened in 2016, and she eventually forces readers to reckon with it. She seems at once the best and worst possible person to carry out this assessment. But here, at any rate, is her bottom line:
Comey’s letter of Oct. 28, 2016, which notified Congress that he was reopening his investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct State Department business, effectively ended her candidacy. (She leans heavily on various analyses done by the data maestro Nate Silver to make her case.) Combine that letter with the full-saturation media coverage Comey’s investigation had been getting all along, and then add to it Russian interference — fake news stories on social media, email hacks — and you have the perfect storm.
Clinton also blames sexism, citing a 2014 Pew Research Center poll that showed just how few voters hoped to see a female president in their lifetime. She blames racism, too, which she considers inseparable from economic anxiety, because her courting of immigrants and voters of color might have given the impression that she put their economic interests before those of disenfranchised whites. She believes that voter suppression in swing states, made possible by a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2013, also made a difference. So did the ever-present animus toward her, which remains, she writes, something she doesn’t fully understand.
It’s hard to say whether readers will buy these explanations. It’s possible that a more inspired candidate would have won the electoral college, simple as that. Or that the Clinton brand was tarnished among black voters. Or that her campaign, in spite of its extensive networks and deep pockets, failed to detect that something on the ground was wrong. Or that she should have appeared in more rural areas. Or that she couldn’t find a better way to speak to the fears of the white working class — which she does admit, though she doesn’t think it cost her the election.
We’ll be arguing about these questions for decades, surely. But one thing we know for certain: History conspired against Clinton. No non-incumbent Democrat has succeeded a two-term Democratic president since 1836, and 2016 was a year when voters were pining for change. Bigly.
In spite of that — in spite of everything — Clinton still won the popular vote by almost 3 million. But it didn’t matter. What happened is, it wasn’t enough.
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