It was no surprise that Hillary’s Clinton’s latest book was greeted by many as yet another attempt by a calculating politician to deflect blame and reposition her reputation. Here was the former Democratic nominee, not even a year removed from a shocking electoral defeat that by all accounts should not have happened and that has imperiled American democracy, reinserting herself into the national discourse to yet again defend and explain her values and choices. Always opposed to losers, frequently distrusting of Clintons, and often unsympathetic to women, political pundits focused their reviews on whether Clinton sufficiently accepted responsibility for her election loss, seeking their pound of flesh. In a media landscape that allowed vague suspicions about Clinton’s motives and morals to reach equal footing with the daily outrages of Donald Trump, it was all too easy to dismiss Clinton as the worst interpreter of “what happened.”
In many ways, the critical reception proved the unstated thesis of the book. That once set, narratives never die. And for Hillary Clinton—a smart, ambitious, private, and independent woman—that narrative has always been that there was something lurking behind the curtain even when she was most exposed. Fortunately, then, Clinton didn’t write What Happened for those viewing her through that prism. Instead, she set out to expose that prism and show its effect on both the campaign and her public life.
That isn’t to say that What Happened is a tour de force or a genuinely great campaign retrospective. To the contrary, in many ways Clinton’s overall work fails to resemble a book so much as a connection of loosely related essays. Poor organization is a problem throughout, as Clinton hurtles from one subject to another, shuttling back and forth in time, sometimes addressing the tantalizing titular question, sometimes moving far afield. Clinton’s sometimes stilted prose and narrative excesses suggest that she needed a heavier editorial hand (page after page describing her staffing decisions and campaign surrogates surely could have been left on the cutting room floor). The overwhelming use of dime-a-dozen inspirational quotations was overwrought.
Instead, Clinton’s main achievement is in delving into complicated components of the campaign with remarkable clarity and insight. Her chapters addressing the effects of her gender, of Russian influence, and press coverage of her email practices on the campaign’s outcome are concise, thorough, and persuasive.
For instance, in response to the willfully blind men (and some women) who dispute the claim that Clinton’s gender adversely affected the public’s perception of her, Clinton offers a careful synthesis of scholarship and experience. She presents evidence that the kind of “emotional labor” that women are conditioned to exhibit is not rewarded in presidential political systems, and balances that with the criticism and coaching she received about the sound and strength of her voice at campaign rallies. She cites studies demonstrating that men are rewarded for advocating for themselves while women are penalized for asserting their qualifications and ambitions, and then describes how her sky-high approval ratings as President Obama’s Secretary of State devolved into widespread perceptions that she was evil as a presidential candidate. She explains that women are often depicted as conniving and unlikeable, and then points out how her controversial votes were held against her in ways her male colleagues never experienced (noting, as this space did in January 2016, that John Kerry and Joe Biden also voted for the war in Iraq yet did not suffer the same reputational damage). In a particularly incisive passage, Clinton writes:
I can’t count the number of times that good-hearted men who should know better dismiss the notion that sexism and outright misogyny are still potent forces in our national life. ‘But things have changed,’ they say, as Donald Trump brags about groping women and a few weeks later wins the presidency, as his rally-goers chant ‘Trump that bitch,’ as the White House proudly releases photos of old white men gleefully deciding which health services to take away from women.
It’s a synthesis of the national scene that reduces minimizations of sexism’s effect to shambles.
Her frequent critiques of James Comey are not only biting, they are essential reading given the reputational turnaround the former FBI director has undergone since his firing. She methodically describes Comey’s severe break with Department of Justice protocol in announcing, without consulting the Attorney General, a non-prosecution decision replete with legally irrelevant editorializing, his decision to inject entirely speculative email fodder back into the campaign just days before the election, and his disastrous double-standard in refusing to comment on the Trump-Russia investigation. Comey’s firing by Trump was unjust and authoritarian, but, as Clinton well explains, it should not obscure the deep wound to democracy that Comey’s politicization of the FBI caused.
Her analysis of Russian interference into the election and the Trump campaign’s ties to the Kremlin is studious and comprehensive, even as it covers old ground. And her criticisms of the press, while at times self-serving, are often undeniable. Clinton takes on the New York Times for its erroneous email reporting, and she describes the Times’s October 31, 2016 article asserting that the FBI found no link between Russia and the Trump campaign as “one of the single worst stories of the entire election.” We now know that Trump Dossier author Christopher Steele was so alarmed by that article that he cut off contact with the FBI, believing that Trump loyalists at the agency had compromised the Russia investigation. For all the hand-wringing over Clinton’s failure to “take responsibility,” maybe it’s the New York Times’s political reporters and editors that should be badgered into an overdo mea culpa.
Yet, Clinton does not just live up to her bookish reputation, she displays a self-awareness and considered introspection that her critics have long insisted does not exist. Clinton acknowledges that she’s hated by millions and asks her readers to consider how much that hurts. She refers to the “dark days” in her marriage without getting more specific, explaining that the conspiracy theories suggesting insidious motives for staying with Bill are the kind of wild, dehumanizing speculation that greets her at every turn. Bill is her best friend, she explains, and the rest is frankly none of our business: “I know so many women who are married to men who—though they have their good qualities—can be sullen, moody, irritated at small requests, and generally disappointed with everyone and everything. Bill Clinton is the opposite…please consider for a moment what it would be like for the whole world to know about the worst moments in your relationship…” It’s hard to imagine what could be more authentic.
For those still recovering from Clinton’s election loss, What Happened is a little too clinical to fully reopen the wounds of November 8th, 2016 and its aftermath. But in discussing the content of her intended victory speech, Clinton provides an alternate ending that cuts deeply, reminding us that the loss was not only hers. Writing about her goals for preparing her expected victory remarks, Clinton wrote:
I wanted to reassure Americans about the strength of our democracy. The election had tested our faith in many ways…A lot of Americans wondered what it all meant for our future. I wanted to answer those fears with a strong victory, a smooth transition, and an effective presidency that delivered real results…. I would argue that despite our differences, a strong majority of Americans had come together in defense of our core values.
It turned out her speech was too optimistic, and, as a result, did not come to pass.
What Happened may ostensibly refer to diagnosing the reasons for Clinton’s election upset, but in another way the book is truly about “what didn’t happen.” That is, the book’s pages contain Clinton’s plans, her drive, her intended first steps as commander in chief, and her readiness to be president, bursting forth from every well considered opinion and assessment. All of which forces us to acknowledge that “what happened” is instead the reality we now inhabit and the question we, not she, must answer.