It was common last year to say that the 2016 presidential campaign was awful. That it was the worst in living memory, that it was an endless, unceasing march into the worst scenario that American politics had to offer. Voters turned away in disgust. Journalists and pundits, forced to stare into the soul-destroying void, longed for release. Even the politicians themselves seemed sickened by the poison to which they had once been immune.
If you miss this experience and want more than anything to relive it, then walk—no, run—to your nearest bookstore and get a copy of Hillary Clinton’s What Happened. As for the rest of us, for whom 2016 was a nightmare from which we have, at last, awoken, nearly anything is preferable to going back into that awful reverie.
It is understandable that Hillary Clinton is unable to shake the nightmare. Her life is built around preparation and hard work, studying and following rules, practicing until you get it right. For her to live through a campaign in which she checked all the right boxes according to all the right people but saw it all inexplicably slip away must seem like an anxiety dream come to life.
She ran the campaign she wanted against the opponent everyone said could never win. She had all the proper endorsements and all the advantages. But Trump happens. Even for those who will never agree with Clinton’s politics, it is possible to sympathize with the human element of the story. This book appears designed in part to elicit and enhance that sympathy. Instead, it reminds the reader why she lost in the first place.
The ten months since the 2016 election feels, in some ways, like ten years. The Democratic Party has a lot of that time screaming about Trump’s unacceptability and awfulness. They have spent a little of it, more recently, exploring compromises and making deals with him. But all the while they have searched, as all defeated parties do, for a new direction. Even Clinton acknowledges this. In explaining why she skipped the massive protest march that followed Trump’s inauguration, she explained “I believed it was important for new voices to take the stage, especially on this day.”
And yet, this book. Clinton can understand the need to move on, but cannot bring herself to cede her place in the party’s firmament. One reason: She’s got a lot of axes to grind. No one expects this book to have the cool remove of history, and it is not intended as a historical work, nor even as an impartial one. Still, it is surprising how much of the work is spent in the airing of grievances.
It is, at times, surprisingly petty. On viewing the Women’s March, Clinton calls it “awe-inspiring,” but says “Yet I couldn’t help but ask where those feelings of solidarity, outrage, and passion had been during the election.” Later, she writes of a time that a woman dragged her adult daughter before Hillary so that the daughter could apologize for not voting. Clinton does not give us her exact response, but sums up her thoughts on the situation: “These people were looking for absolution that I just couldn’t give. We all have to live with the consequences of our decisions.”
It’s an ungenerous attitude for someone who, in this book even more than in her previous works, presents herself as a Christian. It is, admittedly, an unusual brand of Christianity. She mentions her sect—Methodism—and its founder, John Wesley many times throughout the book and writes glowingly of ministers she has known over the years in a way that rings true. But she also mentions Planned Parenthood more often than Jesus Christ. It is a variety of syncretism common among politicians, mixing the sacred and the profane.
Only Complain, Never Explain
“We all have to live with the consequences of our decisions” is also quite a case of psychological projection. Much of What Happened is an exercise in not living with the consequences of her decisions. There are the usual apologies of politicians—the form of words spoken without any meaning behind them. On the rallying cry of Bernie Sanders supporters that arose from her secret speeches to investment bankers, Clinton writes, “I should have seen that coming.” But the admission of culpability is hollow because she does nothing to fix it nor has she, in this book or elsewhere, ever released the text of those speeches.
Similarly, the e-mail scandal is addressed and dismissed in a manner indistinguishable from the 2016 “apologies.” She calls the decision to use a private server “a dumb mistake” and says “I own that,” a new twist on the standard Clinton non-apology, “I take responsibility.” But she does not, in any meaningful sense “own that.” Nor can she ever, since to do so would be to admit that the private e-mail was not to avoid “juggling a second phone,” as she says, but to avoid compliance with the Federal Records Act and to avoid having her e-mail uncovered by Congressional investigations or reporters’ FOIA requests. Instead, we are left with the tired tale of a brilliant, accomplished, highly educated woman, the woman President Obama called the most highly qualified candidate in American history, who somehow can’t figure out how to operate two separate e-mail accounts, a task that millions of workers accomplish every day around the world.
The complaining about the e-mail scandal is old news, but other complaints ring truer. The way Clinton characterizes her interaction with Sanders and his followers is succinct and accurate:
Bernie: “I think America should get a pony.”
Hillary: “How will you pay for the pony? Where will the pony come from? How will you get Congress to agree to the pony?”
Bernie: “Hillary thinks America doesn’t deserve a pony.”
Bernie Supporters: “Hillary hates ponies!”
Hillary: “Actually, I love ponies.”
Bernie Supporters: “She changed her position on ponies! #WhichHillary #WitchHillary”
Headline: Hillary Refuses To Give Every American a Pony.
Debate Moderator: “Hillary, how do you feel when people say you lie about ponies?”
If this sounds familiar to conservative readers, it is because this has long been the way our exchanges with the Left have gone: emotion trumping reason, desire trumping reality, and the moderators taking the other side’s position as truth. Hillary’s complaints are just, but they would be more just if she had not used identical tactics against Republicans for decades.
Other more policy-based gripes are less believable. She portrays former FBI director James Comey as a Trump ally who sided against her publicly for partisan gain, almost entirely ignoring the events that followed, including the frequent clashes between Trump and Comey that ended in the director’s abrupt firing. And her continuing crusade against the First Amendment protections guaranteed in the Citizens United case omit the pertinent facts that she raised and spent far more money than her opponents both in the primary and general elections. (To say nothing of the irony that the Citizens United case hinged on the legality of showing a film criticizing… Hillary Clinton.) The biggest lesson of the Trump campaign was the increasing irrelevance of money and advertising, yet Clinton appears never to have considered this when she rolls out the same money-in-politics talking points that she has used for decades.
The Love Song of H. Rodham Clinton
Other parts of the book are strange and ill-thought-out, possibly because of how quickly it was written. Clinton likes to start this book’s chapters with quotations, a dubious practice that more often reaches for an unearned association with the speaker than a straightforward consideration of the words quoted. Occasionally, however, the words do bear directly on the chapter that follows. Quoting from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker,” for example, she seeks to cast the poem as instructions on persistence:
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
But “East Coker” is, like much of Eliot’s work, deeply pessimistic, a beautiful poem, but sorrowful. Consider some of the preceding lines:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
This, more accurately, might resonate with the anguish of Clinton’s narrow defeat, the deflation of seeing one’s life work smashed before one’s eyes, and the contemplation of how much time was wasted in pursuit of a goal that turned out, in the end, to be unachievable. By choosing Eliot’s late-in-life poem of despair, is Clinton trying to tell us that she has accepted defeat and come to terms with the world’s brokenness?
Probably not. More likely it is just a part of the confusion that makes up this book. The text is a grab-bag of acceptance, rejection, blame, and rage, along with alternate history imaginings of how President Clinton began her term in the universe where America elected her. Hillary’s new ghostwriter has given her a more interesting voice—more casual and even playful at times—but there are still echoes of the old Hillary mixed in with the new Deutero-Hillary. It makes for a confusing jumble.
So why this book? And why now? All of these ideas are the same things we heard from Clinton and her team last year. Republishing them now adds little to the conversation, while a memoir five or ten years removed might have added some perspective, at the very least. These, along with the recycled campaign speeches that are thrown into the text, are no different from anything that we already knew about 2016. All of her personal feelings and thoughts on poetry are interesting, no doubt, to fans of hers, but do they make up enough to justify a whole new book?
One answer may be that there are also echoes here of a politician who has not yet run her last campaign. Amid the talk of yoga and rambles in the forest, there are some subtle shifts. Having lost a sizable majority of rural voters and working-class white people, Clinton goes into a pages-long paean to the coal miner that could have been a press release from the United Mine Workers. It begins as an attempt to explain her comment about hoping to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” but it goes on for so long that it starts to sound like a campaign speech.
Clinton does not announce a new campaign for office in this book, but she doesn’t rule it out. She simply says that speaking out on causes dear to her “doesn’t mean I’ll ever run for office again.” For now, she claims to be “searching for a positive way to contribute,” and names several causes and websites, but the focus of the book is clearly on her merit as a candidate. Whether that is meant to apply to the past or the future is still unknown but, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “No man knows, when that Presidential grub gets to gnawing at him, just how deep in it will get until he has tried it.” The tone of this book is guarded, but suggests those grubs gnaw as deeply in our time as they did in Lincoln’s.