What Happened or How the Hell Did We Get Here? Clinton gives her insight into her 2016 loss.
After the first couple of chapters, it is clear that Hillary Clinton is experiencing a form of post-exam malaise. Bereft of her punishing schedule, she potters around her home in New York state, watching TV, reading affirmation poetry, and catching up on her home re-decorating. These tasks she throws herself into with a rigour that betrays the fact that she is not at home with loafing around aimlessly. Over the succeeding pages, the thought creeps in that, once she’s dusted herself off, though she may protest, never again, this may not be the last chapter in Hillary Clinton’s electoral ambitions.
First, let’s look at the technical specs. This book is a solid inch and a half thick. Readers trembling before a five hundred page rehash of Russia, Comey and emails should know that Hillary writes simply, without literary fireworks, and the book moves along. There is a funny preponderance of the first person. A cynic might imagine a Hillary advisor urging her to ‘make sure and make it personal’. Despite the confessional ‘I’, there are no stray sentences here, or big tabloid reveals.
A few things do pop out from the initial personal chapters. One of the more surprising things is her religiosity. It’s often joked about how presidential candidates manage to find God in the run up to an election. Certainly Trump’s encounter with a ray of heavenly light, with some on the religious right declaring him a born again Christian, is suspect. However, Hillary’s faith doesn’t appear feigned in the slightest. As odd as it may sit with Republican portrayals of her as gung-ho for nine month abortions, liberals may legitimately wonder how she squares social progressivism with her staunch Methodist beliefs. She explains she belongs to a progressive church, which encouraged her to go out and “do good” in the world, yet she fails to mention any conflict that arose with her belief in socially progressive causes – though later on she does say that Chelsea made her rethink her formerly ambivalent position on gay marriage.
If you’ve decided, like I have, that this book is smoothing out the wrinkles before another election gambit, another interesting tidbit is found, again, in the personal chapters that make up the first portion of the book. Here, while talking about her devastation following the loss, and how in the following weeks she tried everything from yogic breathing to long walks in the woods to revive herself, her friends quipped that they would offer her Xanax and the number to their therapists. Hillary quickly assures us that, “that wasn’t for me, never has been”. When, during her campaign for nominee against Obama in 2008, she let a few tears out at a campaign stop in New Hampshire there was a brief furore among talking heads over whether this meant she had the toughness to be commander-in-chief. Is Hillary trying to make the point that despite her depth of feeling, she still possesses a presidential equilibrium of mind? If so, is she arguing with the past or laying tracks for the future?
With that dispensed with, for a book called What Happened, predictably, the bulk is taken up with her methodically refuting all the allegations made against her – that she wasn’t a real progressive, that her emails were a bona fide scandal, that she deserved to lose in the rust belt.
Many who opposed Hillary saw her as the candidate of the status quo, the comfortable elites electing one of their own, the candidate picked for the job by the DNC before the formality of the legally required interview process even began. Even by job interview standards, “I ran for President because I thought I’d be good at the job” is pretty anaemic. Her reply to this is that evidently someone running for a Democratic third term will be perceived as a status quo candidate, and also her unwillingness to run down the Obama campaign restrained her from pointing out the flaws in his administration. She does not explicitly say what she would have criticised about Obama’s governance, but she does hint that she is unhappy he did not take a firmer stance on Russian interference and FBI bias.
Again and again, she finds herself defending herself against the criticisms of her detractors. It is instructive to hear her perspective on things. However, this attitude couldn’t have helped during the election. By default it lets others set the agenda. Her policy proposals – they’re just as progressive as Bernie! Her personal conduct – nothing like Trump’s! Her style is to beat back the invaders, hold the fort down and say as little as possible that could get her into difficulty.
Or at least it appears that way. However she counters in the book that she in fact says quite a lot. Her policies were far more detailed than the other candidates, she tells us. As for backroom financial deals, she, unlike Trump, released her tax returns. And everybody has access to tens of thousands of her emails. We know about the ups and downs of her marriage. Her long stint in the US senate means anyone can examine her voting record. She is the opposite of a dark horse, she assures us.
Hearing her speak, at length, in her own voice, there is certainly something likeable about Hillary. She is earnest, with an uncomplicated notion of ‘goodness’ that she strives to live by and reproduce in the world, in the manner a religious person talks about virtue. In her acknowledgements, she wanted to print all the names of the thousands on her campaign staff, but her editor wouldn’t let her. It feels churlish to see this as cynical politicking. Credibility starts to fray a little when she asserts that she wore white at a debate in honour of the suffragettes (hope you all picked up on that) and on her hundredth exhortation that she loves her grandchildren, loves spending time with them, and that her family are the most important thing at the end of the day. The thing is, I don’t doubt that Hillary loves her grandchildren, and loves her family, and cares about feminist issues. It’s hard to convey how she manages to ring false that which is probably true, but there is an air of contrivance. She’s aware that some see her as guarded, and she owns the libel. She’s a lawyer by training she explains, and not given to just blurting things out. She counters that impulsiveness is not the same as truthfulness, “just look at Donald Trump.”
There is a palpable sense of sorrow in the book in that she feels her experiences of operating as a woman in a man’s world led her to develop character traits that were ultimately maladaptive in the presidential race. Perhaps reassuring people that she would be “good at the job” of President is the natural response of someone who has had their competencies continually questioned. She points out that female premieres are more likely to be elected by parliament, as with Merkel and Thatcher, than in an open presidential race. Parliamentary elections she feels reward people who work steadily with their parliamentary colleagues over show-boaters and braggarts, who sound good thundering from a podium.
She is keenly aware of the ways that behaviour is interpreted differently when a woman expresses it. Maybe she is simply excusing her lack of passion and conviction on the campaign trail when she says that people react negatively to open displays of anger from a woman? However, she has the war wounds to back her up, and can brandish the moniker, shrill Hillary, at those who doubt there has been a sexist backlash to her displays of assertiveness.
There is also a myopia among some who consider her passionless, blind to her passion when talking about subjects they would rather wait out with polite disinterest. She talks with obvious emotion about the discrimination she has faced in her life, and how it pains her to think about the cycle repeating itself with younger women. There is action as well as words - she made 50% of her campaign staff female.
Her tone shift gears when she talks about sexism, some of the carefulness starts to slip away, and she is reflective about how her life story has played out against a persistent undercurrent of aggression towards her. From the shocking story of how, when she was 29, she was physically throttled for asking a question to male Democratic Party operatives, to subtler issues of having no female presidential role models, and her poignant admission that it was Bill who convinced her to run for public office, that persuaded her to believe “in this bigger version of myself”.
In the event, only 43% of white women voted for her, less than for Trump and one point less than Obama. Except among feminists, it would appear that women still don’t primarily identify with each other as a class. The uncomfortable idea that women are strong armed into voting the way their male partner votes seems to have some truth in it. Research by Kelsy Kretschmer indicates that single women are more likely to vote Democratic, but when they get married they vote Republican. Why is Trump, whose essence is a shoot from the hip, unreformed man, who is against wage discrimination protection laws, popular with white women? Would the men if they were in their wives’ position vote for someone who was so openly disparaging of them, and who promised not to protect their economic interests?
Nevertheless, Clinton’s feminist advocacy was sometimes obscured on the campaign trail. She says that the biggest reason she shied away from saying the words she wanted to - “my story is the story of a life shaped by and devoted to the movement for women’s liberation” is that she felt, during the campaign, that the American electorate would not be “receptive” to it. She ran a vice president, Tim Kaine, who describes himself as personally pro-life due to his Catholic beliefs, but publically pro-choice. In her book, Hillary seems proud of her judicious choice, exemplifying as he does the idea that one can feel distaste for abortion but still view it as a legal right. However this veers perilously close to “when running for president one has a public and a private position”, her much derided phrase. The US is one of the few countries in the world without paid maternity leave. This is an obvious area to campaign on, and she did have plans for 12 weeks of leave, paid for by a tax on the wealthy. However it was buried under a thousand and one other proposals, defeating the point of highlighting something. There is a sense from the book that knowing she was going to lose, she wishes she had done things her way, and had stressed her feminism. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
The failure of her policies to stick in people’s minds is a theme she comes back to repeatedly. She is furious with the amount of oxygen sucked up by the email affair, diverting attention away from her campaign at what she felt were crucial moments. She came in for a grilling by the FBI over her emails, and on the morning of July 2 2016, agents and government lawyers asked her questions about her use of a non state.gov email address hosted on a server set up by Bill at their house, and whether any of her 30,000 work-related emails contained classified information. She acquitted herself of any criminal charges, and the investigation appeared to be dropped. She believed the email scandal was being hyped up by Jim Comey, the FBI director, and speculates that the FBI as an organisation were pro-Trump and eager to pick a fight with the State Department, in a display of institutional rivalry. Relieved that her interrogation was over, she let the matter drop and resisted the urge to put Comey back in his box so to speak, a decision that she regrets.
She painstakingly makes a case that until Comey sent an impromptu letter to congress eleven days before the election, speculating that her email investigation may be reopened, the race would have gone her way. She goes through polls and graphs to make this point, the book even has a page devoted to a word bubble of terms voters associated with Hillary. The word – EMAILS, jumps out as the largest, in vivid block letters. She is right to be angry. In Comey’s letter, he said the FBI found emails on Anthony Weiner’s computer (who was being investigated on a different charge) and didn’t know if they were relevant or not. Obama told the FBI to find out post-haste. Comey ordered a huge team to comb their way through the emails, eventually announcing that nothing illegal was found, three days before the election. The image of a swarm of FBI officials descending on Clinton, a presidential term launched with a trial, is the stuff campaign nightmares are made of.
She lambasts Comey for finding his professional decorum and refusing to talk to the press about the investigation into Trump’s Russian ties until after the election, a discrepancy she feels bears explaining. The FBI is painted as an agency riven by factionalism, the email investigation so untrustworthy that even Giuliani boasted about having connections to it.
In an earlier chapter, she says that one of the most popular questions she is asked at speeches is ‘what are the world leaders really like in person?’ She hints that the verdict on Russia is not good with an opening shot, “[some] might have been offended if they heard. I’m talking about you, Vladimir”, but it’s not until the latter portion of the book that her criticisms of the Russian administration turn to stiff rebuke.
Hillary’s most right-wing positions tend to be on foreign policy. In one of the few disagreements with Obama she commits to print, she says that she would have supplied weapons to the Ukrainians to resist Russian involvement in the Crimea. Furthermore, she sees Russian tinkering in cyberspace to be almost an act of war, quoting Senator Harry Reid in calling the Russian plot ”one of the gravest threats to our democracy since the Cold War.” Her interventionist tendencies are well known, and it is a safe bet to assume that had she won, tensions would have flared with the Kremlin. She describes Putin as a “macho autocrat [who] puts down dissenters, represses minorities, disenfranchises voters, weakens the press and amasses untold billions for himself”.
She claims that the Russians tried to hack the voting mechanisms, that the Russian intelligence was behind “fake news” proliferating on social media, where an outlandish story would claim to have been discovered in one of her emails, and also that in addition to her campaign chairman John Podesta, others on her campaign staff were targeted with phishing emails attempting to extract their passwords.
A consistent theme of the election was Hillary losing control of the narrative on events. By tying Russian involvement to her loss, many have simply rolled their eyes and treated it like a lame excuse. There is accumulating evidence that something is going on however, which to her credit, she describes as an issue that goes far beyond her personal loss. She is baffled by the laissez faire attitude of the “party of Reagan” to the threat of Russian involvement, and frustrated, yet again, by the FBI’s plodding responses.
Betrayed by enemies within – Comey, and without – Russia, she is clearly agonising over how this election slipped through her fingers. Could she be gearing up for a rematch? Would any of her former endorsers be prepared to support her? Her calendar seems awfully clear, and her plans for the future are noticeable by their absence in the book. If she were to run again, she would be 73 on commencement. She points out that though she thought she would be the oldest candidate, in the end she was the youngest. As many cruel commentators have diagnosed her with everything from Parkinson’s to slipping briefly into a coma after her turn at a September 11th memorial, there is no getting away from the fact that although mentally sharp she at times physically moves like an elderly person. Strangely enough, Sanders, though older, seems to have somewhat escaped this. Getting fired up onstage about inequality perhaps gives the impression of having a little more vim in him.
After the frenzy of the election, she says she enjoyed catching up on her favourite TV shows with Bill and spending time with her daughter and granddaughter. She’s working on a new campaign for “organising the Trump resistance”. Perhaps she is settling in for a peaceful retirement after four years flying around the world as Secretary of State and another three flying round the states on the campaign trail. As even Trump noted, she is a battler, but is anyone in the Democratic Party willing to go for a fourth round with Hillary?
Hillary is someone who is both fairly criticised and unfairly maligned. In What Happened, she comes across as intelligent, with a wry turn of phrase. She is understandably beleaguered by all the baseless rumours and attacks that are thrown her way, and that in a world that still has issues with women in power how little they are to do with policy, an area which she is clearly more comfortable in.
The Lady Macbeth view of Hillary Clinton as a being of supreme deviousness, which has migrated from the right and now occasionally pops up on the left, seems at odds with the person who comes across on the page.
She is unabashedly centrist and incrementalist, albeit with some plutocrat lashing ideas like taxing net worth instead of income. She flirts with ideas of basic income and the impact of the ‘rise of the robots’, a shame she didn’t at least discuss these on the campaign, to show she was at least aware of broader issues that threaten to upend some people’s way of life, instead of trying to run a hopeful campaign on the same template as Bill. And her not being Trump.
Ultimately though, her ‘vote for Hillary and keep the world turning’ play failed. Voters, it seems prefer axial instability, damning proof of their growing sense of malaise.