Review of Hillary Clinton’s “What Happened”

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tags: Hillary Clinton, book review, What Happened



Kathryn Smith is the author of the biography of Missy LeHand, The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency (Touchstone). 

The media reception to “What Happened” has been remarkably similar to its reception of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign. Based on early leaks about the book and the out-of-the-gate reviews (mostly written by conservative men), it comes across as one long whine-fest in which Senator Clinton blames everyone but herself for her loss of the presidential election.

It’s fake news.

True, there is a certain amount of whining, which might be expected from any politician or elected official who loses her—or his—election and perch. Think of Richard Nixon’s post-presidential autobiography. Hillary takes the blame, again and again and again. (One of the few sympathetic reviewers, Annalisa Marelli in Quartz.com, counted up all the times she blamed herself and apologized to her supporters and came up with the number 35. This is conservative.) She apologizes for things she said and did, didn’t say and didn’t do, bad decisions, for not being open enough and on and on.

She also owns up to another thing, painful as it is. “…I have come to terms with the fact that a lot of people—millions and millions of people—decided they just didn’t like me. Imagine what that feels like. It hurts. And it’s a hard thing to accept. But there’s no getting around it.”

But because no election loss is entirely one person’s fault, Mrs. Clinton’s analysis of what went wrong for her, quite fairly, includes many other factors. The most disturbing of these is the meddling of the Russian government, which is becoming more and more obvious. The deciding factor, she says, is the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t statements about her State Department emails by FBI Director James Comey, the most damaging of which was released a few days before election day.

This is a human book, written by a woman who has a very hard time opening up—and with good reason. She’s been criticized and ridiculed throughout her public life when she is honest and open. (Of course, the same happens when she isn’t, so what the heck.)

The most searing moment to read was her description of election night, when she finally had to accept that she would not be moving into the White House as its first female occupant, that, in fact, the electoral college winner (though not the popular vote winner, she repeatedly reminds us), was Donald Trump. After everyone had cleared out of her hotel suite, leaving her and husband Bill alone together, she writes, “I hadn’t cried yet, wasn’t sure if I would. But I felt deeply and thoroughly exhausted, like I hadn’t slept in ten years. We lay down on the bed and I stared at the ceiling. Bill took my hand, and we just lay there.”

No wonder she was tired. Senator Clinton does a wonderful job capturing both the exhilaration and frantic pace of a presidential campaign, the joy of meeting voters and hearing about their problems, but also the times when she was met with angry crowds, like in West Virginia, who obviously hated her guts. (In one of those “backwards-and-in-high-heels” comments, she complains that a female candidate is judged for her appearance in ways a male candidate is not—especially a woman in her late 60s. “I once calculated how many hours I spent having my hair and makeup done during the campaign. It came to about six hundred hours or twenty-five days! I was shocked.”)

She takes the opportunity to lay out her agenda for America, had she gotten elected. She had a lot of ideas that were ignored in media coverage in favor of focusing on the largely non-issue of her emails. And, not surprisingly, she trashes Donald Trump at every opportunity. Early on in the campaign, she writes, “He reminded me of one of those old men ranting about how the country was going to hell in a handbasket unless people started listening to him.” That’s one of her nicer assessments.

The book has its faults. Sometimes Senator Clinton uses it as a huge thank you note to her supporters, friends and staff—all of whom are wonderful, talented and fun. And while excoriating Donald Trump at every turn, especially on the issue of sexual harassment, she largely gives her husband a pass on his less-than-stellar behavior in that arena. She loves the man. She says it again and again. The closest she comes to admitting his faults is to say, “We’ve certainly had dark days in our marriage. You know all about them—and please consider for a moment what it would be like for the whole world to know about the worst moments in your relationship.”

One of the most useful parts of this book are its final chapters, which are aimed at people who want to know what to do next. She gives a practical laundry list on improving civic engagement and moving onward as a progressive, on both a large and a personal scale. Incidentally, she’s been bashed on this front from the left by people who claim she’s had her say and it’s time to shut up and let someone else take a turn.

She’s not going to shut up. And she shouldn’t.



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