A Missed Ap­point­ment With Destiny

Policy - - Book Reviews - Re­view by Su­san Dela­court

Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton

What Hap­pened. New York, Si­mon and Schus­ter, 2017

Imag­ine how un­in­ter­est­ing things would be if Hil­lary Clin­ton had won the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. No Twit­ter rants from the White House, no name-call­ing with for­eign lead­ers, no daily dra­mas from the Oval Of­fice.

If noth­ing else, Don­ald Trump has made U.S. pol­i­tics fas­ci­nat­ing for the past year. While Trump keeps us guess­ing about what will hap­pen next, it’s been left to Clin­ton to re­flect on what hap­pened—how we got to this strange place in U.S. pres­i­den­tial his­tory. What Hap­pened, in fact, is the sim­ple ti­tle for Clin­ton’s re­flec­tions on her 2016 de­feat. It is nei­ther a sim­ple story, how­ever, or even a neat, sat­is­fac­tory an­swer to how the United States failed to elect the first woman pres­i­dent. The con­nec­tion be­tween what hap­pened in 2016 and what’s hap­pen­ing to­day in the U.S. un­der Trump re­mains as baf­fling as ever after you fin­ish reading Clin­ton’s tale. That’s not her fault, though.

It’s a highly read­able book, though, con­ver­sa­tional and non-chrono­log­i­cal—even go­ing back­wards in time at the out­set. Clin­ton starts her story at Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, and what was go­ing through her mind as she watched her ri­val be­ing sworn into of­fice. Tak­ing us right there to the view­ing stand be­side other for­mer pres­i­dents, in­clud­ing her hus­band, Clin­ton writes about Trump’s bizarre in­au­gu­ral speech, as a jump­ing-off point to a run­ning theme in the book—the war on truth and facts. She talks of how Trump ex­pertly chan­neled ram­pant fear and anger among Amer­i­cans and con­fesses that she couldn’t have cam­paigned that way, even if she had wanted to. “It’s just not how I’m wired,” she writes. “Maybe that’s why Trump was de­liv­er­ing the in­au­gu­ral ad­dress and I was sit­ting in the crowd.”

News sto­ries about What Hap­pened have fo­cused on who gets blamed in Clin­ton’s book—chiefly, for­mer FBI di­rec­tor James Comey, but also her Demo­cratic chal­lenger Bernie San­ders, email-ob­sessed po­lit­i­cal re­porters and yes, even Amer­i­cans who ad­mit­ted later to her that they had failed to vote. “Th­ese peo­ple were look­ing for ab­so­lu­tion that I just couldn’t give.”

All this talk of Clin­ton’s blame casts her—un­fairly, in my view— as a politi­cian un­will­ing to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for what went wrong. But I read the book as one long story of tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity, of com­ing to terms with a cat­a­strophic de­feat, not just to Clin­ton per­son­ally, but to pro­gres­sive and fem­i­nist Amer­i­cans, who now are forced to watch the an­tithe­sis of their pol­i­tics at work in the Trump White House ev­ery day. Clin­ton writes of the con­tin­u­ing double stan­dards plagu­ing women in pol­i­tics (and you do won­der through­out, would we be ask­ing a man why he was blam­ing oth­ers, or would we ad­mire how he got even with his en­e­mies?) Though she does deal with some of her poli­cies, this is mainly a book about the cul­ture of pol­i­tics, in­clud­ing in­side glimpses of a typ­i­cal day in the life of a woman on the cam­paign trail, com­plete with all the at­ten­tion she needs to pay to hair, clothes and makeup.

She also gives us a peek, an in­trigu­ing one, into the on­go­ing life of the Clin­ton fam­ily, and her con­tin­u­ing mar­riage to Bill Clin­ton. He’s very much present in this book, com­fort­ing her through the de­feat, re­or­ga­niz­ing book­shelves in their Chap­pagua home, binge-watch­ing TV with her, even reading over her shoul­der as she’s ac­tu­ally writ­ing the book. Hil­lary Clin­ton con­fronts—sort of—a ques­tion that many women have: why did she stay with him? Over sev­eral pages, she talks about what a great hus­band Bill Clin­ton is, how he’s treated her as an equal, how he’s been a great fa­ther to Chelsea and how she still thinks he’s one of the most hand­some, smart men she’s ever known. She never re­ally does say how they made their way through the “dark days”.

It’s that elu­sive can­dour, I think, that’s made Clin­ton a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure and What Hap­pened will prob­a­bly not do much to bridge the di­vide be­tween peo­ple who re­ally like this woman who al­most be­came pres­i­dent and those who helped make sure she didn’t break the glass ceil­ing. It re­minds me a bit of the re­ac­tion that greeted Fire and Ashes, a very good 2013 book by for­mer Lib­eral leader Michael Ig­nati­eff, which was his re­flec­tion on the dis­as­trous 2011 de­feat for him and his party. “De­feat brings lu­cid­ity and it also brings lib­er­a­tion,” Ig­nati­eff wrote.

Those two things are also very present in Clin­ton’s story—lu­cid and lib­er­ated, she’s given us a book filled with points to pon­der after that sur­prise end to the 2016 cam­paign. We may never re­ally know what hap­pened, but then again, with Trump, it’s im­pos­si­ble th­ese days to tell what will hap­pen next ei­ther.

Con­tribut­ing writer Su­san Dela­court is the au­thor of four books, in­clud­ing the 2014 best­selling Shop­ping for Votes. sdela­court@bell.net

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