What Happened by Hillary Clinton
She ran against ‘the most unpopular candidate ever’ – and lost. But does this entertaining account suggest she really understands why?
The announcement of an autopsy by Hillary Clinton of the 2016 election raised a distressing possibility: the defeated candidate was back. After 25 years in the public eye, she simply could not leave the political arena, and her campaign memoir would play prelude to the next phase, no matter how badly US politics needed new blood. We needn’t have worried. What Happened is quite different from Clinton’s careful, tedious autobiographies. Those books tried to sell a wise and relatable candidate to the public, while playing down controversies. Her new book is more gossipy, it is meaner, more entertaining and more wrongheaded than anything she or her speechwriters have written before.
The book begins with a recounting of Donald Trump’s inauguration, which she attended, smiling. I remember wanting a dose of whatever she was on. (The book does not reveal.) She recalls attending Trump’s wedding in 2005, back when he was just “like a lot of big-shot real estate guys in the city, only more flamboyant and self-promoting”. At the inauguration, she shakes hands with US Republican politician Jason Chaffetz, thinking he is the new White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus. When Chaffetz tweets the photo with a nasty caption, Clinton responds: “I came this close to tweeting back, ‘To be honest, thought you were Reince.’”
The congressman Ryan Zinke, who had called her the antichrist in 2014, says hello; she reminds him of his comments and he blanches. “One thing I’ve learned over the years is how easy it is for some people to say horrible things about me when I’m not around, but how hard it is for them to look me in the eye and say it to my face.” The book is off to a bracing start, to be followed by swipes at former vicepresident Joe Biden, TV journalist Matt Lauer, Vladimir Putin and more. None of the score-settling sheds much light on the big questions of Clinton’s candidacy, but it’s fun to watch terrible people being called terrible.
The tone of the book is often quippy, and Clinton seems to have adopted the public persona crafted by her fans. You remember the memes from the campaign: Hillary texting tough and witty things in dark glasses from her plane, or the one where she looks exasperated while giving Benghazi testimony. There were also her campaign’s YAASSS HILLARY T-shirts, and star turns from self-declared feminist stars Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Lena Dunham and the comedians from Broad City . All of this functioned to turn Clinton into a pop-feminist icon for the first time in her long career, a role that she occupied happily if awkwardly. Many critics (including me) argued at the time that this winking, “Leaned In” persona obscured Clinton’s more substantial problems and anti-feminist attributes, like being a war hawk and supporting disastrous welfare-to-work programmes.
In her chapter on being a woman in politics, she writes: “When it comes to my more controversial actions – like giving President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq – I was far from alone … Why am I seen as such a divisive figure and, say, Joe Biden and John Kerry aren’t?” Clinton has survived egregious sexism in public for decades, yet her Iraq war vote seems like a poor thing to hide behind feminism. And let’s not forget that Kerry was savaged by the right throughout his campaign, and ignored by an attenuated left.
Meanwhile, Clinton recounts retiring to her home in Chappaqua, New York to read Elena Ferrante, drink Chardonnay and catch Broadway shows. This is meme Hillary, relatable as hell. (For what it’s worth, I preferred the parts of the book that were wildly unrelatable, as when she settles on running for president while going on holiday with Óscar de la Renta in the Dominican Republic or goes to dinner at musician Jimmy Buffett’s house or sits around with her husband debating whether she should run for president for a second time or confesses that she hasn’t gone on a milk run in 10 years.)
The quippy shtick doesn’t always work, because Clinton fails to grasp basic criticisms levelled at her from a populist perspective to a degree that can’t be winked away. After returning to private life in 2013, “I spoke to audiences from a wide range of fields: travel agents and auto dealers, doctors and tech entrepreneurs, grocers and summer camp counselors. I also spoke to bankers,” she writes.
“Many of the organizations wanted the speeches to be private, and I respected that: they were paying for a unique experience. That allowed me to be candid about my impressions of world leaders who might have been offended if they heard. (I’m talking about you, Vladimir.)” She explains that her legislative record should have been enough to prove to critics that she was not unduly influenced by Wall Street, and says, perhaps rather petulantly, of the criticism: “Just because many former government officials have been paid large fees to give speeches, I shouldn’t have assumed it would be okay for me to do it.”
It feels tiresome to explain this, but many Americans consider bankers the enemy, and voters wanted her to pick a side. The fact that she couldn’t see that reveals a fundamental problem with her politics. And it isn’t symbolic – America’s particular form of political corruption is rarely a simple exchange of cash for laws. Instead, as a famous Princeton study has shown, wealthy institutions like banks exercise substantial influence over legislative outcomes through the softer power of lobbying and campaign donations, while average people and their institutions exercise almost none. It is laughable that an American politician would be indignant about her right to accept money from banks.
But the worse error of interpretation comes when Clinton begins to analyse What Went Wrong. She is frustrated that Bernie Sanders didn’t drop out earlier, that he promised what she considers utopian policies, and that he made accusations that Trump adopted later – but her critiques are pretty light stuff. (Sanders responded that “Secretary Clinton ran against the most unpopular candidate in the history of this country and she lost. She’s upset about that and I understand …”) She primarily attributes her loss to what she calls “tribal politics” – a blend of racism, sexism and economic discontent – and FBI director James Comey’s press conference days before the election. She may be right about Comey shifting enough white swing voters to ultimately cost her the race. But Clinton’s relationship to populism is more complicated.
She repeatedly calls the populist discontent evident in America and Europe “tribal politics”. In the American case, she’s referring to Trump’s base, which offered an abundance of reactionary nationalism, even though his base in the end was primarily the same old Republican party. What was more surprising were the populist politics coming from the left, a swath of young voters who could hardly be called “tribal”, and who mirrored the behaviour of young voters supporting Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Podemos in Spain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, or Syriza in Greece. Instead of really grappling with the new populist politics, she sounds frustrated, saying that she was talking about economics, citing her platform, her Rust Belt tour, and even a chart showing how many times she mentioned “jobs”.
This reluctance to engage with the growing populism in the US is endemic to the Democratic party, which, for example, rejected the Sanders-endorsed populist candidate Keith Ellison to head the Democratic National Committee after the election. But in the last few years, young Americans have been radicalised in greater numbers, leading police reform efforts and adopting socialist ideas, pushing the “Overton window” – the ideas people will accept – further open.
Lots of things that Clinton says she wants, such as universal health care, have a new young constituency inspired by Sanders, which must be hard to swallow. What I see as promising, Clinton doesn’t mention or regards, in the guise of Sanders followers, as a threat. As a result, organisations to the left of the Democratic party have grown, and it is losing the young people who should be its future. Clinton’s memoir surely won’t be the end of parsing what happened in 2016. But one thing is certain: what happens next will be up to somebody else.
She attributes her loss to ‘tribal politics’ – a blend of racism, sexism and economic discontent – and to FBI director James Comey
Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in Washington in September 2016 and, below, with Bernie Sanders
512pp, Simon & Schuster, £20
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