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 Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Sarah Leonard Sarah Leonard is a se­nior edi­tor at The Na­tion.

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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