‘Hubristic’: Peter Conrad on Hillary Clinton’s memoir
Hillary Clinton blames everyone but herself for her defeat by Trump in this hubristic book, writes Peter Conrad
In common with everyone who is likely to read this review, I grieved when Hillary Clinton lost the election last November. Now there is an extra reason for regret: with time on her hands, the woman who was so qualified to be an able, diligent, clear-headed president has hastily written – or presided over the writing of – an unreflective book that in its combination of number-crunching wonkery and strenuously pious uplift reveals more than she might have intended about why she lost. Her bewilderment is easy to understand, but couldn’t she have waited before monetising failure and relaunching her brand with a nationwide book tour?
Bill Clinton’s mantra was “I feel your pain”, a phrase he uttered not at the site of a flood or a quake but in a Manhattan nightclub, where he was heckled by an Aids activist. Hillary’s equivalent is not an offer of empathy but a demand for sympathy: she wants us to feel her pain – the numbing shock of election night, the anguish of having to face a hostile crowd at Trump’s inauguration and listen to him rant about social carnage in a speech that George W Bush described as “some weird shit”.
Public figures like to claim that they’re selflessly serving us – the little people, their voters and customers – and Clinton presents this therapeutic exercise as if she had our emotional health in mind rather than her own. “Maybe it’ll help you too,” she says when describing how she healed her misery with Chardonnay, alternate nostril breathing, and a daily devotional text emailed by her pastor (whose anthology of these missives has just been pulped, since some of his feelgood smarminess was plagiarised). Then she glimpses herself in the mirror and adds: “I doubt that many people reading this will ever lose a presidential election.” All commiseration dries up: it’s as selfregarding a remark as Trump’s “I’m the president and you’re not ”, or his smugness when he’s given two scoops of ice-cream while guests get only one.
This is a classic tale of hubris (nowadays called “entitlement”). Clinton packaged herself as America personified, wearing successive pantsuits – styled by Ralph Lauren – in red, white and blue for her three debates with Trump, and on election night she intended to declare victory on a stage shaped like a cutout US map. Her garment bag that evening included the purple suit she planned to wear “on my first trip to Washington as president elect ”; she had already bought the house next door in suburban New York as overspill accommodation for her travelling troupe of White House aides. Not since Agamemnon swaggered on to the red carpet in the tragedy by Aeschylus has anyone so vaingloriously asked for a comeuppance.
All this triumphalism is recalled with no twinge of remorse. Instead, others are blamed – James Comey for raising the alarm about her emails, Bernie Sanders for splitting the progressive vote, the “odious” Julian Assange for WikiLeaking, and those best buddies Putin and Trump for the Darth Vaderlike “dark energy” they conjured up. Everyone who opposed her is accused of doing so out of misogyny: is Assange’s dumping of scurrilous information about the Democratic party really explained by the fact that he “was charged with rape in Sweden”? Despite these accusations, her postmortem on her campaign’s “data analytic platform” and “word-of-mouth favourability metric” reveals why the masses didn’t warm to her. She mistakenly assumed that American politics is about policy, whereas Trump saw that it is now an extension of showbiz.
Instead of recuperating, Clinton has opted for a re-enactment of a remote past. Her book grows fat on rosy reminiscences about her childhood baseball games, her first date with Bill, and Chelsea’s breech birth, with victory laps to commemorate her achievements as a “lady lawyer” in Arkansas, a “hometown senator’ in New York (where she had never actually lived when she ran for office), and a secretary of state who travelled “almost a million miles”. She has reason to be proud, but does any of that help explain what happened on 8 November? When the reckoning arrives, she diverges into fantasies about an alternative future. She gives details of the legislation she would now be advancing, and even prints (or, as she puts it, “shares”) the oration she “never got a chance to deliver that night”, which ends by declaring that “America is the greatest country in the world” and promising that “we will make America even greater” – lines that might have dribbled from the mouth of Trump.
It’s all very well to repeat “I love America”, as she ritualistically does: mustn’t she also dislike at least half of it for rejecting her? Here her immense self-possession comes to her aid. She remembers Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered the worshippers in a church in Charleston, being told by relatives of his victims “I forgive you”. Then she asks herself what she feels about Trump voters, the so-called “deplorables”. She answers: “It’s complicated”, but the preceding anecdote speaks for her. She forgives them: like the rabble of crucifiers, they knew not what they did.
A brief, embarrassed reference to earlier times is inadvertently telling: Bill and Hillary were guests at Trump’s wedding to Melania (and, as the titanically petty bridegroom still remembers, they didn’t bring a present). “We weren’t friends,” says Hillary defensively. Then why go? It turns out Bill was “speaking in the area that weekend”, so they went for a laugh; Hillary calculates that Trump wanted them for their “star power”. The comment reflects as badly on the Clintons as it does on Trump: they remind me of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who subsidised their residence at the Waldorf Astoria by charging a fee for attendance at Manhattan cocktail parties.
There is one wrenchingly perceptive insight about Trump, who seems, she says, as if he “didn’t even want to be president at all” – unlike Clinton, who wanted it almost more than life itself. Yes, he now relives the election as obsessively as she does, and with similar misgivings. He thought it would be the prize handed out in the season finale of The Apprentice; it didn’t occur to him that four years – if we’re unlucky – of tedious office work lay ahead. Maddened by the false position he finds himself in, the prisoner of a reality that is not at all like reality TV, he’s therefore concentrating on finding a way to get himself fired. Despite Clinton’s appeal for sympathy, it’s Trump that her book made me feel momentarily sorry for.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the second of last year’s presidential debates at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.