A Missed Appointment With Destiny
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. firstname.lastname@example.org