“What Happened?” It’s a question many have been asking at least daily for the last ten months. So it’s an apt title for Hillary Clinton’s new book, a reasonably clear-eyed analysis of the 2016 presidential election debacle. While she glosses over a few issues, she shows a surprising self-awareness and candor. In the end, “What Happened” is a reminder of what might have been and a warning call about the peril our democratic process faces in future elections.
Right from the prologue, Clinton expresses remorse for letting down those who believed in her, many holding significant reservations. “I couldn’t get the job done, and I’ll have to live with that the rest of my life,” she says. The book is at once humanizing and analytical. She shares how she coped with the shock and disappointment of the November 8 outcome, what it felt like showing up (as former First Lady) for the Trump inauguration, and how she gradually learned to put one foot in front of the other and get on with living. It’s one thing for ordinary people to pick themselves up, after the death of a loved one, for example, or a divorce, getting fired, overcoming self-pity or even addiction. It’s quite another to fail shockingly on the global stage. She learned to do it, she says, with “grit and gratitude.”
Clinton acknowledges all the things she should have seen coming but did not. She describes her transacting government business on a private server as a “bone-headed mistake” and laments the attention paid to her “dumb decision.” But she takes a while to acknowledge that the issue became a proxy for other feelings of unease about her character, including her guarded responses to press questions, outrageous speaking fees before corporate audiences and appearance of entitlement. Still, FBI Director James Comey’s October 28 last-minute letter to Congress implying the agency was still looking at Clinton’s emails (when early voting was already underway), then backtracking on it, clearly had an impact on the vote. (Pollster Nate Silver and others have confirmed Clinton was on track to win until that letter hit.)
The book does include several explorations of policy (job creation, guns, violence, incarceration, fossil fuel and climate change). This is a Hillary Clinton book, after all, and she is a wonk (not a bad thing). But she underestimates the voter impact of issues like NAFTA, TPP and globalization and the failure to punish the financiers who spurred the Great Recession. I don’t think she once mentioned Goldman Sachs in the book. She cites a Harvard Shorenstein Center study that public policy constituted just ten percent of all campaign news coverage in the general election. That is shameful.
Initially, Clinton reflects she is at a loss to understand why she is such a lightning rod, though she identifies the litany of investigations that have dogged her. Because of them, she developed a bunker mentality that fed the impression she had something to hide. She glosses over any missteps by Bill Clinton, from his disparaging Obamacare to what she lightly concedes were the “bad optics” of Bill’s tarmac meeting with Loretta Lynch. Hillary also ignores DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s tilting the primary process against Bernie Sanders. While Clinton says that neither she, nor Bill nor Chelsea ever got paid by the Clinton Foundation, she makes little to no mention of the pay-to-play stench of huge speaking fees she and Bill raked in from Foundation donors courting the next President. Even Chelsea had warned against this in emails.
Hillary manages to talk about sexism and misogyny without whining. Let’s face it. It’s out there. As she puts it, “if we’re too tough, we’re unlikable. If we’re too soft, we’re not cut out for the big leagues.” Men may scoff at this. Women know it’s the truth. Still, while Clinton overwhelmingly won the votes of black and Latino women, and had a healthy majority of all women, she failed to win a majority of white women. “Gender,” she says, “hasn’t proven to be the motivating force for women voters” some might have hoped. This, despite the Access Hollywood Trump tape, coverage of which declined because Clinton’s opponents immediately dropped a Wiki release of John Podesta’s emails. The press predictably took that up as the next shiny thing.
There has long been a difference between Hillary the candidate – stiff, guarded, wonkish – and Hillary the real person – warm, funny, down-to-earth. This book does a decent job of bringing the two together.
“What Happened” is about more than relitigating the 2016 campaign. Hillary Clinton is not running again, though she may still be part of the public dialogue. More important is how we prepare for 2018 mid-terms and the 2020 presidential race. The most useful aspect of “What Happened” is the analysis of Russian tampering with the electoral process, computer hacking, dissemination of fake news (e.g. false stories created by trolls in Macedonia and elsewhere), phony Facebook accounts, and other 21st century distortions of the process. Various probes are underway about the extent of communication between Trump associates and the Russians and any financial entanglements in those relationships. Such investigations must take their course.
Looking ahead, two challenges jump out. First is upping our cyber security to protect our electronic communications and deter interference in both news dissemination and electoral processes. Second is building a bench of top-notch candidates with fresh faces, new ideas, and an ability to connect with people. They must understand the policies needed to address the common concerns of our country, including economic and racial disparities. Getting to the truth is not about Democrats. It’s not about Republicans. It’s about the fate of this nation. Right now, we’re on shaky ground.