By Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon and Schuster
492 pages, $30
It's a book, first of all. Just a book.
It's not a nuclear bomb. It's true that it launches a lot of carefully aimed missiles in a lot of American directions for posterity's sake--most notably at the nation's press and former FBI director James Comey--but it does so persuasively. A traumatic thing happened to the United States of America when it seemed to be on the way to electing its first female president. As everyone expected (and most predicted), she indeed won the popular vote. But our constitutional system overruled her 3 million more votes. The electoral college, just as convincingly elevated her failure to conquer crucial Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan into fatal wounds. Earth-shaking history would not be made on behalf of American women. All those election night parties that America threw that allowed little girls to stay up late so they could tell their own kids about it someday turned into tests of parental wisdom and tenderness everywhere.
Another kind of earthquake happened. The aftershocks keep on coming.
The idea that she WOULDN'T write a 500-page book about what happened was one of the stupidest one could imagine even in an America that seems to have become a petri dish for backwardness.
She gets it. She really does. Even if you don't, she understands why some people don't want to hear anything that sounds like "relitigating" the election. "People are tired. Some are traumatized. Others are focused on keeping the discussion about Russia in the material realm and away from politics. I get all that. But it's important we understand what really happened. Because that's the only way we can stop it from happening again."
"I do understand why there is an insatiable demand in many quarters for me to take all the blame for losing the election on my own shoulders and quit talking about Comey, the Russians, fake news and everything else.
"Many (in America's political media) can't bear to face their own role in helping to elect Trump, from providing free airtime to giving my Emails three times more coverage than all the issues affecting people's lives combined."
The book is surprisingly candid and witty. It is even off-the-wall entertaining -- and often, too. Who on earth expected her to tell us that after she steeled herself to attend the Trump inauguration that George W. Bush reacted to Trump's dark warning speech by sagely observing "That was some weird (expletive)." A different sort of book and a different sort of author would examine why W. seems to have become the clown prince of the highly exclusive ex-President's club -- the Texas Good Old Boy who can always be counted on for straight-shooting commentary that will amuse the moral and intellectual heavyweights in the world's most limited social circle. He wasn't president of his Delta Kappa Epsilon house at Yale for nothing.
To be blunt and and in the interest of full disclosure, I live in a family full of feminists and the most ardent Hillary loyalists. And while I always voted for her for the senate and had no trouble voting for her for president, my presidential primary vote went elsewhere.
No matter. For any member of the working press, either party, in the last four decades, actual partisanship about Hillary Clinton scarcely matters. Who among us in the profession, wouldn't want the opportunity to ask her questions in an interview? I'm going to list a few here and how she deals with each in her book.
The degree of hostility you inspired in the election was astounding. I never expected a presidential election where one candidate's followers would chant "lock her up, lock her up" about an opponent. An astounding level of hostility has greeted both you and your husband since you came to Washington. Where do you think it comes from?
She says that sexism, for one thing, played a clear-cut role in the election. But she goes much deeper than that. "Here's how I see the distinction between sexism and misogyny. When a husband tells his wife 'I can't quite explain why and I don't even like admitting this but I don't want you to make more money than me so please don't take that amazing job offer' that's sexism. He could still love her deeply and be a great partner in countless ways. ... Sexism is all the big and little ways that a society draws a line around women and says 'you stay in there.' ... Misogyny is something darker. It's rage. Disgust. Hatred. It's what happens when a woman turns down a guy at a bar and he switches from charming to scary. Or when a woman gets a job a man wanted and instead of shaking her hand and wishing her well, he calls her a bitch and vows to do everything he can to make sure she fails."
She then does NOT elaborate on how much during election season (and still) went past ordinary sexism into publicly exposed misogyny. It's a sample of those occasions when frankness takes a backseat to political savvy.
The horror of Russia quite possibly being effectual in influencing an American election is one few of us ever thought we would face. That would indicate immense antipathy toward you from Putin. Why? What happened between you two when you were Secretary of State?
"When I met with Putin in meetings, he looked more like one of those guys on the subway who imperiously spread their legs wide encroaching on everyone else's space, as if to say 'I take what I want' and 'I have so little respect for you I'm going to act as if I'm lounging at home in my bathrobe.' That's called 'manspreading.' That was Putin. ... Putin doesn't respect women and despises anyone who stands up to him so I'm a double problem." (What is implied but unsaid here is an accurate indication of how much of her writing succeeds between the lines as well as in the lines themselves.)
How about the role of mainstream media in the election? CBS President Les Moonves said Trump might be bad for the country but he was great for "us" i.e. ratings and therefore money. How does that strike you?
She never mentions Moonves by name. But she does say "a lot of journalists see their job as exposing the devious machinations of the Clinton machines. The (New York) Times has by no means been the only or worst offender but its treatment has been the worst.
"I understand the pressure that even the best political journalists are now under. Negative stories drive more traffic than positive or evenhanded ones."
Any objective reader will be brought up short by her candidly confessing to yelling at the television set when Trump settled the case against Trump University and threw the remote control at the set when she read "the news that he filled his team with Wall Street bankers after relentlessly accusing me of being their stooge."
But it isn't nearly as revealing as her personal anecdote about the unconditional love she experienced as a kid from her father, otherwise "a flinty, tight-lipped man." So she'd come up with elaborate hypotheses to test him: " 'What if I robbed a store or murdered somebody Would you still love me then?' He'd say 'absolutely! I'd be disappointed and sad but I'll always love you. Once or twice last November, I thought to myself 'well Dad, what if I lose an election I should have won and let an unqualified bully become president of the United States? Would you still love me then?' "
What she doesn't examine -- and perhaps can never examine -- is the possibility that the stunning hated of the Clintons from Day One comes from their terminal incongruity, this couple from Arkansas with Yale and Oxford (for him) in their background who refused to act like bumpkin Lil Abners or Beverly Hillbillies but rather like model progressives.
In truth, despite the book's readability, it also is for many long pages at a time, unremittingly wonky and obeisant to received authority on so many subjects. (On the couple's first date they went to a Mark Rothko exhibit at Yale.) At least half of "What Happened" seems to be the work of a student so punctilious as to be pedantic.
It's hard, even in everything so good about it, to maintain total patience with Hillary the mega-wonk. But that's perhaps another revelation.
Did America somehow intuit that she is a cum laude student of authority rather than an embodiment of it? Could it imagine the consquences of that?
No matter. For the purposes of a book that HAD to be written for both the bestseller list and American history's sake, she does very well indeed.
Jeff Simon is the Arts and Books Editor of the News