Hillary Clinton’s If-Onlys

If Only…

Hillary Clinton’s account of the election tells us more about her than about why she lost.


Some time ago, I called on Murray Chotiner, Richard Nixon’s first political mentor and storied practitioner of dirty tricks. (In Nixon’s 1950 run for US Senate against the liberal actress and activist Helen Gahagan Douglas, Nixon’s campaign printed her voting record on pink paper, earning the future president the sobriquet “Tricky Dick.”) Chotiner, whom the Nixon people had stashed away in an office in the East Wing to keep him out of sight, told me: “I always tell my clients, ‘If you’re going to lose, lose big.’”

The point, of course, was that the losing candidate would then be spared the torment of “If-onlys…” Hillary Clinton didn’t manage to elude Chotiner’s law. And so, for her, her squeaker of a loss to Donald Trump last fall had to be explained—to contemporaries and to the future. The resulting book, What Happened, is a number of things, but its underlying themes are Clinton’s “If-onlys” and the many frustrations of being a presidential candidate, especially for a woman. It is also a book that’s born of the pain of losing a presidential election, a pain that’s difficult for others to fathom. One has let down dedicated aides and allies and millions of supporters. One has put oneself out there, exhausted oneself, and struggled to contend with the uncontrollable—an unexpected event, an effective surprise attack by the opponent, a slip of the tongue after long days on the high wire, and a press corps that’s all too likely to blow something out of proportion.

Some defeated presidential candidates never get over it. Clinton is still in the process of working through her loss. Though she says that she has accepted it and has moved on, the book reads as a refutation of that claim. Her defeat in 2016 may have been one of the most painful a presidential candidate has had to endure: Not only did she fall short of the nearly universal expectation that she would win, but her loss delivered the country into the hands of the most unfit person ever to occupy the Oval Office.

What Happened is actually two books: a book about the campaign and another about the personal aspects of being a woman in politics, in particular being Hillary Clinton reaching for the top. It’s as if, at some point, Clinton was advised that the story of the election alone wouldn’t interest enough people, since so much of it was familiar, and so she chose to begin her account with a section that’s ostensibly about more private matters, which could be titled “Humanizing Hillary.”

With one exception in the chapters about the election itself, I found the first part of her book the more interesting one. In it, Clinton is more candid about her weaknesses and frustrations than we’re accustomed to hearing from her. But as for the book overall, much of it is still very familiar, part of which is inevitable: Hillary addresses, as she must, the already well-trodden ground of having a private server for her State Department e-mails, but she also returns to oft-told anecdotes, such as the one about her mother instructing her to go back out and confront the neighborhood bully.

In recounting how she managed to get through each day on the campaign trail, Clinton does let us in a bit more than she has in the past. It was of interest to read how she accomplished what at times seemed almost superhuman—
getting herself together each morning, preparing physically and mentally to go out and do battle—and how she unwound each evening. It was a routine that took incredible discipline and determination. (Yoga helped.) Clinton makes a persuasive case for how much more complicated public appearances are for women than they are for men; she calculates that getting her hair and makeup done came to “about six hundred hours, or twenty-five days” of the campaign. She tells us that she talked to Bill on the phone every night before she went to sleep—really? Every night?—but even discounting the possible exaggeration, the statement captures just how close the Clintons are, despite their highly publicized marital troubles.

Clinton devotes an entire chapter to the frustrations of being a woman in politics. She found it difficult, she writes, to talk about this during the campaign: “I never figured out how to tell this story right. I didn’t want people to see me as the ‘woman candidate,’ which I find limiting, but rather as the best candidate whose experience as a woman in a male-dominated culture made her sharper, tougher, and more competent.” This proved “a hard distinction to draw,” Clinton explains, “and I wasn’t confident that I had the dexterity to pull it off.” She also “never felt that the American electorate [was] receptive to [it].”

A number of pages are devoted to the frustrations of being a public woman in general, and though her situation was unique, she speaks for many women who have tried to function in what had long been considered a “man’s world.” “Sexism,” she notes, “exerts its pull on our politics and our society every day, in ways both subtle and crystal clear.” Any woman who hasn’t been in a convent for the past several decades can readily attest to that. Much has changed with the larger numbers of young women entering the workforce every year, but for many of their elders, things didn’t change all that much: As Clinton notes, if a woman is strong, that’s good (albeit not with all men); if she’s too strong, then she becomes “overbearing” or even “strident” (has a man ever been accused of being strident?); and if she doggedly pursues a point, she’s “shrill” (has a man ever been called shrill?). On the subject of sexism, Clinton’s important contribution is to point out that even the most successful woman in public life, or perhaps in the world, encounters many of the same difficulties that other women out in the world do; only hers have played out on a larger, more brightly lit stage.

Hillary the author, like Hillary the candidate, indulges in more than a little self-pity. She complains about the criticism that she’s too remote from the public. She interprets this as meaning that her critics think she should reveal more about herself. She doesn’t seem to get that she can come across as sealed off by layers of caginess, self-protectiveness, and caution, with a tincture of arrogance. (She knows she’s special.) Partly what bewilders her is that when she’s not onstage, she can be funny, fun-loving, thoughtful, and warm—when she chooses to be; otherwise, wearing a puffer coat in her presence might be advisable.

Clinton spends some time in her book telling us that she cannot understand why she’s considered “divisive.” She says she’s at a loss to understand it; a lot of people would be astonished that the uniformly confident-appearing Clinton is ever at a loss. She tends to meet the world with her dukes up. (Perhaps she overlearned the lesson her mother taught her about self-defense.) Hillary writes that when a woman “lands a political punch,” she’s considered a “nasty woman.” I haven’t heard others engaged in political argument talk about “landing a punch”—they’ve “scored a point” or “won that one”—and it’s not a surrender of a woman’s independence or self-respect to recognize that a certain modulation may be in order. Clinton recognizes that “the issues of authenticity and likability had an impact on the most consequential election of our lifetimes,” and understandably, it frustrates her that in this most consequential election, the candidate who employed “crude, abusive, fact-free rhetoric was characterized as authentic.”

While it was widely assumed that a female candidate would draw unusually strong support from women, Clinton says she didn’t expect to do better with women than men, which is quite an admission. Moreover, she tries to pull a fast one by saying that if women voted their gender, “We’d probably have had a woman president or two by now, don’t you think?” This statement is disingenuous: If numerous women had previously had the opportunity and been blessed with the talent, confidence, and sheer willpower to run for president, then Clinton would be unexceptional and there’d be little point to this book at all. She doesn’t mind pointing out that she did better than Barack Obama had with white women.

Clinton also describes herself as puzzled by the question of why so many people who she needed to vote for her didn’t. Too many people who should have known better thought that it didn’t matter who won the election, or that Clinton would be the inevitable winner, so why bother to stand in line at the polls? And a significant number of Bernie Sanders supporters didn’t find her “pure” enough (a view that Sanders encouraged). In the end, not enough Democrats were drawn enough to her to bestir themselves on behalf of her candidacy, and this was near-fatal. It is also probably the hardest thing to accept in politics. With all those millions of people roaring their support, why can’t one reach more? In Hillary’s case, something was missing. Clinton’s problem wasn’t just all the haters in the Republican ranks; it was that she aroused more hatred generally than most candidates do. She drew fire, and it wasn’t simply because she’s a woman.

When it comes to the election itself, Hillary makes clear her exasperation with Bernie Sanders. She tells us that she “found campaigning against him to be profoundly frustrating.” His high-flying proposals without the means to implement them offended her “responsible” streak, and her Methodist sensibility, and as young voters flocked to him, she could only watch in annoyance. (It was also the case that Sanders’s candidacy pushed her somewhat to the left: In time, she would offer watered-down versions of some of his proposals, including free college education for all.) She levels the tough charge that Sanders “didn’t get into the race to make sure that a Democrat won the White House, he got in to disrupt the Democratic Party”; but it is fair to say that after Sanders finally got out of the race, he didn’t evince a whole lot of passion for her to win. He and his followers were less generous to Clinton at the Democratic National Convention than Clinton and her followers were to Obama in 2008. Sanders, as Clinton notes in her book, was grudging all the way.

Hillary clearly remains bothered by the charge that she didn’t understand or address the economic anxieties of the working class. She maintains that while she grasps the struggle that so many blue-collar workers have endured, she was inhibited from talking about it in her campaign because Obama was still in the White House. Perhaps. (At another point, she says this was also why she couldn’t be the candidate of “change,” that overworked and largely meaningless term that many candidates run on as if they’re saying something of substance. But, in fact, it’s usually the opposition party’s province to make that claim.) Clinton points out that Trump didn’t originate the idea of a Republican going after working-class voters—using race as bait for angry white Americans—and reminds her readers of the “Reagan Democrats.” In fact, it goes back even further: Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” was the same group.

Clinton also defensively disputes the charge that she didn’t spend enough time in the crucial states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but the blizzard of facts she tosses at this argument somehow misses the point: The issue wasn’t just whether she spent enough time in these states, but which audiences she addressed if she did go to them. Bill Clinton was known to call his wife’s campaign headquarters to complain that her itinerary overlooked blue-collar voters, and after the election Obama noted that “there’re not only entire states but also big chunks of states where, if we’re not showing up, if we’re not in there making an argument, then we’re going to lose. And we can lose badly, and that’s what happened in this election.”

In defending herself, Clinton takes a swipe at Joe Biden, who after the election was openly critical of her failure to win enough working-class voters: Well, she writes archly, Biden himself campaigned plenty for her in Pennsylvania and didn’t manage to deliver the state. But Biden’s name wasn’t on the ballot. (Perhaps explaining Clinton’s loss in one of the three crucial battleground states, a recently released study suggests that Wisconsin’s new voting restrictions discouraged enough minority citizens to have made the difference in the outcome there—and Clinton didn’t visit during the general election.)

And then there are the e-mails. Clinton is justified in her anger and bitterness over the performance of then–FBI director James Comey. She’s also justified in her anger at the role of the press in wildly inflating the issue of the private server. (NBC’s Matt Lauer comes in for a particular lashing for persisting to question her about this in a candidate forum supposedly devoted to “commander in chief” issues.) But there is also the question of Clinton’s judgment in the server business. She describes her decision in retrospect as “a dumb mistake,” but she also tries to portray it as nothing out of the ordinary to have done. This is where her lack of self-awareness comes in: The server disclosure had resonance with many people because, as first lady, she acquired a reputation for being secretive. This isn’t the only time in the book that Hillary both acknowledges making a mistake and defends the very same action. Accounts of the special arrangements that State Department aides made to accommodate her wishes on a private server conveyed one of Hillary’s less attractive traits: a certain arrogance, stoked by subordinates who acted as eager enablers. But I wouldn’t go as far as Clinton does in attributing her loss solely to Comey: “If not for the dramatic intervention of the FBI director in the final days,” she writes, “I believe that in spite of everything, we would have won the White House.” The view—widely shared by her followers—that Comey caused her defeat suggests a corollary to Chotiner’s law: In a very close election in which any number of factors might have made the difference, it’s extremely unlikely that any one thing caused a defeat.

Then what about Russia? In fact, Hillary blames Vladimir Putin for her loss as well. We’re also still learning about Russia’s extensive and disturbing effort to elect Trump. We do know that the evidence of their involvement metastasizes almost daily—who is to say that their social-media presence, in which they played on themes that were disadvantageous to Clinton, and the drip-drip-drip of WikiLeaks e-mails didn’t 
continually reinforce people’s doubts 
about her? In any event, given the 
amount of fiddling around that the 
Russians did, we may never know whether the 2016 election had a legitimate victor.

Hillary does do the requisite taking of responsibility in What Happened, but it comes off as meeting a requirement. She’s aware that, unlike her husband or Obama, she has no natural gift for politics, especially the political skills required for operating at such a high level; her admission that she fell short in this regard is painful to read. But without question, her delivery improved as the campaign went along, to the point where she gave an impressive acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention and, by the end of the proceedings, came across as a plausible president. (It wasn’t until election night that we learned that wasn’t a requirement for winning.)

Nonetheless, Clinton’s chug-chug-chug approach to politics during the election reminded me of her failure to get a health-care bill through Congress during her 
husband’s administration: Like both 
her attempts at the presidency, the proposal was too complicated and mechanical, and she couldn’t explain it convincingly. To have difficulty in simplifying isn’t a bad trait; it’s just an unfortunate one if you’re in politics.

This most likely explains the mystery of why Clinton’s campaign was so themeless. She defends, sort of, the inert slogan “Stronger Together” that her consultants came up with. Her husband is reported to have also complained about the campaign’s lack of an engaging message, but I’ve wondered why he then didn’t help her come up with one.

The most compelling section in this earnest, somewhat plodding book is 
Hillary’s narrative of election night. We’re in the room with her and Bill and family, at work with her speechwriters, putting the final touches on her victory speech. The first signs of trouble appear shortly after the polls close: Black and Latino votes aren’t coming in for her in North Carolina and Florida as strongly as had been hoped, while the “white precincts likely to go for Trump [seem] energized.” And then comes worse news: Though she has won some important states, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are still 
up for grabs. That Hillary can somehow take a nap in the middle of all this is a 
sign of her sheer exhaustion. One of the saddest parts of this story comes earlier in the book but belongs here: Clinton had packed a white pantsuit (white being the color of women’s liberation) to wear for her victory speech, but upon losing she instead donned the gray-and-purple one that she’d been planning to wear following her victory.

I wish I could say that more of the book was this riveting, but like so much else that Clinton does publicly, much of it comes across as dutiful. Sometimes the book jumps around; the fact that, by Clinton’s own acknowledgment, so many people had a hand in writing it can partly explain why it lacks a clear, consistent voice—much as her campaign did. For all of Clinton’s efforts to tell us about her life and how she felt about losing, we’re still left with a somewhat waxen figure. I can’t blame Hillary for refusing to invade her own privacy more, but her inability to connect with enough voters had consequences. Some readers may be put off by her defensiveness and complaining—even if Clinton does have reason to complain. Still, in the end, she lost the election. While she says that she understands this, it’s not clear that she does.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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