We Need to Reckon With the Story ‘What Happened’ Tells

We Need to Reckon With the Story ‘What Happened’ Tells

We Need to Reckon With the Story ‘What Happened’ Tells

Hillary Clinton has a unique perspective on a world-historical event. Why shouldn’t she write a book about it?


Hillary Clinton can’t catch a break. “Flawed” is attached to her name like a Homeric epithet. Never mind that she won almost 3 million more votes than Donald Trump: She lost in three swing states by 80,000, proof that she’s a horrible person who ran the worst campaign ever. But what could you expect? She’s a bitch and a cunt (men), or can’t-put-my-finger-on-it-but-just-not-likable (women). She’s got a shrill voice and thinks she’s oh-so-special. She voted for the war in Iraq—true, so did John Kerry and Joe Biden and that momentary darling of the left, John Edwards, but her vote was just… different. She supported the 1994 crime bill, which Bernie Sanders voted for, but that was different too. She gave those speeches to Goldman Sachs. She’s too feminist, or not feminist enough, too liberal, too conservative, too tame, too outspoken, too known a quantity—but also, who is she really? And she’s too privileged—not at all like Kerry, who married into millions, or, for that matter, FDR. She was too hawkish for the left but too female to be commander in chief for the right—and why did she want to be president anyway, a question asked of no man ever but which she faced a thousand times. Whatevs! Lock her up—if not in prison, in a retirement home. Because have I mentioned that she is old? Just Google “creepy grandma grin.”

Now Grandma has written a book about the campaign, and how dare she? Nobody wants to hear from her—except maybe the 65,844,954 people who voted for her, the young women (yes, young women) who waited in line all night to attend her book launch in New York’s Union Square, the readers who have made What Happened a No. 1 best seller, or the millions who watched her interview with Rachel Maddow. After all, Hillary writing a book about world-historical events on which she has a unique perspective is nothing like Bernie Sanders publishing a book one week after Election Day, or Barack and Michelle Obama getting a reported $65 million advance for their memoirs, or any of the many other political figures who have told their side of the story while people still remember their names. Some actual headlines: “Hillary, I love you. But please go away”; “Hillary, time to exit the stage”; “Hillary Clinton Is Not Sorry”; “no twinge of remorse.”

Actually, the book is one long twinge. I lost track of the number of times Hillary blames herself. “I felt that I had let everyone down. Because I had.” “How did I let that happen?” she asks of the media’s obsession with her e-mails. “I should have seen that coming,” she says of the storm of criticism for those lucrative speeches to bankers. “That’s on me.” “I blamed myself. My worst fears about my limitations as a candidate had come true…. I had been unable to connect with the deep anger so many Americans felt or shake the perception that I was the candidate of the status quo.” She spends a whole chapter on her unsuccessful attempt to repair the damage she did by saying, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”—the unfortunately blithe introduction to an empathetic discussion of what the country owed the miners and their communities. It became an endlessly repeated out-of-context sound bite and branded her as the Cruella De Vil of the white working class.

Obviously, she should don sackcloth and ashes and crawl into the forest to die. But no, she dares to say that others had a part in the way the election went: Bernie Sanders, the media, James Comey, Russia, fake news. CNN’s Dylan Byers is bothered by that, tweeting: “The Hillary Clinton ‘I-take-full-responsibility-but-here-are-all-the-other-reasons-I-lost’ tour continues to be intrinsically problematic.” I don’t see why. All major events have multiple causes. The left focuses on her rather mild jabs at Sanders, but her other critiques are far more serious—and dead-on, too. The media was at its worst: There was endless coverage of the e-mail non-scandal (Chris Cillizza alone wrote at least 50 columns!) and almost none of her actual positions. While both candidates received largely negative coverage, a curiously neglected Harvard study shows that Trump’s platform got more attention than his scandals, while for Hillary it was the reverse. Comey’s interventions—especially his letter to Congress, just 11 days before the election, stating that he was reopening his investigation into whether she had mishandled classified documents—were disastrous. Without that announcement, Nate Silver strongly suggests, Clinton would have won. (I just hope I live long enough to learn why Comey kept quiet about the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s Russia ties.) The steady drip of hacked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and the campaign itself, the dissemination of false stories on Facebook through Russian bots and trolls—what Obama called “this dust cloud of nonsense”—it adds up. An RT video called “How 100% of the Clintons’ 2015 ‘charity’ went to…themselves” was viewed 10 million times.

So what happened? As she acknowledges, Hillary—the policy wonk, Girl Scout, and “lifelong fan of school supplies”—never quite grasped what she was up against until it was too late. She is constantly being surprised: that Trump is a grotesque and ignorant bully, that people are as angry and irrational and sexist as they are, that the media isn’t more interested in her carefully considered, achievable policies on every social problem under the sun, that truth doesn’t matter. She took too much pride in refusing to promise everyone “a pony,” whether it was Bernie’s proposal for single-payer health insurance and free public college (not ponies in my view) or Trump’s promise to resurrect coal mines and factories. That let Bernie and Trump, from different angles, put her in the position of being Mean Mom to their Fun Dad. Mean Mom, of course, is the one who makes sure that the vegetables are eaten, the homework gets done, and the bills are paid on time, while Fun Dad makes the kids feel they have power and life is exciting. In the end, Mom got more votes, but Dad—both dads—got more love.

We’ll be paying for that for a long, long time.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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