What’s So Controversial About What Happened?
Hey Don, this will be fun! We’ve got our own two-person book club to read Hillary Clinton’s controversial account of the 2016 election, What Happened.
First of all, I will never in a million years understand why this book is controversial. Clinton was the first woman presidential nominee in American history. She suffered the upset of a lifetime, maybe the country’s lifetime. She has some thoughts about it she’d like to share with us. I might have framed some things differently, but the book is mostly a lively, unflinching read. While it was painful to relive some of it—the steady leak of e-mail, whether from the DNC or her campaign manager; the mounting evidence that Russia meddled in the election; the frivolity of so much of the media coverage; and finally, election night and what followed—I can imagine writing the book has been cathartic for her. As Clinton repeatedly tells us, she replays all of this pretty much every day. Why shouldn’t she share it with us?
I’m also struck by the criticism that she’s not criticizing herself. I don’t get it. Sometimes the self-criticism is lacerating. Just a few examples:
Writing this wasn’t easy. Every day that I was a candidate for president, I knew that millions of people were counting on me, and I couldn’t bear the idea of letting them down. But I did. I couldn’t get the job done, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.
I blamed myself. My worst fears about my limitations as a candidate had come true. I had tried to learn the lessons of 2008, and in many ways ran a better, smarter campaign this time. But 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.
I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made. I take responsibility for all of them. You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want, but I was the candidate. It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.
I also know that it was my job to break through all that noise and convince the American people to vote for me. I wasn’t able to do it.
I do recognize that my campaign in 2016 lacked the sense of urgency and passion that I remember from ’92.
I regret handing Trump a political gift with my “deplorables” comment.
The most interesting “mea culpa”—which is about policy, so predictably it hasn’t been hyped—is Clinton’s grappling with why the big, sweeping proposals of Senator Bernie Sanders caught fire and thus why her insistence on incremental change and her wariness of universal programs like Medicare for All or tuition-free college was a mistake—politically and policy-wise. As you’ll recall, she wanted to leave out the upper middle class and above from her tuition-free college proposal:
Bernie proved again that it’s important to set lofty goals that people can organize around and dream about, even if it takes generations to achieve them…. Democrats should reevaluate a lot of our assumptions about which policies are politically viable…. I criticized Bernie’s “free college for all” plan as providing wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids. But it’s precisely because they don’t benefit everyone that targeted programs are so easily stigmatized and demagogued…. The conclusion I reach from this is that Democrats should redouble our efforts to develop bold, creative ideas that offer broad based benefits for the whole country.
But instead of covering this Sanders-inspired change in her thinking—which is a big one, and helps explain why so far 16 Senate Democrats have joined Sanders in sponsoring his Medicare-for-All legislation—all we heard from pundits is that she insulted her primary rival by passing on an Internet joke about ponies (which I’ll admit made me laugh).
It’s true she also rebuts some criticism. Analyzing the polling data collected by Stan Greenberg—who identified “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s, and helped her husband win some of them back in 1992—Clinton acknowledges that she lost white, working-class support in the closing days of the campaign. But she differs with Greenberg about why: “Stan thinks this happened because I went silent on the economy and change. But that’s baloney.”
Clinton then goes on to enumerate all the ways she talked about jobs and the economy in the countdown to November 8. You may find her arguments about this unconvincing—I’m not sure myself—but I don’t get why so many reviewers and pundits insist on saying she’s not admitting her own mistakes or grappling with reasonable critiques of the campaign. Is there a new Clinton rule: that she must agree with every single criticism and then leave the public arena forever?
I’d argue that the media’s hostility to this book stems partly from the fact that Clinton is pretty unforgiving in examining the role of the media. She notes that “in 2008, the major networks’ nightly newscasts spent a total of 220 minutes on policy. In 2012, it was 114 minutes. In 2016, it was just 32 minutes.… By contrast, 100 minutes were spent covering my email.” That’s just a fact, and it’s deplorable. She laments that so much time was spent in the closing days hyping FBI director James Comey’s decision to announce that he’d found more of her e-mail on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner, and thus could not declare his investigation closed. She calls out The New York Times by name for featuring only stories about the Comey bombshell above the fold the next day, and about a bizarre piece that insisted the FBI had found no evidence of Russian meddling on behalf of Donald Trump in the campaign, when that turned out to be totally false.
Clinton wonders why there’s been no overarching investigation, by any major media outlet, of its shortcomings in covering Trump (the Times did such investigations in the case of its flawed investigation of scientist Wen Ho Lee, you’ll recall, as well as its role in disseminating false information arguments in the run-up to the Iraq War.) She concludes, “the problem is they can’t bear to face their own role in helping elect Trump, from providing free airtime to giving my emails three times more coverage than all the issues affecting people’s lives.”
It appears that many of us in the media want Clinton to shoulder all the blame herself. She’s gotten a lot of criticism for quoting Nate Silver, Sam Wang, and other polling experts who said without the Comey letter, she’d be president. Remember, she lost three swing states—Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—by 77,000 votes. And, as she regularly reminds us, she won the popular vote by almost 3 million. I think she makes her case.
By far the most controversial sections of the book will be where she lays out the evidence for Russian meddling in the election, and the possibility that figures in the Trump campaign colluded. Clinton finds no smoking gun, but I find her evidence convincing—and disturbing. Anyway, some preliminary thoughts. What did you think?
A Clintonesque Book
I don’t have any problem with Hillary Clinton’s telling her side of the story. In fact, I found her account fascinating, both for what it revealed about our politics and what it revealed about Clinton. But this isn’t a book review, so let’s cut to the controversy. A few hotheads on Twitter might begrudge Clinton for saying anything. On the other hand, it seems fair enough to criticize her both for what she says, and how she says it. Really, though, I don’t find the anger that greeted this book at all mysterious.
Many of us voted for Clinton not because we expected her to do much about income inequality, or the decline of American manufacturing, or climate change or racial justice or access to health care or education—and certainly not because we thought she’d pursue a just peace in the Middle East, or the rollback of America’s military empire or the abolition of nuclear weapons. But we did think she could beat Donald Trump, the most unpopular candidate in modern political history. From a candidate, and a campaign, that never stopped boasting about her competence, that seemed like the least we had a right to expect. Instead, we got catastrophe.
When New Yorker editor David Remnick even mentioned he was going to interview Clinton, a veteran of her own 2008 campaign exploded: “Ask her why she blew the biggest slam dunk in the history of fucking American politics!” Judging by What Happened, Clinton still has no idea.
I vote in Vermont, so if voting for Sanders since 1996 makes me a Bernie Bro, then I’m happy to plead guilty. I voted for him in the primary, but I also voted for Hillary in November, donated money to her campaign, and had a hand in drafting The Nation’s endorsement of her. And I found her book Clintonesque—by which I mean slippery, self-serving, disingenuous, and ultimately as untrustworthy as any of Bill’s assurances that he feels our pain.
Sure the book is studded with mea culpas. But most of them are like her admission “I’m not the most natural politician”—qualified immediately by “I’m a lot better than I’m usually given credit for.” Sometimes, as when she tells us she finally decided to run again after “a trip to the beautiful home of our friends Oscar and Annette de la Renta in the Dominican Republic,” Clinton’s lack of self-awareness can be amusing. Other times, like when she cites “Appalachian native” J.D. Vance on the “culture of grievance, victimhood, and scapegoating” as an explanation for why she did badly in poor, rural communities, her blindness reveals an ugly tendency to blame others for her own failings.
Clinton rebuts critics who accuse her of ignoring those left behind by pointing out the many times she did talk about jobs, or income inequality. At one point she even reprints a chart showing how often she used the word “jobs” in her speeches. The problem is that voters—at least enough voters in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—didn’t believe her.
Clinton likes to talk about politics as a team effort—a grand, uplifting collaborative enterprise in which we all come together to help every child born in American “live up to his or her God-given potential.” But politics, which is fundamentally about power—who has it, and in whose interest it will be used—is often, inevitably, polarizing. Over the past 20 years, American voters have heard a lot of promises—a lot of them from Clinton, and even more of them from her husband. In 2016, the most urgent question from voters wasn’t “What will you do for us?” but “Whose side are you on?”
Clinton writes that “after the financial crisis I should have realized [her speeches to Goldman Sachs] would be bad ‘optics’ and stayed away.” In much the same politically tone-deaf, morally myopic vein, she regrets the way her language about “putting a lot of coal miners” out of work was reported. She doesn’t even go that far with her characterization of half of Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables,” instead doubling down on her disdain (though she does regret “handing Trump a political gift”). Having spent considerable time with Trump voters over the past year, I have no doubt many of them have racial and other prejudices you and I would find repellent. But what Clinton still fails to understand, or even recognize, is why voters who feel crushed and desperate might doubt that someone who winters with the de la Rentas, lets her hair down with Wall Street, owns two mansions in Chappaqua, and who can write, without apparent irony, that—while her communitarian sermonizing was treated with suspicion at home—“I found more receptive audiences overseas…at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland,” is really on their side. When she says Trump’s “dark and dystopian” inaugural “painted a picture of a bitter, broken country I didn’t recognize,” I believe her. But someone who wants to be president really ought to get out more.
Clinton’s sanctimony is fully on display in What Happened—as is her penchant for special pleading—and never more so than when attacking her chief Democratic rival. She criticizes Sanders—legitimately—for his weak position on gun control. But instead of admitting her delight in finding the one issue where she is genuinely to Sanders’s left, she pretends her position owes everything to her outrage over the epidemic of gun violence, and her own political courage—and nothing to the calculus that in 2008 had her “talking like Annie Oakley.”
Even if her claim that Sanders “didn’t get into the race to make sure a Democrat won” were true, the sense of entitlement behind that sentiment isn’t a good look for a Democrat. Nor, for that matter, is the feigned outrage in her charge that Sanders resorted “to innuendo and impugning my character”—while she does the same to him. Her ability to square her own nomination of the abortion foe Tim Kaine as her running mate with hitting Sanders for “supporting candidates who are anti choice” offers an illuminating window into her mental accounting: one set of rules for Clintons (as when she describes Juanita Broaddrick, a woman who claims Bill Clinton raped her, as “accusing my husband of bad acts”); another for everyone else.
It’s the same approach in her account of the time Chelsea Clinton “politely raised questions about Bernie’s health care plan”—a major distortion called out by Politifact as “Mostly False.” Rather than acknowledge the malice behind this failed mugging, Clinton and her daughter share “a smile and a sigh when we heard Bernie called for improving the Affordable Care Act immediately by embracing the approach that I proposed as a candidate: a public option in fifty states and lowering the Medicare age to fifty-five.” Which suggests that in marrying into the Mezvinskys, the Clintons have acquired a new understanding of chutzpah, since, as even The New York Times acknowledged, it was Clinton who “took a significant step in her opponent’s direction” on health care.
Does all this relitigating of the primary matter? Perhaps not in terms of the past, since anyone really looking for von Ranke’s Wie es eigentlich gewesen (how it really was) should know better than to expect it from any of the principals. And there are parts of What Happened that struck me as both beguiling and profoundly truthful—particularly Clinton’s moving tribute to the women’s movement, which she says “was and is the story of my life—mine and millions of other women’s. We share it. We wrote it together. We’re still writing it.” Others may respond differently, but I found it impossible to dislike the woman who writes “I wish so badly we were a country where a candidate who said, ‘My story is the story of a life shaped by and devoted to the movement for women’s liberation’ would be cheered, not jeered.” When she concludes, “But that’s not who we are,” I found it difficult to disagree.
So if that’s the Hillary you know, and love, you’ll find a lot to like in this book. But if you are looking for a sense of what next, for either the country or the Democratic Party, look elsewhere. Because Hillary Clinton the politician belongs to the past.
The Unbridgeable Clinton Divide
Wow, Don, did we read the same book? I didn’t see our project as a means of “relitigating the primary,” so I’m just going to let you have at that. And let me start at your kicker: Hillary Clinton the politician has said repeatedly she will not run for office again. If that’s what you mean by politician, voilà!, your wish has already been granted. But if you mean you’d like her to stop talking about politics, you’re going to be disappointed.
Let’s stipulate here: Yes, Clinton is a woman who rose from the middle class to wealth, fame, and power. She shares some—but not all–of the values, as well as the blinders, of the American elite who unfairly dominate our politics and our economy. Unfortunately, by the time they run for president, the same can be said for most candidates, Democrats and Republicans (Bernie Sanders’s rise can certainly be attributed to his refusal to fully join that elite, and I admire him for that). So yes, I’m with you: I could have lived without her telling us she vacationed with the de la Rentas, or her “communitarian sermonizing” with the global elite at Davos. On the other hand, had she left out those details, I can imagine her critics huffing: “She mentions nothing of those fancy vacations with the de la Rentas or her trips to Davos! Why won’t she admit who she really is? What is she hiding?” (Note to Barack Obama: Don’t mention windsurfing with Sir Richard Branson after the election last year, or Don will ding you one Amazon star off your memoir.)
But here we part ways very quickly, as you declare that, while you voted for Clinton after backing Sanders in the primary, you “never expected her to do much” about income inequality, climate change, racial justice, access to healthcare or education—or anything, really. Really? None of that? I certainly did! Clinton had comprehensive proposals on all those issues, some of which might have been achieved through executive action, agency regulation, and aggressive personnel choices, despite Republican obstruction. (For the record, I share your concerns about her foreign policy.)
But okay. What you “had a right to expect,” you write, is that she would beat Trump. I was struck by that language—what you “had a right to expect” from Clinton. It sounds like something someone might say of an underling, someone in your employ. Yes, Clinton is a political leader, and we have the right to expect from her basic honesty and political competence. But she’s also a leader in an American political experiment in which we all participate, the conclusion of which stunned most of us this time around. In fact, many people—much of the media, third-party voters, voters who stayed at home, Republican Trump-haters who nevertheless voted Trump, people who loudly claimed there was no difference between Trump and Clinton, James Comey, as well as Russian meddlers—performed far below the standard of what we “had a right to expect” of adult members of a democratic society. This includes, yes, the wealthy Davos-visiting lady who definitely should have spent more time in Wisconsin.
This is the crux of the debate over the book: Is Clinton singularly (though, of course, not solely) responsible for her loss? Or did an unpredictable storm of developments come together behind Hurricane Donald, which allowed him to ravage our norms with his bellowing nativism, his cruel racism, his open misogyny, his flirting with anti-Semitism, his corrupt self-dealing, and his flouting of ethics and laws? I’d say it’s the latter; you seem to believe it’s the former.
There are a couple of points where I think you either misread passages of the book, or are being unfair to Clinton. As a matter of simple fact, it is not true that most of her mea culpas are “qualified immediately,” as in the case of the one you select. When she rebuts the claim that she didn’t talk about jobs by pointing to the many speeches and campaign stops where she did just that—and yes, she even produces a chart showing how often she used the word “jobs”—you neither refute nor concede her point. Instead, you simply tell us voters didn’t believe her, because of her time at Davos and the de la Rentas’ vacation home, and her (incredibly dumb) Goldman Sachs speeches. She can’t win.
You revisit her lamentable remark (taken entirely out of context) about “putting a lot of coal miners out of work,” and claim she merely “regrets the way her language…was reported.” She does far more than that. She devoted an entire chapter to the controversy (“Country Roads”), which she starts by explaining the context of her remarks, which were not at all callous but rather about helping the communities where those jobs were, yes, going to disappear. Then she tells us about her plans to help those communities with economic development and education, and she takes us along on several visits around Appalachia, where she sees the joblessness and isolation that gave rise to the opioid epidemic. She had a plan for that, too. She recounts a painful meeting she set up in Williamson, West Virginia, where people who may have voted for her in 2008 (she won the state’s Democratic primary back then) screamed at her outside, while inside a former coal miner named Bo Copley showed her pictures of his children, and voice cracking, explained why hearing the words “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of work” particularly stung.
Yes, at one point in the chapter—one sentence, really—she references “the culture of grievance, victimhood and scapegoating” depicted by Appalachia native J.D. Vance. But is absolutely not true that she cites him as the “explanation for why she did badly in poor, rural communities,” as you claim. She delves into many explanations. This is one of many instances in which I felt we might have been delivered different books.
As I said, I won’t relitigate the primary, but on one factual point: It is unfair to claim she’s lying when she notes Sanders called for improving the Affordable Care Act “by embracing the approach that I proposed as a candidate: a public option in 50 states and lowering the Medicare age to 55.” That was, in fact, her health proposal, while Sanders during the primary was aiming higher, for a truly single-payer system. It’s true that The New York Times found that she took “a significant step in her opponent’s direction” on health care during the primary campaign; but he took a significant step toward hers when it came to improving the ACA. Oh, and by the way: Sanders also moved to Clinton’s proposal for tuition-free college for families who make less than $125,000 in the bill he introduced this year; his earlier plan included no caps. It’s great to see the way these two progressive leaders influenced one another.
So I’m going to close there. The mention of “Juanita Broaddrick” set me back on my heels a little; that comes from Roger Stone’s playbook. But you’re entitled to think that’s relevant. Just as you said to close your post, people who like or love Hillary Clinton will probably like the book. People who dislike her probably won’t. I was hoping we’d get beyond that enduring, seemingly unbridgeable Clinton divide. But maybe, after all this time, it’s impossible.
Why the Clinton Divide Matters
Gee, Joan, I thought you weren’t going to relitigate. But since you ask, no I really didn’t expect the politician who flip-flopped on Keystone, and said had nothing to say about the Dakota Pipeline, to do much on climate change. Or the candidate whose reply to the Fight for $15 was “Settle for $12!” to have a big impact on income inequality.
And of course you’re right about “Country Roads.” There really is a whole chapter in the book devoted to saying what Hillary meant—or now wishes she’d said—about Appalachia. I read the encounter with Bo Copley. So why am I still skeptical? Maybe because, in another part of the book, she explains that “our strategy depended on compensating for expected weakness with working-class white voters (a trend that had been getting worse for Democrats for a long time) by doing better among college-educated suburban moderates.” Working-class voters in the Rust Belt may have fooled themselves into thinking Donald Trump gives a damn about them—but I don’t think their sense of being written off by Clinton and her campaign was a delusion.
Am I being too hard on Hillary? Maybe. It should go without saying, but just to be clear: I still really wish she’d won. Indeed reading through her planned domestic agenda for the first 100 days, from the big infrastructure and jobs plan she wanted to unveil on day one to more blue-sky—and radical—ideas, like her “Alaska for America” program for a universal basic income, and then thinking about what we have instead—the sense of loss is overwhelming. While I shed no comparable tears over her thwarted foreign policy, where she “wanted to go further than the Obama administration, which resisted providing defensive arms to the Ukrainian government or establishing a no-fly zone in Syria,” having Donald Trump’s finger over the button instead hardly feels like an improvement.
I do think she’s too quick to blame others for her own mistakes. But when she argues that former FBI director James Comey’s blundering interventions cost her the election, she has a case. As she says, “convincing Americans that Trump was just too big a risk was our best shot at overpowering the widespread desire for change after eight years of Democratic control,” and until Comey’s second letter on October 28, “there was every reason to believe this strategy would work.” Nate Silver and others have purported to show that Comey stopped her campaign dead in its tracks. I’m not sure about that. But I do find Clinton’s argument that “when both candidates seemed risky, then the desire for change reasserted itself,” compelling.
And if Comey has every reason to feel more than “mildly nauseous,” so does the media—especially television, which treated Trump like the reality TV star he was, rather than the political candidate he was playing, grading his endless lies and idiotic pronouncements on a curve that would have driven any opponent to distraction. Print was less gullible, or less susceptible to ratings. But still too focused on those damn e-mails. Lots of reporters made—and wrote about—the pilgrimage to Wayne Barrett’s basement. But far too few of them did the hard investigative work on Trump’s money, debt exposure, or foreign entanglements that a healthy Barrett would have plunged into. Instead, as David Bromwich lays out in some detail, the mainstream media indulged itself in striking the easy, superior attitudes appropriate to “The Age of Detesting Trump.” How could such a yahoo, supported by such unwashed ignoramuses, have defeated the toast of Davos?
Must have been the Russians! Of course, Hillary could be right about the Russians, too. Just as Trump was a promoter, and a chancer, and those habits die hard, so it doesn’t at all seem improbable for the former head of the FSB to keep a clandestine hand in. Still, someone who bitterly complains, as Clinton does in relation to the bogus e-mail scandal, “even if there was no fire, there was enough smoke to choke our campaign,” ought to be more careful in distinguishing proof from plausibility. And to remember that meddling in elections is hardly a Russian monopoly. But then Clinton often writes as if she’s a lot more naive than anyone who’s been “in the Situation Room” has a right to be. Trump’s claim that Obama wiretapped him may have been “widely and quickly debunked,” and thanks to his use of an archaic term, not strictly true—nobody gets “wiretapped” anymore. But what does Clinton think Prism and XKEYSCORE programs amount to if not the capability to listen to all of our electronic communications, very much including Donald Trump’s? Or is exposing our own hacker-ocracy the reason Clinton still wants Edward Snowden to be locked up? It’s a dirty world, but it would be easier to sympathize with Clinton’s sense of outrage if she didn’t complain about the stacked deck only when it was stacked against her.
Which brings us to sexism and misogyny. I was in Cleveland when a deranged Michael Flynn led the crowd in chanting “Lock her up!” and an unhinged Chris Christie turned the Republican convention into a kangaroo court. Clinton has been the target of disgusting sexist abuse her whole political career—this campaign being no exception. With the margins so close, misogyny might well have cost her the election.
But in reading her book, I found myself wondering whether Clinton ever asks herself why she, who hadn’t run for elected office since Wellesley, got to be New York’s first female senator instead of Elizabeth Holtzman, or Bella Abzug, or Shirley Chisolm, or Carol Bellamy. I don’t question Clinton’s commitment to women’s liberation—no man has a right to do that. Only I did notice that the word “superpredators” isn’t in the index to What Happened. Neither is “death penalty.” Or the name Ricky Ray Rector. It may be unfair to make Hillary atone for Bill’s sins—but no more unfair than getting to leap to the head of the line because your husband was president. Because if you see sexism and racism and economic inequality as linked—part of what unsubtle thinkers might call a rigged system—and you only call out the parts of that system that don’t cost you anything, what does that say about your commitment to justice?
As for the Clinton divide, I happen to think it matters. Not because of the past. But because there is still, right now, a struggle for power inside the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton—and by the evidence of this book not at all unwillingly—represents one wing of that struggle. She might call them Teddy Roosevelt progressives—another “shrewd politician who managed to fend off the demands of angry populists on [the] left, who wanted to go even farther towards Socialism.” I’d call them corporate Democrats—and I say to hell with them.
We all know who, right now, represents the opposition. That’s why her little digs and dishonest remarks about Bernie Sanders actually matter—not out of some mean desire to relitigate the past, but out of a desperate urge to stop making the same mistakes in the future. It would be ageist of me to say I hope neither of them runs again. And I have no problem at all with Hillary Clinton’s telling her story—or even advocating for her kind of politics.
I just think she’s wrong, the whole Democratic Leadership Council neoliberal tinkering-while-leaving-the-system-to-grind-on is a dead end, and that in refusing to acknowledge that failure, Hillary Clinton makes herself yesterday’s woman in a way Donald Trump never could.