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.