My problems with What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s nearly 500-page self-proclaimed explanation for why she isn’t the 45th President of the United States as she fully expected to be, began around page 7. Clinton was describing how it felt to be sitting on the inaugural platform on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol when Republican Donald Trump, the man who actually won the election, was sworn in: “The day was unusually warm.”
Actually, it wasn’t. The temperature high for January 20, 2017 was 48 degrees Fahrenheit, only marginally higher than the 43 degrees that is Washington’s average high for January 20. The bulk of the day was gloomy: iron-gray of sky, off-and-on rainy, and bone-chillingly damp. I know this because I happened to be outdoors on Pennsylvania Avenue on that very day for a very long time (about 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.), because, having donated to Trump’s campaign along with my husband, I’d been invited along with him to shepherd fans of the new President who had traveled hundreds of miles to Washington to view the inaugural parade from grandstands. We and the other volunteers shivered on the sidewalk in our parkas and knit caps, and we slipped inside nearby public buildings for warmth whenever we got a chance.
But Clinton (or whoever ghostwrote that sentence) was trying to score a political point against Trump: “I had heard that the first batch of white [rain] ponchos that had arrived [for the West Porch VIPs] could have looked something like KKK hoods from a certain angle, and a sharp-eyed inaugural organizer quickly replaced them.”
Oh, really? Rain ponchos that looked like pointy Klan hoods? “I had heard” covers quite a bit of imaginative territory. Then there were these thoughts that Clinton reports as racing through her head while she, winner of the popular vote but big-time loser in the Electoral College, endured Trump’s swearing-in:
I also thought about Al Gore, who in 2001 sat stoically through George W.’s inauguration. Five members of the Supreme Court decided that election. . . . John Adams, our second Commander in Chief, suffered the indignity of being the first President ever voted out of office, losing to Thomas Jefferson in 1800. . . . In 1972, George McGovern lost forty-nine out of fifty states to Richard Nixon—Bill and I worked hard on McGovern’s campaign and have indelible memories of that defeat. And let’s not forget William Howard Taft, whom Teddy Roosevelt had groomed to succeed him. Four years later, in 1912, Teddy decided that Taft wasn’t doing a good enough job as President, so he ran as a third-party candidate, split the electorate, and Woodrow Wilson won. That had to hurt.
Oh, yes, Hillary was wonkily reflecting on the 1912 defeat of William Howard Taft as she sat in the rain wearing her just barely non-Ku Klux Klan poncho that the Trump people had foisted upon her. And don’t forget how “hard . . . Bill and I” worked on McGovern’s campaign!
I’m far from the first reviewer of What Happened to take due note of the thoroughly inauthentic, self-pitying, and self-serving tone that pervades its every page. One blog commenter made a list of over 40 different people and entities that Clinton blames for her defeat. At the top: the Electoral College (“gave disproportionate power to less populated states,” “profoundly undemocratic”), the Russians (“we’ve got to get to the bottom of what really happened”), former FBI director James Comey (“I felt I’d been shivved”), primaries rival Bernie Sanders (“routinely portrayed me as a corrupt corporatist”), the 62,984,825 people who voted for her GOP opponent (still mostly “deplorable”—see page 413), and, of course, Satan McDevil himself (“My skin crawled” when Trump stood behind her during the second campaign debate).
There’s an entire chapter titled “Those Damn Emails.” That would be the classified ones on her hack-vulnerable home server that she’d used for State Department business while serving as President Obama’s Secretary of State, also the ones that turned up on the laptop of her top aide Huma Abedin’s sex-felonious husband just before the election (the final “shiv” from Comey), and the 30,000 that she deleted from her server in 2014 contrary to State Department orders on grounds that they were “personal.”
The email chapter provokes Clinton to list yet another villain in the perfidy of her electoral defeat: the press, with Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza’s 50 e-mail-related stories about her as the most egregious crime: “Coverage of my emails crowded out virtually everything else my campaign said or did.”
The Russians and their supposed pro-Trump election-skewing merit their own super-long chapter of 50 pages (“If all this sounds unbelievable, I know how you feel”)—even though not much substantive has turned up either before or after Clinton finished writing her book in July. Even the liberal press has mostly lost interest in the Russian connection, preferring to focus on newer alleged Trump depravities: insulting take-a-knee NFL players, calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man” at the United Nations, whatever.
(And speaking of shivs, Clinton pokes a teensy but catty one into Green Party rival Jill Stein, who she says “wouldn’t be worth mentioning” if Stein with her tens of thousands of votes hadn’t pulled the victory rug out from under the Democratic candidate’s feet in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.)
Not surprisingly, even some on the Left have characterized What Happened as a “soaringly, malignantly useless” waste of Clinton’s reported $20 million advance for writing it. In the words of the Huffington Post’s Sam Kriss: “Everything she writes feels metallic in the mouth.”
On the other hand, that is not quite true. What Happened is not entirely useless, nor is it entirely metallic. Even the most ghostwritten autobiography, retouched to the same wrinkle-free sheen as the portrait of Clinton by fashion photographer Mario Testino on the back of the book’s jacket, offers a glimpse, sometimes inadvertent, into its author’s soul. We learn something real and genuine about Hillary Clinton even in this self-justifying pity party of a book whose main theme is how much its author deserved to be President and how close she came to winning.
One of the things we learn, for example is that she is enormously fond of food and drink: Witness the loving descriptions of the salmon salads, the Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers (I’m addicted to them myself), the pizza with sliced jalapenos, the lattes, the Mideast takeout, the pork chop on a stick at the Iowa State Fair, the “ice-cold Tito’s martini with olives” on which she gorged as she flew from airport to airport. Indeed, for a few pages you wonder why she just didn’t write a fun book about daily life for a woman on the campaign trail: the meals, the clothes, the hairdresser sessions.
She is also extremely self-conscious about her looks and what other people might think about them. “In junior high, a few unkind schoolmates noticed the lack of ankles on my sturdy legs and did their best to embarrass me.” She is similarly hyper-aware that millions of Americans don’t really like her. “Imagine what it feels like,” she writes. “It hurts. It’s a hard thing to accept. But there’s no getting around it.”
And she is deadly earnest about, well, about everything. The book overflows with pious epigraphs and quotations (probably collected by her ghostwriters) from the iconostasis of liberal saints toward whom she feels constrained to nod: Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, Maya Angelou, Harriet Tubman. It also overflows with the binders full of dutiful research, position papers, and elaborate policy proposals (job retraining, infrastructure, childcare plans, gun control, carbon dividends, taxation schemes) whose collecting and perusing seem to fill up every spare moment of Clinton’s time. “I sweat the details,” she writes. She certainly does.
As Kriss and others have noted, What Happened tells you nothing you don’t already know about Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign; indeed it leaves out everything you might want to know about the hash that she and her aides made of it (for that, you have to read Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s Shattered). But as I said, the real Clinton does somehow come through, as one realizes with a shock, that behind the carefully constructed carapace is an actual and even occasionally sympathetic human being who got into a presidential race way over her wonky head.