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Hillary's story

Book review of 'What Happened'

Jennifer Senior | NYT 

What Happened
By Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon & Schuster
494 pages; $30 (Indian price: Rs 699)

has written a book. Have you heard?

Choice quotes have been seeping out for weeks, and I’ll admit that I reacted to one of them — “Now I’m letting down my guard” — as if the smoke alarm had started shrieking in my living room. Why believe her? In her previous books, she measured her words with teaspoons and then sprayed them with disinfectant.

Then again, we’ve been told over and over that Clinton is very different in private. And she is now a private citizen.

This distinction seems to have made all the difference.

What Happened is not one book, but many. It is a candid and blackly funny account of her mood in the direct aftermath of losing to Donald J Trump. It is a post-mortem, in which she is both coroner and corpse. It is a feminist manifesto. It is a score-settling jubilee. It is a rant against James B Comey, Bernie Sanders, the media, James B Comey, Vladimir Putin and James B Comey. It is a primer on Russian spying. It is a thumping of Trump. (“I sometimes wonder: If you add together his time spent on golf, Twitter and cable news,” she writes, “what’s left?”)

It is worth reading. Winning the popular vote by nearly 3 million may not have been enough to shatter the country’s highest, hardest glass ceiling. But it seems to have put 2,864,974 extra cracks in Clinton’s reserve.

Are there moments when is wearying, canned and disingenuous, spinning events like a top? Yes. Does it offer any new hypotheses about what doomed Clinton’s campaign? No. It merely synthesises old ones; Clinton’s diagnostics are the least interesting part of the book.

But this book is not just a perseverative recap of 2016. It is the story of what it was like to run for president of the United States as the female nominee of a major party, a first in American history. The apotheosis of Leaning In. Doesn’t this experience rate an account from Clinton herself? 

More generally, something truly extraordinary happened in American politics last year, and Clinton was at the centre of it. Fifty years from now, are historians going to complain that she had no business offering her perspective?

“I was running a traditional presidential campaign with carefully thought-out policies and painstakingly built coalitions,” she writes, “while Trump was running a reality TV show that expertly and relentlessly stoked Americans’ anger and resentment.”

The first two chapters of What Happened are wry and dramatic. Clinton recounts the otherworldliness of Inauguration Day — she briefly imagined herself in Bali — and the bleak weeks following the election, when she watched bad television, got in touch with her inner Marie Kondo and did lots of yoga. 

The best, most poignant parts of What Happened reveal the that her inner circle has assured us was lurking beneath the surface all along: A woman who’s arch but sensitive. She writes that she’s astonished whenever someone else is astonished to discover she’s human. “For the record,” she writes, “it hurts to be torn apart.” She doesn’t even bother describing her reaction to the ticker of contumely that’s whirred above her head for most of her adult life, though she does write about how “incredibly uncomfortable” it was to be stalked on stage by Trump during the second presidential debate.

Far more controversial and complicated, surely, is the rest of What Happened, starting with Clinton’s arguments about the role of misogyny and sexism in the election. It’s hard to buy the idea that she suffered disproportionately from charges of untrustworthiness or inauthenticity simply because she was a woman. Her husband was considered so eely that the tabloids christened him “Slick Willy,” and plenty of male presidential candidates (Mitt Romney, John Kerry) were regarded as catastrophically insincere.

More persuasive is Clinton’s contention that presidential politics, especially compared to parliamentary politics, favours arena-filling showmanship rather than the quieter, detail-oriented realism she prefers. And 2016 was nothing if not the year of the blusterer. One of the things that drove Clinton bonkers about Bernie Sanders was that he always managed to outdo her proposals with something larger and less feasible. “That left me to play the unenviable role,” she writes, “of spoilsport schoolmarm.”

You may have heard that What Happened is angry. It’s true. Or defiant, anyway. Love it or loathe it, chafe at it or cheer it; you will now see, for the first time, what it looks like when Clinton doesn’t spend all of her energy suppressing her irritation. As her book’s title implies, Clinton has her own version of in 2016, and she eventually forces readers to reckon with it. She seems at once the best and worst possible person to carry out this assessment. But here, at any rate, is her bottom line:

Comey’s letter of October 28, 2016, which notified Congress that he was reopening his investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct State Department business, effectively ended her candidacy. (She leans heavily on various analyses done by the data maestro Nate Silver to make her case.) Combine that letter with the full-saturation media coverage Comey’s investigation had been getting all along, and then add to it Russian interference — fake news stories on social media, email hacks — and you have the perfect storm.

It’s hard to say whether readers will buy these explanations. It’s possible that a more inspired candidate would have won the electoral college, simple as that.

We’ll be arguing about these questions for decades, surely. But one thing we know for certain: History conspired against Clinton. No non-incumbent Democrat has succeeded a two-term Democratic president since 1836, and 2016 was a year when voters were pining for change. Bigly.

In spite of that — in spite of everything — Clinton still won the popular vote by almost 3 million. But it didn’t matter. is, it wasn’t enough.

© 2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, September 17 2017. 22:41 IST