A lot of people have told Hillary Clinton to shut up in her life. We meet a few of them in her new book, What Happened, part memoir and part election post-mortem. And we are seeing more of them pipe up now with the book’s publication, angry that this woman dares defy their personal preferences with her stubborn insistence that yes, she mattered, and yes, she will keep talking.
Clinton’s detractors would like her to say two simple words: “I’m sorry.” She does, of course, and has many times, and does it again and again in this memoir. But instead of leaving it at that – doing the very female thing of apologizing for everything, including those things which are not her fault – she offers up her own view from the ground, as someone who was there and has been in the public eye for most of her adult life. She’s done with electoral politics, and this book was written in just a few months, so we get a far less cautious rendering of Clinton than we do in her previous memoir. We also get a more explicitly feminist one.
It suits her.
What Happened is in some ways a jarring read in the age of Trump. Clinton is introspective without narcissism, arch without being cruel. She can’t resist, even here, touching on her vision for the United States had she won, and her smartest-girl-in-the-class persona shines through – she’s excited about binders and briefing papers, her books and her meetings. It is impossible to imagine Donald Trump writing a book like this one.
Clinton also cracks open a deep knowledge of self so often missing from politics – and from what we read about Hillary Clinton. She details all of the ways in which she was told her to change (her name, her hair, her voice, her clothes, her positions), how “Hillary Clinton” went from being a person to an idea and finally a kind of sexist Rorschach test. But in this book, she is just her, and she knows herself to her core – not an easy task for any of us, least of all a woman who has long been more a representative of some always-bigger thing than just a first lady, or just a politician trying to get elected, or just a pragmatic idealist trying to push progress an inch forward at a time. That well of self-knowledge also means she offers herself some compassion, and brings readers into the big decision-making moments with her, and then into the brutal post-election excavation. Hillary Clinton, you are forced to remember, is an actual person (and she comes across as a pretty nice one).
Which doesn’t mean she evades responsibility. Clinton is deeply self-critical, churning over her own small decisions and larger errors. But she is fiercely loyal to her team, her friends, and her family, spending pages refuting critiques of her campaign staff and more pages still describing how Bill, Chelsea, and a cadre of girlfriends kept her sane in the worst moments of her life.
She also lays out her grievances. Donald Trump gets the worst of it. Clinton unsparingly calls him a sexual assailant, repeatedly writes that he’s a danger to the nation, and hammers his tweeting (“I was giving speeches laying out how to solve the country’s problems. He was ranting on Twitter”) and his golfing and even his suits and demeanor — her debate prep partner “wore a suit like Trump’s (a little baggy), a tie like Trump’s (way too long), and actual Trump-brand cuff links and a Trump-brand watch he found on eBay.” James Comey is a close second, but the news media get their fair share, too; she eats a Chipotle bowl in an Iowa restaurant only to later see CNN broadcast grainy security camera footage of her meal, and the New York Times to publish a piece assessing its nutritional value (“Good ‘get’ for the Times; they really ate CNN’s lunch on that one”). She agrees with George W. Bush that the inauguration was “some weird shit.” After then-congressman Jason Chaffetz tweeted a photo of him and Clinton shaking hands with a caption that read, among other nastiness, “So pleased she is not the president” followed by a promise to continue investigating her over her emails and Benghazi, Clinton writes, “I came this close to tweeting back, ‘To be honest, thought you were Reince.’” She asks Ryan Zinke, now the secretary of the interior and previously a congressman, if he really meant it when he called her “the Antichrist.” When women approach her and contritely say they’re sorry they didn’t vote, she clenches a smile, but says, “I wanted to stare right in her eyes and say, ‘You didn’t vote? How could you not vote?! You abdicated your responsibility as a citizen at the worst possible time! And now you want me to make you feel better?’”
These are delicious sword-drawing moments from a woman we are so used to seeing coated in defensive armor.
But what takes What Happened from political memoir and into future historical document is Clinton’s clear-eyed assessment of the backdrop of gender and racial hostility that animated this election. Here, she offers some platitudes about progress and wanting to advocate for girls and all children, but she comes right out and says that being female made it harder for her to win an election that has for the entirety of American history only been won by men. In this book, America is not the land of equality and progress-achieved we hear about in political speeches and most politicians’ memoirs. Instead, it is a place where incredible work has been done, but where biases run deep. There is no kumbaya moment for all Americans. Instead of trying to win us over, she offers a kind of respect we rarely get from politicians: She is brutally honest and talks about voters like we’re rational adults who should be held accountable for our choices. Too many Trump voters, she writes, do hold views that she finds deplorable, and even those who don’t hold racist or sexist opinions themselves were willing to vote for a man who did. This is not just a book about what happened, but why it happened – and for the would-be first female president coming in on the heels of the first black president, gender and race are necessary landscapes that Clinton traverses with surprising straightforwardness.
This is not a book that will please everyone – least of all those who think the best path Clinton could take would lead to an isolated cave somewhere she could live out the rest of her days in contrite excommunication. It draws no more convincing conclusions about why she lost than any member of the political chattering class, and anyone who has a “what happened” narrative already set in their psyche is unlikely to be swayed by Clinton’s story.
But it is a crucial story to tell nonetheless, and she is the one who should tell it. While autobiographies of great and influential men abound, there are far fewer first-hand histories of great and influential women. However you feel about Hillary Clinton, her life has mattered. Finally, without having to play nice with the media or her political adversaries, without having to convince voters she is at once able to meet ever-changing demands while remaining immovable and inauthentic, she is not a symbol or an icon or the Antichrist in a white pantsuit. She is just her, as she has always been – one of the most carefully-observed women in the world, who somehow, we never really saw.