It’s not really her fault.
That’s the underlying theme of Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, in which the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state blames a long list of characters for her defeat at the hands of Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election. While admitting that she failed to connect with American voters on some level, Clinton also points a finger at her primary opponent Bernie Sanders, Wikileaks chief Julian Assange, the media and the “deplorables”—yes, she doubles down on them.
And ultimately, the 464-page text—more theory of the case than memoir—concludes that then-FBI Director James Comey and Russian President Vladimir Putin snatched the presidency from her hands in the campaign’s closing weeks.
“What happened in the homestretch that caused so many voters to turn away from me?” she writes. “First, and most importantly, there was the unprecedented intervention by then FBI Director Jim Comey.” And, she continues, “the second big factor that caused the bottom to fall out at the end of the race was the Russian plot to sabotage my campaign and help elect Trump.”
If you’re hoping to learn precisely what happened from What Happened, you won’t get a comprehensive explanation. The book, which is published by Simon & Schuster and will be released on Tuesday (Politico purchased a copy at a bookstore on Sunday), is written in an accessible style that sometimes eluded Clinton on the campaign trail, but it lacks a narrative arc, dancing in and out of topics at will. And it glosses over some of the biggest decisions of her campaign, for example, her choice of a vice presidential running mate.
More than anything, What Happened reads like a compendium of things that Clinton wanted to get off her chest: She was robbed on Election Day, the electorate is comfortable with sexism, she did plenty of things right—and she’s keeping track of who did her wrong.
Clinton doesn’t let herself off the hook completely. Writing with the assistance of aides Dan Schwerin, Megan Rooney and Tony Carrk, she broadly acknowledges her flaws as a candidate in several passages in the book. “I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made. I take responsibility for all of them,” she writes. “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.”
But when it comes to how these flaws contributed to the outcome, Clinton is torn. In consecutive sentences about her popular-vote victory and electoral-college defeat, she writes, “It’s hard to see how that happens if I’m hopelessly out of step with the American people. Still, as I’ve discussed throughout this book, I do think it’s fair to say there was a fundamental mismatch between how I approach politics and what a lot of the country wanted to hear in 2016.”
What Happened devotes many more pages to casting blame in other directions.
She reserves much of her ire for Trump. It’s no surprise Clinton believes the president is unfit for the presidency; she said it enough on the campaign trail to convince even a significant slice of his own voters that was true. And What Happened is full of jabs at his qualifications, competence and motives. “Trump doesn’t think in terms of morality or human rights,” she charges,” he thinks only in terms of power and dominance.” And, of his “bromance” with Putin, she says, Trump “dreams of Moscow on the Potomac.”
Clinton even goes after Trump’s voters again—some of them, anyway. In September 2016, she’d taken a lot of heat for referring to half of Trump backers as a “basket of deplorables.” She issued a half-apology on the campaign trail, saying she shouldn’t have put a number on the percentage of Trump voters who fit in that basket.
In the book, she moves back toward the original comment, perhaps further insulting all Trump voters by portraying them as either deplorable or incapable of understanding her. “I regret handing Trump a political gift with my ‘deplorables’ comment,” Clinton writes. “I know that a lot of well-intentioned people were insulted because they misunderstood me to be criticizing all Trump voters. I’m sorry about that. But too many of Trump’s core supporters do hold views that I find—there’s no other word for it—deplorable.”
Clinton also targets a series of Washington figures in a way that suggests that, as she writes in the book, she isn’t ever running for public office again.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, gets hit for “playing defense” for Trump on Russia. “I can’t think of a more shameful example of a national leader so blatantly putting partisanship over national security,” Clinton writes of the Kentucky Republican. “McConnell knew better, but he did it anyway.”
She rakes Comey over the coals for re-opening the investigation into her emails in late October—less than two weeks before Election Day. Siding with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Clinton writes that Comey had a responsibility to sit on information—emails found on a device belonging to Anthony Weiner, the scandal-prone husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin—until he could determine whether it was actually new or relevant. As it turned out, the FBI didn’t learn anything from the duplicates of Clinton emails.
“When you’re the head of an agency as important as the FBI, you have to care a lot more about how things really are than how they look, and you have to be willing to take the heat that goes along with the big job,” she writes.
And she delights in the legal predicament that Michael Flynn, the former National Security Adviser, finds himself in after he led chants of “lock her up” during the campaign. “There’s a certain poetic justice now in remembering how enthusiastic Michael Flynn was about sending me to jail,” she writes.
She doesn’t spare her primary rival at all. She paints Sanders as a quixotic candidate who damaged her but had no hope of becoming president himself. She says he promised to run an issues-based campaign, but “as time went on, Bernie routinely portrayed me as a corrupt corporatist who couldn’t be trusted.” And she plainly opposes the idea, favored by some liberals, that the Democratic Party needs to move further left to be competitive.
While Clinton seeks to exonerate herself and takes rhetorical shots at others in What Happened, she’s also more introspective than usual, opening a window into her thinking and her emotions at pivotal moments on the campaign trail. In a refreshingly earnest passage, she explains why she made a second bid for the presidency in 2016. “I ran for president because I thought I’d be good at the job,” she writes. “I thought that of all the people who might run, I had the most relevant experience, meaningful accomplishments, and ambitious but achievable proposals, as well as the temperament to get things done in Washington. … In short, I thought I’d be a damn good president.”
It’s an honest admission from a candidate that, fairly or not, was criticized for failing to be “authentic.” All serious candidates run because they think they’d be great at the job, but few state it so plainly as their reason.
The most dramatic moment in the book—and on Clinton’s side of the campaign—comes on Election Night, as she realizes she’s not going to be president.
“I felt shell-shocked. I hadn’t prepared mentally for this at all,” she writes. “There had been no doomsday scenarios playing out in my head in the final days, no imagining what I might say if I lost. I just didn’t think about it. But now it was as real as could be. … It was like all the air in the room had been sucked away, and I could barely breathe.”
And, though she writes that no one’s entitled to it, Clinton delivers an explanation of her relationship with her husband: “There were times I was deeply unsure about whether our marriage could or should survive,” she writes. “But on those days, I asked myself the questions that mattered most to me: Do I love him? And can I still be in this marriage without becoming unrecognizable to myself—twisted by anger, resentment, or remoteness? The answers were always yes. So I kept going.”
But it seems likely that the public debate over Clinton’s analysis of the race might obscure these more personal details—as well as the book’s most valuable contributions to the public record and Clinton’s own legacy.
One is a 50-page, point-by-point chronology of Russia’s involvement in the election and the Trump operation’s efforts to capitalize on it. That chapter—called “Trolls, Bots, Fake News and Real Russians”—puts it all in once place for the first time.
The second is a three-chapter run on women in politics, familial relationships between women, and her experience with the activism of the “mothers of the movement”—women whose children had died either in police custody or at the hands of law enforcement officers—who supported her. This is the section in which Clinton confronts the glass ceiling—the unique challenges women candidates face, her own role in the women’s movement and her hope that another woman will be elected president in her lifetime. It still haunts her supporters that so many women opted for Trump, particularly among late-deciding voters
Little of the post-election analysis revolved around gender issues in politics and society, and Clinton seeks to remedy that by focusing so much of her attention on their meaning—even going so far as to define the difference between misogyny and sexism in her mind.
Sexism is all the big and little ways that society draws a box around women and says, “you stay there,” she writes. “Misogyny is something darker. It’s rage. Disgust. Hatred. It’s what happens when a woman turns down a guy at a bar and he switches from charming to scary.”
Misogyny was very present in this last campaign, Clinton writes. “Exhibit A is that the flagrantly sexist candidate won. … A whole lot of people listened to the tape of him bragging about sexually assaulting women, shrugged, and said, ‘He still gets my vote.’”
“I know that for a lot of people, including a lot of women, the movement for women’s equality exists largely in the past,” Clinton writes. “They’re wrong about that. … It 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.” But, Clinton laments, “I never figured out how to tell this story right.”
She was unable to place herself—a pioneer among a path-breaking generation of women—in that historical context or to turn it to her advantage on the campaign trail. But, she writes, she didn’t really try because “storytelling requires a receptive audience, and I’ve never felt like the American electorate was responsive to this one.”
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