Returning home to California from a recent business trip in Pittsburgh, I needed some reading material to keep me occupied for several hours of flying, so I picked up “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton’s election postmortem that had been drawing mixed reviews in the media. I was interested to see whether Clinton could shed any insight into how things went so terribly wrong for a campaign that was supposed to be the surest “sure thing” since the Reagan era.
I managed to consume most of the book as my plane traversed the vast swathes of middle America where Clinton had gotten clobbered, where I grew up and lived most of my life, which many of us white-collar coastal types sneeringly refer to as “flyover country.” (A helpful suggestion: my fellow native Midwesterners don’t like that. Stop it.)
As I plunged deeper and deeper into Clinton’s retelling, it struck me that it neatly mirrored the backward-looking party she recently led: stuck in the past, alternately nursing old grievances and happier times, with no useful answer to the most important question of all: What now?
Before I go too far down that path, I should present some important disclaimers. As my regular readers already know, I am a Democrat. I supported Hillary Clinton, both in the primaries and certainly in the general election. I think she would have been a good president. And frankly, I think she got the shaft, particularly from the national political media, which—as Clinton rightly and quite bitterly notes in her book—focused so much attention on an absolutely stupid story (the ridiculous e-mail kerfuffle) as to drown out all other issues. Nobody in American public life since Richard Nixon has gotten the consistently lousy treatment from the media that Hillary Clinton has received for the last 25 years. The difference is that Nixon earned it.
So know going in that my natural inclination is to be sympathetic to Clinton, a fact which in retrospect may have colored my expectations about how the 2016 election would turn out.
That said, her book disappointed me. Although she paid lip service to taking responsibility for her own mistakes, much of the book was an exercise in settling scores: with Donald Trump, with James Comey, with the media, and even with a few individual members of Congress.
When Clinton wasn’t sniping at those who had wronged her—which, in fairness, was completely understandable given the bad treatment she received from them—she spent much of the rest of the book telling tedious anecdotes. It’s nice that she and her staff celebrated birthdays together, but I didn’t buy her book to read all the details about the candles and the cakes.
Sprinkled in amidst all the touching but boring vignettes were the occasional nuggets of gold. For example, Clinton rightly calls out the national political media for focusing on garbage stories—e-mails and the “horse race”—rather than real issues, which is not a new complaint and is certainly a valid one. For what it’s worth, this columnist was as guilty of focusing on the horse race as anyone else, and I have had my share of disquieting moments when I have pondered whether my rosy predictions might have given some readers the mistaken idea that the election was in the bag. I will say this: her assertions that the media played a role, wittingly or not, in elevating Trump to the presidency have real merit, and her takedown of NBC’s Matt Lauer on that score was almost worth the sale price of the book by itself.
And I really did admire the honesty with which she wrote. Whether you agree or disagree with her statements, it is pretty clear that she wrote what she was really thinking and feeling.
On the whole, however, I thought the book fell short. I got the impression that she was still trying to convince people that she was a “normal” and “likeable” human being, but in relating anecdote after anecdote about all the famous elites she knows, this was a hard sell. It read as if she was still trying to fight against the caricature painted of her by her enemies, and I had to wonder why. At this point, to borrow a phrase she herself famously used, “what difference does it make?”
I suppose the thing that lost me the most was it read very much like a book written by someone who is still running. No, I don’t think Hillary Clinton will seek the presidency again, and I certainly hope she doesn’t after losing a slam-dunk race against the least-qualified, most buffoonish major-party nominee to seek the presidency in the history of the republic. That ship has sailed and I expect she understands that.
But in every story about some particular voter she met on the campaign trail, it struck me over and over again that Clinton, in her book, was still campaigning. Maybe it isn’t a habit that is easily broken, but in those moments, it read like the kind of book that candidates write when they are getting ready to run.
In the end, even with her political career clearly over, the key takeaway from “What Happened” is that Hillary Clinton just can’t stop running—not for president this time, but for understanding and vindication. I suppose that’s fine and well, and given what she’s been through, I don’t begrudge her a bit of self-indulgence and self-care.
But if you are looking for answers about what future candidates, or we as citizens, can do differently, you’ll have to infer them on your own. “What Happened,” as its title would suggest, fights the battles of the past, not the future—much like a Democratic Party that is still tearing itself asunder over whether the “Hillary wing” or the “Bernie wing” should inherit the shattered dreams of the glass ceiling that Clinton ultimately couldn’t break. It may be useful to look back, but only if we can apply the lessons of the past to the challenges of the future. Neither Clinton’s book, nor her party—my party—seem prepared to do that just yet.