Hillary Clinton was in the UK in recent weeks, promoting her newly released memoir of the 2016 Presidential Election, ‘What Happened’. In this intimate account, she outlines what led her to seek this highest of offices, and examines the various factors that conspired to keep her from it – and instead gave her maverick opponent, Donald J. Trump, the keys to the White House.
The book begins where the story ends – at least in terms of the election itself – with Clinton stepping out on to the platform at Trump’s inauguration (the nightmare of his presidency itself goes on, for all of us). It was surreal enough to watch on TV, and is even more surreal seen through Hillary’s eyes. Her descriptions of these iconic moments of the election – watched all around the word – are some of the highlights of the book. No amount of TV footage can ever match her perspective of actually being there, at the centre of it all.
She then flits back to the morning after the election: her concession speech and the dark weeks and months that followed it – talking at length about the ways she coped with her defeat. Finally, she jumps back again to where it all began – how she decided to run and why. The rest of the book moves slowly forward in time through the major events of the election, then the aftermath, and finally discussing the future, for her and for America.
She reminds us throughout that, contrary to popular perception, she is a real thinking feeling human, and that the vitriol directed at her by opponents on both ends of the political spectrum did hurt. She is, famously, no great orator, but she demonstrates a particular knack for sarcasm and wit that you wish she’d let loose more during the election campaign.
The book gets a little lost at times. Clinton dwells excessively on certain inconsequential details, while speeding through other areas that you wish she’d devote more time to. To my recollection, her vice-presidential running mate Tim Kaine gets just two mentions in the whole book, and one of those is in the list of acknowledgements. Her historical inspirations and the importance of her family meanwhile get longer than they really needed. The same could probably be said of the numerous policies that she wanted to pursue, which she devotes pages and pages to. Although to be fair, in doing so she is clearly contesting the criticism that she lacked policies that would help working class people.
But where the book truly comes into its own is when Clinton starts analysing the factors involved in her defeat, as she does in chapters dedicated to coal-miners, Russian interference and ‘those damn emails’, among other things. She bombards the reader with facts and statistics and anecdotes from the campaign, constructing powerful arguments of what exactly went wrong, and how, in many cases, she was powerless to stop it.
She is unapologetic in handing out criticism to those she believes deserves it: her witty take-down of Bernie Sanders’ approach to debating policy is both brutal and hilarious, and may make you reconsider how you view him. She is even more ruthless when training her fire on Vladimir Putin, and the email-obsessed Republican Party. For the most part, she defends the way she ran her campaign, and effectively deconstructs many of the criticisms levelled at it – once again supplying the reader with reams of evidence in her defence.
A common reaction to What Happened goes along the lines of ‘Crooked Shillary Rotten Clinton blames everyone but herself’– tweeted in as many words by Trump himself. Which isn’t true of course – Clinton takes responsibility for her loss numerous times throughout the book. Whole sections of the book are devoted to her own errors and failings.
But we should also recognise that Hillary Clinton is not solely responsible for what happened. Anyone who pretends that various factors beyond Clinton’s control had no effect on the election whatsoever is, quite frankly, delusional. Of course, Hillary Clinton and the actions she took played a very important role. But no single person could possibly deserve all the blame for the grand failure of American society that put someone as patently unhinged and unqualified as Donald Trump in the White House. And that is at the heart of What Happened.
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