“I’ve spent nearly every day since November 8, 2016 wrestling with a single question: why did I lose?”
This is the motivating question of Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, What Happened. I admit that on picking up the book I was eager to find out what exactly led to the inauguration of Donald Trump, a question that had been on my mind as well as the minds of millions of other Americans since November. Four hundred and sixty four pages and ten months later, it is clear that Clinton is still just as much in the dark as we are.
Of course, how you interpret this memoir is dependent on why you decide to read it in the first place. Much like the election, it is increasingly apparent that convincing Americans to change their preconceived notions about our elected officials is nearly impossible, what with the omnipresence of the media and the rise of “fake news.” Rather than being a her raw first-hand account of one of the most earth-shattering elections in history or an unnecessarily and untimely publishing of excuses, What Happened is Clinton’s retelling of the election in all of its glory. And her retelling is a perfect blend of all too familiar excuses, personal revelations, and the exact same stories we’ve been hearing since November 8th, 2016.
“Every day that I was a candidate for president, I knew that millions of people were counting on me and I couldn’t bear the idea of letting them down, but I did. I couldn’t get the job done and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
What Happened is not the first of its kind in the slightest; many politicians choose to write their own accounts after losing an election. Hers, however, is admittedly underwhelming. The book is divided into six parts that could easily be mistaken for chapters of the newest edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Perseverance, Competition, Sisterhood, Idealism and Realism, Frustration, and Resilience. Instead of inspiration, its impact is much more similar to that of a Shakespearean tragedy. Clinton forces her readers to dwell upon the string of events that led to her campaign’s demise and recall the brutal climax of election night.
The book also includes commentary on the election results, giving Clinton the chance to explain the emotions behind the smaller, less noticeable details of her loss. She planned to wear white, the color of the suffragists, when she was announced to be the first female president of the United States. As the poll results rushed in, her thoughts went from planning her own Inauguration speech to planning if she would even attend the celebration. Clinton describes days when she did not want to get out of bed; she describes the fear of letting down her team, her almost-predecessor President Barack Obama, her supporters, and the women and girls across the country who put their faith in her. Her grief is all too real and a shared experience for millions of Americans whose citizenship, reproductive rights, and health care were also on the line.
The only difference between Clinton and her citizen supporters was that she would be retreating back into her posh New York home, while countless of others had to face the consequences of what a xenophobe could do in the highest position of the free world. She constantly reminds readers that although she felt defeated, she knew her loss signaled it was time for the country the unify against the president-elect’s false rhetoric and scare tactics.
But Clinton did not join in the unity. The day after President Trump was inaugurated, millions of Americans flocked to the nation’s capital to participate in the Women’s March, a protest against the new president and his sexist rhetoric. As a symbol of female empowerment and someone who had been on the receiving end of Trump’s misogyny, Clinton’s support was vital to the grassroots protest. It is unfortunate that Clinton herself could not bring herself to practice what she preached. Instead of making an appearance, she said that she wanted to give “new voices” a chance to be heard and did not want to bring “nasty” politics with her.
“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.”
Although Clinton admits that she made mistakes on the campaign trail, it is hard to ignore just how much blame she heaps onto the other players of the 2016 election. Most of what she “apologizes” for is how her message got misconstrued, not her actions themselves. Readers will be left deprived by her refusal to admit any real, solid guilt on her part, which is extremely apparent in the titles of the book’s chapters like “Get Caught Trying” and “Trolls, Bots, Fake News, and Real Russians.”
A key example of Hillary’s blame game was her 2017 take on her infamous referral to some of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” a cringe-worthy comment for her campaign team eager to win over last minute undecided voters. Regarding the comment, Clinton writes that she “regrets handing Trump a political gift” with her use of the harsh words, but refuses to state that some of the president’s supporters are not, in fact, “deplorables.” Instead she dodges the issue by citing a PEW research poll on Republican opinions about race.
Besides Trump supporters and the current President himself, Clinton points her finger at quite a few political players in Washington.
She calls out Mitch McConnell (R), the Senate majority leader who defended Trump for his view on Russia; Bernie Sanders (I), her opponent in the Democratic primaries; James Comey, Trump’s former FBI Director who reopened the federal investigation against her just two weeks before the election. The list goes on.
And it is hard not to sympathize with her because every claim she makes about these characters is true. McConnell did defend the Republican candidate’s probable involvement with Russia. Sanders did split the progressive vote, likely preventing Clinton from gaining the support of a some Democrat voters. Comey did impact the election by airing out a piece of the candidate’s already highly publicized dirty laundry. All of these people chipped away at the Clinton’s chance of being the first female president of the United States, but they cannot be the first to take blame―her loss should be attributed to her flaws as a candidate. Clinton seems to admit that, but not fully.
Not once did Clinton admit that she was, in fact, not the best candidate that the Democratic party had to offer. Although she was arguably one of the most qualified, many argue that if a more personable candidate like Joe Biden or the next Barack Obama entered the 2016 race in her place, we would likely have a Democrat in the oval office today. Yet Clinton never considers this. Instead, she claims that of all the people eligible to run for the position, she alone had the most relevant experiences, accomplishments, and proposals; or, in her words, she thought she would be a “damn good President.”
But being a “damn good President” does not always lead to winning the actual presidency in America. The three sections of the book which are dedicated to revealing why she lost the race, Competition, Frustration, and Idealism and Realism, fail to provide any new evidence as to how the 45th Presidency of the United States was taken from her.
Besides the hit list of political figures who spurred her campaign loss, What Happened also reveals the side of Hillary Clinton that wasn’t seen through the lens of campaign cameras. Her narrative gives an insightful perspective of the most successful female politician in American history, and the significance of her story as the first woman to receive the presidential nomination by a major party should not be understated.
Clinton had been preparing for political office for years. Decades of experience in public office and her continuous advocacy for equal rights of the sexes made her seem almost tailor-made to become the first female president of the United States; however, even 65,844,610 ballots, the second most votes for a single candidate in American history, was not enough to save Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“And maybe if I showed that I wasn’t giving up, other people would take heart and keep fighting, too.”
If you were looking for a book to answer what exactly happened in the 2016 presidential election, What Happened is not that book. Instead, it is a memoir that gives humanity to an election that was rampant in xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. The book is a first hand account of how one of the most qualified candidates in American history lost the presidency to a celebrity who thrived on fear and disunity in the United States.
But the implications of What Happened go beyond the election. Clinton offers her perspective as one of the most highly-contested candidates in American history, but was publishing a tell-all book ten months after her devastating loss what we needed as a country? Although her closing chapter is titled Resilience, it seems that it is Clinton who is still searching for closure after the results. Throughout the book, she urges her readers to recuperate from an election that has undoubtedly marginalized millions of Americans.
Her final words of advice to readers? Keep going. These are two words that sound hypocritical coming from a person who feels the need to explain her own defeat to anyone willing to pick up the book. She is attempting to salvage her pride in nearly five hundred pages of documented failed promises, lackluster excuses, and little sense of accountability.
Even if Clinton summarizes accurately what happened in the election, she has done little to fix it afterwards, unlike those she blamed throughout the book (namely McConnell and Sanders). McConnell has since publicly criticized Trump’s policies and “excessive expectations,” while Sanders has been at the forefront of the battle for health care since November. Clinton, on the other hand, disappeared from politics until it was time to promote What Happened to the masses.
Although what exactly happened on the night of November 8th is still up in the air (and up for investigation), Hillary Clinton’s What Happened does little more than to reiterate what we have already come to terms to about her loss. Maybe it is time for her to come to the same realization.