Clinton Looks for the Truth Amid the Debris and Reclaims Her Humanity

What Happened. What did happen? The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election might have been reported minute-by-minute, unfolding before our eyes, but a year later it’s still easy to scratch your head and wonder: what on earth happened there?

It’s a ripe time, then, for Hillary Clinton’s new book. There’s no question mark in her title – the book does contain plenty of soul-searching, but What Happened is a firm account of the whats, hows and whys of that unique election, as seen by one of its two central players.

After decades of public service, Clinton is now neither holding public office nor running for it. For perhaps the first time, she is free from the “wire without a net” she’s often felt herself walking. What Happened, then, is Clinton at her most candid. There have already been voices saying she should shut up and stop rehashing past conflicts. This ignores the fact that understanding 2016 is vital if America is to return to anything resembling stability. It also ignores the fact that after the past two years – well, five decades, really – Hillary Clinton has earned the right to say whatever she damn pleases.

other candidates promised that a click of their fingers was enough to remake the country in their image, Clinton proves herself as the candidate who understood what she was working with

Given that she won the popular vote by 3 million and was denied the Presidency by a relative handful of votes under an archaic electoral system, this is no typical political post-mortem. Clinton is unflinching about her regrets, though – sometimes gut-wrenchingly so. She wonders whether she should have been bolder in her policies, more vocal about the looming threat of Russian interference, or whether firing “back off, you creep!” at Trump would have helped or hindered the debates. These passages are less What Happened and more What Might Have Been.

Clinton stands firm in what she is proud of, though. Refusing to let the entire experience be clouded by its devastating ending, Clinton describes happier times on the campaign trail. For political wonks, it’s a fascinating insight into how the colossal machine of a presidential run stirs into being – how strategies are formulated and messages defined. We see Hillary studiously crafting what she believed was the most viable platform: idealistic, but realistic.

This serves a firm repudiation to those who painted her as a hackneyed establishment stooge. We see her balancing passionate beliefs (don’t look too surprised, Bernie bros) with an awareness of the limitations of Washington and its near-unconditionally hostile Republicans. While other candidates promised that a click of their fingers was enough to remake the country in their image, Clinton proves herself as the candidate who understood what she was working with. Really, she was the only one truly running for President.

While she avoids placing the blame squarely on one single factor, she isn’t afraid of calling out those who derailed her. There is, of course, the orange elephant in the room. Most of Donald Trump’s actions as President have been accompanied by clips of past warnings from Clinton – “Hillary warned us!” must be among 2017’s most tweeted phrases – so it’s not surprising to read that she understood his game early on. She describes his “towering self-regard”, and how he attempted to “define reality” and “sow mistrust” for his own advantage. He deliberately accuses others of the corruption he is guilty of, says Clinton: “if everyone’s down in the mud…then he’s no dirtier than anyone else”.

She also discusses Bernie Sanders’ primary challenge – “his attacks caused lasting damage, making it harder to unify progressives and paving the way for Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary campaign” – Russian meddling–  “no foreign power has attacked us with so few consequences, and that puts us all at risk” - and FBI Director James Comey’s fateful letter, which narrowed her lead days before the vote: “if Comey caused just 0.6% of voters to change their votes, it would have been enough to shift the Electoral College to Trump”. There’s even a chapter titled simply ‘Those Damn Emails’.

Clinton balances grace with honesty. She’s both factual and personal

This, again, is a powerful reclamation of Clinton’s reputation. She quotes a headline which noted that the “normalization of Trump” was accompanied by the “abnormalization of Clinton”. Obviously there’s the ‘Crooked Hillary’ tag, but even mainstream outlets seemed compelled to draw parallels between Clinton’s flaws and Trump’s, buying into his gambit through incessant discussion of her relatively trifling errors. It’s hard not to see gender as a factor – Clinton recalls being dubbed an “antichrist” for seeking the Presidency, while Trump and Sanders rarely had to justify themselves. It’s a sobering evocation of the maelstrom sparked by a woman seeking power. Without descending into bitterness, much of the book reads as a plea for America to do better.

On the one hand, Clinton was a veteran politician running a traditional campaign, blindsided by the tables suddenly being flipped. On the other hand, though, she proves she had her finger on the pulse of America more than she’s credited for. She recognised its currents of anger and resentment, and how these were being stoked by Republicans. She recognised how truth became a distorted, neglected concept. Here, particularly, Clinton balances grace with honesty. She’s both factual and personal, objectively dissecting the political climate whilst acknowledging how infuriating it was. 

Because politics aside, What Happened is also a deeply personal account of how to pick up the pieces after a devastating loss (it turns out, chardonnay and Gilmore Girls help). The book restores the humanity Clinton was often denied during the campaign, revealing the elation, hope, anger, sadness and resilience beneath that composed woman in the pantsuit.

For future generations, it will hopefully demonstrate what it took to be the first woman nominated for President by a major party. It also provides a first-hand account of a time of unprecedented political turmoil. It should also, however, cement Hillary Clinton as one of the best America never had.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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