Hillary Clinton’s best-selling What Happened is alleged to be the inside account of losing the unloseable election. This book, released two days ago, might have provided valuable insights not only to future students of political history, but a divided Democratic Party of the present. In fact, the author declares these as her intentions.
Within these 500 pages, and between some, frankly, riveting passages on the minutiae of campaign life (debate prep with an aide accessorised and trained to speak exactly like Trump, workout routines, morning devotionals, FaceTime with much-loved grandkids) there was surely scope to provide good interpretation of a landmark loss to a general audience, a scholarly audience and those within the party.
There are some illuminating moments for all. Or, at least, there’s one. You might not want to read a full and fairly savvy chapter on the email “scandal”, but you’ll detect its value nonetheless. Here, Clinton provides an object lesson for a currently abject press. She fesses up to her small, then common, mistake of staying within the law by holding her unclassified emails privately, and, we should note, in a home server under constant protection by Secret Service agents. She regrets not having future-proofed her tech habits, even if she does blame Bill a bit. She is, however, right to remain hopping mad at the level of scrutiny broadcasters such as Matt Lauer afforded this baloney at the cost of talking policy. When journalists have opportunity to talk international relations and choose instead to bang on about Blackberries, democracy is imperilled. And, as we now know, the FBI can be persuaded into squandering its resources, and its reputation.
Honestly, though. That’s it for disclosure of worth for posterity, or even into next week. While the author promises early on that she is “letting down my guard” and will describe in candid detail just how she managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory, she comes across as either profoundly deluded or profoundly dishonest.
I suspect it is the former. Clinton may, in the view of some, be “crooked”. I believe that this book — which, even if it were ghost-written or generously edited, does convey a very Clintonian voice — is the work of a truly honest woman. She genuinely trusts in American liberalism, and has a word or two to say about de Tocqueville whose flattering 19th-century account of her nation is one she feels needs little revision. She genuinely believes she is doing the right thing. Which, of course, is a common affliction among the political class. But the Clintons, who saved their party from history’s remainder bin by adopting a Third Way view — Clinton also has kind words for Robert Putnam and seems still to take the sappy sociology of the ’90s as gospel — have a level of belief in their own political purity that could put a Bolshevik to shame.
If this were intended as a legacy-preserving document, it has failed. This is a person who failed not only to future-proof her home office from needless attention, but to update her political understanding.
Clinton is unable to let go of her love for the dubious and aging expertise of Third Wayers and of her love for expertise in general. She still believes that financialised capitalism can be civilised, and that a moment in time like the New Deal (which she doesn’t fancy quite as much as the other Roosevelt’s Square Deal) can be replicated. She still believes that brilliant, qualified people, such as those we might see in The West Wing, are able, as she puts it, “to save capitalism from itself”.
Clinton believes, not unlike our own Treasurer Scott Morrison, that one need not engage with the idea of “Revolution”, a concept she capitalises to deride candidate Bernie Sanders, but just with a scalpel. A few adjustments here and there. No turnabout in economic policy to address what she perplexingly calls “the Financial Crisis of 2008-09”. Nearly every economist, heterodox or mainstream, refers to the crisis as occurring in 2007-08. I guess it makes her look more instantly responsive to the matter in retrospect if she moves the date forward in time.
None of this is to suggest that Clinton is either thick or was under-qualified for the office she seemed certain to get. It is, however, to suggest that she — and, by extension, her campaign staff and the DNC — was critically unable to sense how the nation had changed from de Tocqueville’s descriptions of it. Although she professes to love people — and I believe she does; not only does she emerge from these pages as a genuinely compassionate person, but the accounts of her individual acts of kindness to others are too numerous to ignore — she doesn’t understand them outside of the context of an idealised USA. She is frustrated, for example, by the electorate’s refusal to acknowledge the growth in GDP under Obama. Why couldn’t they see what a great job he was doing? She does acknowledge that many US voters — more than 50% of the working population has income of less than $30,000 p.a. — are not feeling the growth. But, she remains frustrated with their short-term vision.
This is, by two counts, a grave mistake. First, reputable economists, such as Joe Stiglitz, now publicly decry GDP as a present or a future measure of increase in living standards. Second, if you’re living in crap, then you’re living in crap, and who cares if experts say that the economy is up. Wages for the many in the USA have stagnated or declined since the Clinton era, just as welfare has evaporated and incarceration rates have increased. She concedes, even celebrates, the very active role she played as First Lady in promoting and formulating those bills and deals that triggered these problems. But, she does not say “I was wrong”. She chooses instead to blame Republican interference. Which may be a little true, but no Republican racialised the debate on the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 so effectively as Clinton, who called the people, largely of colour, who would be sent to prison “super-predators”.
In fact, Clinton is sorry for very little at all. She mock-apologises for the talks she gave to Wall Street, where she assured bankers that she had both a “private and public position” on economic matters. She is not sorry for speaking with them so intimately or accepting their generous fees, but she is sorry only for “bad optics”. Her deepest regret is not reserved for herself, but for the American people, some of whom, she still insists, are “deplorable”.
Clinton’s remarks on Sanders have already been well-canvassed by press, and even if you haven’t seen these accounts, you’ll be able to guess what she said. He was a quixotic vessel for national outrage, and a catalyst for much of the sexism she encountered, etc. He didn’t know how to cost. He promised, she says, America a “pony”. America, a nation of deplorable children, was upset that they didn’t get a pony.
Her criticism of Trump is largely untroubling — but really, anybody’s is. Her downfall was failing to see that Sanders gave to millions of people exactly what they craved — a true account of the movement of capital. She does regret not talking about policy as much as she might have, and says that the advice to point out Trump’s weaknesses more often than she described her own strengths came from her campaign staff. Which may be true. But, jeez, still. How one might expect a comfortable win without truly acknowledging the discomfort with which people live — she is surprisingly surprised on some of her visits to flyover states by the extreme poverty — is anybody’s guess, and her error.
Clinton says that she has written this work to engage people with a political process in which she still believes. Sanders, whom, inter alia, she outright blames for her loss, said throughout his campaign that he wanted to rebuild a political process with the participation of the people. These are two distinct messages, but Clinton cannot tell them apart. It is her belief that Sanders stole all her policy prescriptions and just added more “insurgent” leftism to them.
Clinton commences the book with quotes from letters of support she has received from women. Honestly, it’s like reading the auto-cue from a Martha Stewart special on holiday cooking. One woman advises her to relax and listen “to the wind or maybe Chopin”. There are plenty of other Hallmark moments.
Clinton ends the book with a speech at her alma mater, Wellesley. It is in these young graduates, who are able to pay upwards of $40,000 in tuition each year, she sees hope. I believe she is loving and compassionate. I also believe after reading this book that she cannot see beyond her own class or de Tocqueville’s imagination. What Happened did have much to do with sexism, racism, accidents of time, failures of the press and an economic ball that started rolling globally before her husband ever took office. What also happened was a profound failure of self-awareness.