What's Happening with "What Happened"

 /  Oct. 15, 2017, 6:45 p.m.


Listening to the audio of Hillary Clinton’s new book What Happened was eerie at first. I felt like I had already attended her funeral on November 9, 2016—a day she describes in detail in the opening chapters—and now here she was again, reading her own eulogy aloud.

Her voice was unnerving and awkward at first. I rolled my eyes as she recited inspirational quotes and cringed when she, her voice thick with dry humor, chuckled through a joke. This discomfort and strangeness wore off quickly, though, and soon my admiration for her—which I’ve had to suppress since November for my own sanity—reemerged in full force.

I downloaded the book soon after it came out, and began listening immediately. It was a book I was looking forward to reading, though it felt like I was the only one.

To no one’s surprise, on the morning of its release Donald Trump pointedly tweeted, “Fascinating to watch people writing books and major articles about me and yet they know nothing about me & have zero access. #FAKE NEWS!” Also, as expected, Bernie Sanders seemed less than thrilled about its publication, telling Stephen Colbert, “We need [Clinton’s] help to go forward. Let’s not keep arguing about 2016.”

Democratic congressmen, donors, and officials have published scathing criticisms of What Happened. Similarly, I sat around a dinner table a few weeks ago with people who previously worked in the Democratic Party — for the Clinton administration, for Joe Biden, and for a former California senator — and they all berated Clinton for complaining — “bitching!” they said animatedly.

While I know many Democrats harbor frustration towards Clinton, I am amazed that they are so dismissive of her memoir, urging her to “zip it.” She, like anyone else, deserves to tell the story of what she believes happened. She, the person who actually lost to Donald Trump, is not only deserving, but perhaps even obligated to do so.

Despite what many are saying, What Happened isn’t a diary or a hit list. Most of the criticism of the memoir makes it sound as if Clinton has done nothing more than transcribe her feelings and personal grudges into a journal. But, true to form, this book is thoughtful and comprehensive.

The New York Times review by Jennifer Senior asks, “Does [the book] offer any new hypothesis about what doomed Clinton’s campaign? No. It merely synthesizes old ones.”

“But,” Senior continues, “this book is not just a perseverative recap of 2016. It is the story of what it was like to run for president of the United States as the female nominee of a major party, a first in American history. The apotheosis of Leaning In.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In challenges women to be bold in their careers and personal lives, to be ambitious, to have the confidence to go after what they want. In her book, Clinton describes in detail the deliberations that went into her ultimate decision to “lean in.” “It’s audacious for anyone to believe he or she should be president. But I did,” she admits.

She not only leaned in by running for president, but she leaned in again by publishing this candid memoir. If, as Sandberg argues, leaning in is the solution for women, the way to earn respect and success, it certainly isn’t working for Clinton — now for a second time—as the loudest objections to her book come from her own base. As a new generation of women—my generation—begin to study and take the reigns of the political sphere and policy, we should be aware of the consequences Clinton faced when she tried to follow Sandberg’s advice.

Moreover, the criticism of the book from politicians and the general exasperation with Clinton herself suggests that there is nothing more to learn from the election. Although Sanders is telling us to stop arguing about 2016, the issues and divisions of the past two years have not disappeared. A problem can’t be solved unless we acknowledge it and talk about it, and that often includes casting blame and assigning responsibility. Clinton does shoulder blame for her loss, but rightly calls out Sanders, former FBI director James Comey, the news media, and unconscious (and conscious) sexism as significant inhibitors to her success.

The immediate rebuilding of the Democratic Party will probably not involve electing Clinton to another public office, but that doesn’t mean she is now irrelevant: her agenda has shaped, and continues to shape, Democratic policy and priorities. In addition to recounting what happened during the election, her book is also a policy treatise. She lays out her familiar platform from the campaign trail, and argues that it will be detrimental and dangerous if the Democratic Party is now upended by Sanders’s agenda and his tunnel-visioned approach to politics that focuses exclusively on economic inequality—surely an important struggle, but not the only one.

Last week, my social sciences seminar came to the realization that Adam Smith cares about people only to the extent that it influences their market behavior. Like Smith, Sanders relates everything back to economics, and in doing so, misses what lies underneath economic symptoms. Since the election, Sanders’s tendency to reduce everything to economics has led him to campaign for a pro-life mayoral candidate who shares his progressive economic vision—certainly not the best foot forward for someone who wants his policies to govern all people, women included. Clinton’s book calls out these contradictions and warns Democrats to be wary.

This is not to say that Democrats should lift policy from What Happened and bring it to the House floor. But, since the party is in flux, it can’t hurt to turn to the woman who, according to President Obama, is the “most qualified” to run it.

Sure, there are other analyses of the election, including a very good one called The Destruction of Hillary Clinton by Susan Bordo. However, the observers, especially those who were outspoken Clinton supporters, who so quickly and flippantly reject What Happened—either because they don’t want to reopen a still-tender wound or because they don’t want to hear anything else she has to say—do her campaign a dishonor. This book is an impressive postscript to a historic campaign that was unsuccessful mainly because of the unfair labeling and targeting of Clinton by Sanders and Comey—and it should be treated as such.

It is important to move forward now, as Sanders said, but there’s really no point in doing so without fully understanding What Happened.

The featured image for this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Alexa Perlmutter


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