Culture

My Quest to Discover What Happened

Hillary Clinton attends a signing of her new book ‘What Happened’ at a Barnes & Noble in (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
What I learned waiting nine hours in line for a signed copy of Hillary Clinton’s new post-election memoir

New York — “Nobody puts Hilly in the corner!”

I traced the yawp to a woman who had discovered that the line for the official release of Hillary Clinton’s book, What Happened, was already stretching around the block. It was 6:20 a.m., nearly five hours before the signing was to begin. A woman across from me “Whoo!”-ed in agreement, and the elderly man with whom I had been talking Notre Dame football smiled. “This is so heartening,” said a middle-aged woman who works as a freelance book editor. “We don’t go down easy.”

For those gathered outside the Union Square Barnes & Noble Tuesday morning, the book signing wasn’t just a chance to meet Clinton. It was a demonstration of enthusiastic persistence by a broken and discouraged people. By shaking hands, taking photographs with babies, and accepting hand-written notes with the promise of an email back, Clinton played therapist, telling her supporters that “everything will be alright” and prescribing them a book that promises to ease their pain. But is What Happened anything more than a narcotic?

In the months leading up to its release, the primary criticism of the book has been that it serves only to reinforce Clinton supporters’ belief that the 2016 election was robbed from them. And so it does — in fact, it broadcasts as fact speculations to which Clinton supporters have been clinging since November. People waiting in line were eager to share with me why they believe Clinton lost the election, but they were even more eager to learn why Clinton believes she lost. Alas, they won’t get much help from her book on that front; it merely endorses any and every reason they have already come up with.

Everyone I spoke with agreed that Bernie Sanders’s dark-horse campaign holds the lion’s share of the blame, on the grounds that his quixotic “democratic” socialism pulled young would-be Clinton supporters away from the candidate’s older base voters. Others pointed out that Clinton’s lengthy term in the U.S. government led to her being painted as a swamp monster — both by Donald Trump, who promised to “Drain the Swamp,” and, in more subtle digs, by President Obama. Another supporter lamented the media’s failure to report on Clinton’s supposed successes in health-care and prison reform, which yet another chalked up to “media bias.”

There was a clear divide between those who call Clinton “first lady” and those who call her “secretary.” The former group, made up of those who first encountered Clinton while her husband was president, sees First Lady Clinton as responsible for candidate Clinton’s loss. A retired elderly woman explained that many older feminists didn’t support Hillary because of her generally apathetic response to Bill’s sexual faithlessness, a charge that prompted a look of shock on the faces of two female New York University students who later told me that they wondered why Bill wasn’t at the signing. (“They’re so cute together!”)

These girls, part of the latter group, fell in love with Secretary Clinton, who they say embodied strength and stood as an inspirational figure in their adolescence. One of the NYU students told me that Secretary Clinton inspired her to seek political office someday, even though she grew up a Republican. While this side of the divide waved away attacks on candidate Clinton, those who knew a much more . . . political Clinton were less willing to dismiss them out of hand.

I was left unsure what the now-owners of What Happened are expecting to learn that they don’t already believe.

And that’s the closest I came to hearing anybody admit that Clinton was to blame in any way.  Indeed, even the older Clinton supporters blamed the “geriatrics” who allegedly didn’t vote for her instead of the candidate that led to their abstinence. Many excused her Wall Street speeches — Clinton apologizes only for their “bad optics” in the book — and most portrayed the emails as a joke. Others expressed frustration with the DNC, which they believed to be corrupt.

I was left unsure what the now-owners of What Happened are expecting to learn that they don’t already believe. Speaking to the crowd, I was reminded of the way in which the modern world allows us all to see what we want to see. On Google Maps, Russians who look at the Crimean peninsula do not see a dark-gray dotted line, indicating a disputed border, but a solid black one, suggesting that Crimea is a part of Russia. This does not actually make Crimea part of Russia; it just reinforces the belief of the Russian people that their country controls the territory, even though users outside of Russia who look at Google Maps see quite the opposite. So it is with Clinton’s tenacious fans, who are desperate to hear subjective narratives sold as objective truths, opinions recast as facts. Keeping people trapped in their own way of thinking became dangerously normal during the 2016 presidential campaign, and watching Clinton encourage precisely that with her book is making many Americans rightfully nervous.

From the moment I joined the line, I felt like a Clinton supporter must have in the days before the election, when she was dominating in the polls and a Trump presidency didn’t even seem like a possibility. One fan told me she felt “high” when we entered the book-signing room, and several others cried or fanned themselves after departing the stage on which Clinton was seated. But even here, there was something ersatz about the experience. True to form, the event was mechanically impersonal. The book I would take home, for example, was not the book she signed while I was standing in front of her. That copy was simply passed down a line of aides to someone several spots ahead of me.

All in all, I was left feeling as if I had waited nine hours not for Clinton to sign my book, but for a chance to watch her sign a book, a chance to choke out what she meant to me, and maybe to shake her hand. For those who waited with me, this hollow charade was more than enough to temporarily dull the pain of a Clintonless world. But how long, I wonder, will it stay dulled?

— Philip H. Devoe is a Collegiate Network Fellow with National Review.

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