The news that Hillary Clinton was writing a 2016 memoir called “What Happened” caused rare bipartisan joy: Everyone, left and right, was eager to hear what she had to say. What’s it like to think you’re about to poke through that glass ceiling and instead have it come crashing down on your head? What’s the deal with Trump? Would she throw shade at Bernie? What would she say about presiding over a campaign whose failure was catastrophic to her and, to liberals anyway, to the country? What was the inside dirt? A joke made the rounds that the book’s working title was What the F*** Happened?
But the book only makes sense when you realize that What Happened is a fake title, a P. T. Barnum–style ruse to draw in the suckers. The real subject of this 500-page chunk of self-congratulation and blame-shifting — its real title — is “Why I Should Have Won.” If Hollywood is a place where you peel off the fake tinsel only to find the real tinsel underneath, Hillary Clinton is homo politicus all the way through. It’s all she has. It’s all she is. She earned the Oval Office, dammit, and she wants you to know it. Peel off the phony, power-addled political hack, and all you’ll find is the real, power-addled political hack underneath.
Sure, Clinton does give us a few stray morsels of what we’re looking for, mostly at the very beginning, when she describes what must have been an agony for the ages in tightly controlled, supremely measured tones. She tells us about the pain and the Chardonnay and how surreal it felt to concede on Election Night, given that she had never imagined what she might say if she lost. “I just didn’t think about it,” she writes. Also, she took a nap that evening and was asleep when the news broke that she’d lost Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, and Ohio. But it’s all fairly bloodless — she gives no explanation, for instance, of why she withheld her concession speech until the next day. No doubt she cherishes her privacy, but guardedness is not what one wants in a memoir.
The reserve is likely to disappoint both those who cried on Election Night and those who spent the wee hours of November 9 spraying their homes with the contents of a case of Veuve Clicquot. Yet there is poignancy here: She had every expectation of becoming the most powerful woman in the history of the world. Instead she’ll go down in the books defined by three gigantic public humiliations: the Lewinsky scandal and two losing presidential campaigns in which she was the heavy favorite. She wasn’t even the first woman to be secretary of state. She wasn’t even the second woman to be secretary of state. History is unkind to losers — quick, ask the nearest Millennial who Geraldine Ferraro was.
As the book proceeds, though, the reader’s heart sinks. Why all this stupefying name-checking of campaign aides who never get mentioned again? Why two pages about her hairdressers, but only two clipped paragraphs about that time she collapsed on 9/11? Why is she still laying out the same policy proposals America rejected last year? Why does she keep teasing us with promises to tell us about her “mistakes,” without ever following through? Why all the ordinary-citizen tales from the Just-So Stories of Big Government, the ones along the lines of: “Then I met Jill Shlabotnik, a humble weasel rancher from Sarasota, Florida…Jill told me how [sorrow, tears, pain, injustice] . . . and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we urgently need a 5.7 percent increase in deputy assistant EPA administrators!”
This is the norm for convention speeches, not for campaign autopsies, especially not one written from the point of view of the corpse. “In the past, for reasons I try to explain, I’ve often felt I had to be careful in public, like I was up on a wire without a net. Now I’m letting my guard down,” Clinton writes. Tantalizing! But there’s almost nothing she couldn’t or wouldn’t have said when she had to maintain her political viability, almost nothing she couldn’t or wouldn’t have said in one of those eyeball-glazers she called speeches, almost no instances where she takes stock of her flaws, except in the disingenuous manner of a job interviewee — “My biggest failing? I guess it’s just that I’m so focused that sometimes I can’t let work go, you know?” In Hillary’s case? “I had been unable to connect with the deep anger so many Americans felt,” “I was running a traditional presidential campaign with carefully thought-out positions. . . . Trump was running a reality TV show,” and (my favorite): “It’s true that I’ve always been more comfortable talking about others rather than myself. . . . I had to actively try to use the word I more.” Her big flaws are that she’s so even-tempered, thoughtful, substantive, and humble.
Her big flaws are that she’s so even-tempered, thoughtful, substantive, and humble.
Clinton expends many pages damning Donald Trump, but it’s all stuff anyone could have written. She criticizes things he’s publicly said and done, but it’s all stuff anyone could have written — all stuff, indeed, that everyone has written, everyone who can hold a pen, and thousands of them in possession of more writing skill than Clinton, who has exactly none. She barely knows Trump and has no personal stories about him despite having crossed paths with him over the years in New York. The only inside dirt she offers is that she thought it would be a gaudy spectacle to attend his wedding to Melania, so she did; that she wanted to make it clear via body language at the first debate with him that she didn’t want to shake his hand, so she didn’t; and that she was rattled by his standing too close to her at the second debate, so she wonders if she should have snapped at him — “Back up, you creep!”– which would have been bonkers and great fun, but unfortunately she didn’t.
You have to scythe your way through a lot of weeds to find a few gems, those rare, unintentionally revealing glimpses of why Clinton failed. The one that really shines comes via actual skilled politician Bill Clinton: He knows this guy in Arkansas, a store owner in the Ozarks who is the perfect bellwether. The shopkeeper often votes for Democrats, has done so many times, including for Bill and for longtime senator Mark Pryor. But sometimes he just can’t pull the trigger and goes the other way. He’s like the hero of that Kevin Costner comedy about a presidential election that is so close it comes down to the vote of one guy. Before the 2014 midterms, Bill sent somebody out to talk to the guy. How would things go? The guy said, “We’re going to give Congress to the Republicans.” Neither party would do anything for people like him, but “at least the Republicans won’t do anything to us,” he reasoned. “The Democrats want to take away my gun and make me go to a gay wedding.”
Bill’s reaction would have been immediate triangulation: How do I win over this guy? How do I talk to him? How do I find common ground? Hillary’s reaction is: Sheesh, the voters are appalling! It doesn’t even occur to her that she needs to figure out a way to appeal to the store owner over the next two years. He’s a write-off. He’s a deplorable. Here’s what she writes:
The politics of cultural identity and resentment were overwhelming evidence, reason, and personal experience. It seemed like “Brexit” had come to America even before the vote in the United Kingdom, and it didn’t bode well for 2016. . . . The political landscape for the 2016 race was shaping up to be extremely challenging.
Yep, it’s challenging to make people like you when it’s obvious you think they’re troglodytes and morons.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.