In What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s new 512-page recollection of what was perhaps the most painful and awkward election in American history, the former secretary of state recounts an infamous debate moment she shared with Donald Trump:
We were on a small stage, and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces. It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled.
In her mind, Clinton recounts, she weighed two options:
Do you stay calm, keep smiling, and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space? Or do you turn, look him in the eye, and say loudly and clearly, “Back up, you creep, get away from me, I know you love to intimidate women but you can’t intimidate me, so back up.”
Option B, as the kids like to say, would have escalated things rather quickly, with the added bonus of seeming a teeny bit unhinged. Hillary, of course, chose the more repressed Option A: “I kept my cool, aided by a lifetime of dealing with difficult men trying to throw me off.”
Ah, yes. It’s difficult to pinpoint the most painful Hillary Clinton moment of the many painful Hillary Clinton moments that populate What Happened, but this one certainly comes close. Think about it: Even now, after months of time to reflect and ruminate and engage in self-soothing techniques like downing Chardonnay and “one-nostril breathing,” Hillary Clinton is completely oblivious to what any decent politician would have realized, if not in the heat of the moment, at least in hindsight: There was an obvious Option C.
I’m referring, of course, to one of my favorite moments in presidential debate history, when a rather creepy Al Gore sidled up to a cheerful George W. Bush, looking as if he may or may have been considering a duel or a gentlemanly bout of fisticuffs. The year was 2000, and the heated topic that catapulted Gore’s blood pressure skyward — brace yourself, for in the scope of today’s tabloid-splashed politics, this will seem rather quaint — was the details of the “Dingell-Norwood Bill.” Gore edged closer, quietly lurking, deadly serious. After ignoring him for a few moments, Bush turned, acted mildly surprised to see him, and greeted him with a bemused, dismissive nod.
The audience broke into laughter. They loved it. Gore did not.
Well, as we all know, Hillary Clinton is no George W. Bush. She is also, as What Happened strains to remind us over and over and over again, no Donald Trump. And while many Americans might wonder why on earth anyone would spend their free time reading a book rehashing what should be fairly obvious by now — Hillary Clinton is not a very good politician — What Happened does manage to offer some valuable insights. Unfortunately, they’re not the ones the author intends.
What Happened does manage to offer some valuable insights. Unfortunately, they’re not the ones the author intends.
Let’s talk about David Foster Wallace, shall we? Hillary Clinton does, bringing up his famous “This Is Water” commencement speech in her chapter entitled “On Being a Woman in Politics.” She’s referring to the deeply moving and widely read address in which Wallace discusses human nature and life’s various struggles, noting that “the most obvious realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” The speech opens with an anecdote about two fish who fail to recognize that they are completely immersed in water.
This, according to Clinton, “sums up the problem of recognizing sexism — especially when it comes to politics — quite nicely.”
When I read this, I briefly looked around the room, aghast, hoping to share my astonishment. Alas, I had no company, save for the battered ghost of irony silently popping pills in the corner. For heaven’s sake, Hillary Clinton! Wallace was talking about self-centeredness and about our frail human tendency to cast our own obsessions and cloistered view of reality — our “lens of self” — on the world. You know, like a certain failed politician’s annoying habit of blaming sexism and misogyny for at least 80 percent of anything that goes south.
Through Hillary’s lens, Elizabeth Warren’s problem isn’t that she’s a kooky socialist who could single-handedly send the economy careening off the cliff. It’s that she’s seen as a “shrill woman.” Most of Hillary’s problems were completely self-made, and yet here she is, explaining away: “The Puritan witch hunts might be long over, but something fanatical about unruly women still lurks in our national subconscious.” Well, it lurks in someone’s subconscious, certainly.
Between cutesy stories about counting the calories in Flavor Blasted Goldfish and sitting on Quest bars “to warm them up” — no, I have no idea what this means, either — and occasional eruptions of disdain toward people who weren’t inspired by her desperately uninspiring campaign, a larger thread unspools throughout the pages of What Happened. Government, in Clinton’s view, can solve almost every issue, from child-raising to microeconomic trends to playground interpersonal relations. (“Many kids asked what I would do about bullying, which made me want to be president even more. I had an initiative called Better Than Bullying ready to go.”)
Which brings us back to David Foster Wallace and the end notes of his “This Is Water” speech: “There is no such thing as not worshipping,” he told the students of Kenyon College. “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” For many, that choice turns out to be government, or politics, or political power. One wonders whether Clinton read the full “This Is Water” speech; one also wonders whether Clinton is earnest when she writes that “the White House is sacred ground.” It certainly makes for awkward reading — just like the whole of 2016.