Most books by politicians are bad. They’re bad because they are cautious, or pious, or boring, or some even-worse combination of all three.
They’re cautious because over the years politicians learn they have more to lose than gain by taking “interesting” or edgy stands. (Something I learned when working as a campaign and White House speechwriter: In “normal” writing, your goal is to make your meaning as clear as possible, ideally in a memorable way. For a politician, the goal is to make the meaning just clear enough that most people will still agree with you. Clearer than that, and you’re in trouble.)
They’re pious because in one way or another the “revealing” stories about the authors are really campaign ads—for future elections by politicians who have a big race still ahead of them, or for history’s esteem by senior figures looking back. Thus politicians’ biographies fall into the general categories of humble-brag (most of them) or braggy-brag (Trump’s).
And they’re boring because they’re necessarily often about policy. That’s hard enough to make interesting in the hands of very skillful writers, from Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs to John Hersey and Michael Lewis. If politicians turning out books on “Our Schools: A New Blueprint!” were comparably skilled as writers, they’d be making their livings without having to bother with PACs and polls.
Of course there are exceptions. Some autobiographical books manage to be interesting because they’re written early enough not to be swathed in campaign caution (the 34-year-old Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father), or come from a quirky-enough sensibility to avoid normal constraints (Jimmy Carter’s Why Not the Best?), or are from performers talented enough to work subversively within the constraints (Al Franken’s Giant of the Senate, which is the kind of book Will Rogers might have written if he had made it into the Senate). And of course some all-out, edgy manifestos can shape the evolution of politics. Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative didn’t get him into the White House, but it competed with the works of Ayn Rand on many conservatives’ bookshelves and lastingly shaped a movement.
I don’t know whether Hillary Clinton’s previous books were good or bad. I didn’t read them, because I assumed they were normal politician-books. But What Happened is not a standard work of this genre. It’s interesting, it’s worth reading, and it sets out questions that the press, in particular, has not done enough to face.
On the interesting-ness of the book, I refer you to Megan Garber’s extensive analysis of the different personas Hillary Clinton has presented through her now very-long public career, and the much less-guarded one that comes through in What Happened. By the depressing standards of most political books, this one isn’t cautious (because the author convincingly claims she’s not running for anything any more), it’s not (very) pious (because she favors an acid-humor tone), and most of it is not boring (because most of it is not directly about policy).
As an example of why it’s interesting, consider the opening scene, about how Clinton dealt with the inauguration ceremony in which she might have expected to be sworn in herself, but instead sat there watching Donald Trump take the oath. She’d wondered whether she had to show up at all, and talked with former presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, each of whom had called her right after the news of her loss sank in:
“Jimmy, this is the worst.” “Yes, Hillary, it is.” It was no secret that these former presidents [Carter and GW Bush] weren’t fans of Donald Trump. He had been absolutely vicious to [GWB’s] brother Jeb in particular. But were they going to the inauguration? Yes.
So she went, and willed herself through the spectacle of power passing from Barack Obama to Donald Trump.
Then it was done, and he was our President.
“That was some weird shit,” George W. Bush reportedly said with characteristic Texas bluntness. I couldn’t have agreed more.
We headed up the stairs to leave the platform and go back inside the Capitol, shaking hands along the way. [Reminder: she is making this progression not just as the losing-candidate-who-won-the-popular-vote but also as spouse of one of the former presidents in attendance.]
I saw a man off to the side who I thought was Reince Priebus…. We shook hands and exchanged small talk. Later I realized it hadn’t been Priebus at all. It was Jason Chaffetz, the then-Utah Congressman and wannabe Javert who made endless political hay out of my emails and the 2012 tragedy in Benghazi.
Later Chaffetz posted a picture of our handshake with the caption, “So pleased she is not the President. I thanked her for her service and wished her luck. The investigation continues.” What a class act! I came this close to tweeting back, “To be honest, I thought you were Reince.”
As I say, this is not a future-candidate’s book, which makes it much livelier to read. But what about the main policy question it actually raises: namely, what could have happened in American politics last year, to deliver a man like Donald Trump to office?
Based on what we know now, the 2016 presidential election is likely to share a lasting twilight-zone quality with the election of 2000. Each led to an unfortunate result, by my lights—the election of George W. Bush in one case, of Donald Trump in the other—through what was, by anyone’s lights, the interaction of a thousand factors whose relative impacts no one will ever be able to separate. So many things “made the difference” in each race that we’ll never know which specific one was most important or consequential. In each case, the loser of the popular vote ended up in the White House—something that seemed a mainly theoretical twist back before Bush v. Gore, since no living American had experienced it. (Before that, the last time it happened was in 1888.) For 2000, no one will know for sure whether the outcome would have been different without Ralph Nader—or the designer of the “butterfly ballot” in Palm Beach County, Florida; or the heavy hand of the Supreme Court; or other factors we could discuss endlessly. For 2016, no one will know for sure whether the outcome would have been different without James Comey—or with more scruples by Facebook, or more trips to Wisconsin (although Hillary Clinton addresses this one at length), or a different response to Trump in the debates, or no word “deplorables,” or without Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, or other factors we could discuss endlessly.
What Happened goes into these explanations and more. Before you ask, Hillary Clinton’s starting point is that she lost the election and is mainly to blame herself. For instance:
I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made. I take responsibility for all of them. You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want—but I was the candidate. It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.
If you’ve read this book, with Clinton’s repeated reminders that blame for this historic disaster begins with her, you’re more likely to start yelling at the TV—or the newspaper or the website—when you see pundits, mainly male, saying that it’s time for Hillary Clinton to “step back” or “stop whining” or “get off the stage” or “stop making excuses.” She’s telling an interesting and important tale—and one with uncomfortable implications for the press among other institutions.
This is the time to mention that I have not been a Hillary Clinton booster. In last year’s campaign I supported her over Donald Trump (as did our magazine in a rare editorial), but I would have favored anyone over him. Eight years earlier, I favored Barack Obama in the Democratic primary against Clinton, and then in the general-election contest with John McCain. The biggest reason for my preference in the primaries was the Iraq war: I disagreed with Hillary Clinton’s support for it 15 years ago, and agreed with Obama’s opposition. I think she is impeccably qualified for high office—and, as she points out herself, she’s always been very popular once in a job, including senator and secretary of state, though controversial and unpopular while competing for jobs. But I have been aware from our travels across the country of how polarizing and demonized a figure she has been, for more than 25 years—and therefore I feared her vulnerability to attacks from Trump and Fox News.
For reasons that surely involve the intertwining of gender bias with prevailing conception of what constitutes political “talent,” she has been considered less able than two Democratic “naturals”—her husband, and Barack Obama—simply to charm her way out of difficulties. Bill Clinton seemed doomed after his draft-record problems and other controversies in early 1992; Barack Obama, after the Jeremiah Wright controversy in early 2008. We know what happened next. Jimmy Carter (the second time), Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry: These were faultlessly “qualified” candidates who lost, among other things, the charm contest to their opponents—and the negative-advertising war as well. Now Hillary Clinton joins their ranks. The forces working against her weren’t only about her being a woman (as she discusses in the book), but they took a form against her that didn’t apply to John Kerry or Al Gore because of her gender.
Back to the “what happened?” question: Another sign that Hillary Clinton isn’t running any more is her clarity in pushing a point that most of the political-media establishment would rather not hear. The point is that she is to blame for Donald Trump’s emergence—but a lot of other people are too. As she puts it, in what newsmagazine editors would call the “nut graf” of the book, with emphasis added on a “nut sentence”:
I don’t understand why there’s an insatiable demand in many quarters for me to take all the blame for losing the election on my own shoulders and quit talking about Comey, the Russians, fake news, sexism, or anything else. Many in the political media don’t want to hear about how those things tipped the election in the final days. They say their beef is that I’m not taking responsibility for my mistakes—but I have, and I do again throughout this book. Their real problem is that they can’t bear to face their own role in helping elect Trump, from providing him free airtime to giving my emails three times more coverage than all the issues affecting people’s lives combined.
The analytic (as opposed to anecdotal) part of the book contends at length that the Clinton campaign was indeed on course for an Electoral College victory, on top of its popular-vote win, until James Comey’s gratuitous entry into politics in late October. After herself, Comey is the person Clinton considers most responsible for the outcome of the election. And after him would come Vladimir Putin:
President Obama once compared Vladimir Putin to a “bored kid at the back of the classroom.” “He’s got that kind of slouch,” Obama said. When I sat with Putin in meetings, he looked more like one of those guys on the subway who imperiously spread their legs wide, as if to say, “I take what I want.”
But she goes on to say that next on the list would be prevailing judgments in the media, led unmistakably by The New York Times, that treated her “damned emails” as if they were a first-order emergency, justifying more coverage than anything she said on issues of international or domestic policy, and deserving of placement on a par with the financial, ethical, experiential, and other liabilities of Donald Trump.
I won’t belabor the evidence she lays out, both because it’s interesting to read in her own voice and because I made similar points repeatedly during the campaign. I will say that two bits of coverage from the Times—which matter precisely because it is the best overall U.S. publication, and the most influential—deserve far more introspection that the paper has deigned to give them.
One was its blow-out-the-front-page treatment after James Comey talked about re-opening the email investigation, less than two weeks before the election. This was in keeping with the Times’s emphasis through many months on the “doubts” and “questions” that Clinton’s email practices “raised”:
The other was its piece on the Russian role in the election, a few days later:
Thanks both to purposeful messaging from her opponents, and a press consensus that whatever Hillary Clinton did with her emails “mattered,” we had results like the following. First, a Gallup word-cloud image of what voters associated with Hillary Clinton in the summer of 2015:
For comparison, what people had heard about Donald Trump at the same stage, according to the same Gallup poll:
And here is how it shaped up as the campaign intensified last summer, from the time of the party conventions through the beginning of the Clinton-Trump debates:
No sane person can believe that the consequences of last fall’s election—for foreign policy, for race relations, for the environment, for anything else you’d like to name (from either party’s perspective)—should have depended more than about 1 percent on what Hillary Clinton did with her emails. But this objectively second- or third-tier issue came across through even our best news organizations as if it were the main thing worth knowing about one of the candidates.
Hillary Clinton makes clear that she has a lot to answer for. So does James Comey. So does Facebook. So does the public. So down a long list. (What I, personally, got most egregiously wrong: my announcement in mid-2015 that no one as unqualified as Trump could possibly win. I stopped making predictions after that.)
But the press is among the groups that messed this up, badly, in particular through the relentless push in New York Times coverage that made “but, her emails!” a rueful post-campaign meme. With this book, Hillary Clinton has gone a considerable distance toward facing her responsibility for the current state of the country. Before any news organization tells her to pipe down or stop explaining herself, I’d like to see them be as honest about their own responsibility.
And again, it’s an interesting book.