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.
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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.”
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