Hillary Clinton Settles Her Accounts
Ordinarily, I don’t know how much it matters whether you read a book or listen to the audiobook version. Intuitively, it seems like reading would be better, but retention doesn’t seem worse with audio. In the case of Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, there is actually quite a bit to be gained from the audiobook. You can hear things in her voice that are harder to parse in text form. The downside is that it’s harder for me to reference quotes and sections – apart from chapters, which Audible helps me with – and so, as book reviews go, this will be lacking in specifics.
I embarked on this book in part to better get to know this woman that I voted for but never really liked. As I mentioned after I got through Shattered, I tend to be a pretty sympathetic reader. You can give me a book about anybody and I will immerse myself in their story and, unless the author really makes an effort to prevent it, like them on some level. I expected the same would be true here, with a woman that I never really liked but ultimately ended up voting for. That didn’t quite happen, though it didn’t not happen, either.
Much of the focus of the attention surrounding the book is whether she “takes responsibility” for her loss or not. At times I am uncertain as to what exactly that means. Admit that she played a starring role in her own loss and that she made mistakes? She sort of does that. Pretend that all of the mistakes are hers? She definitely doesn’t do that. Nor is there much reason for her to actually do so. I certainly wasn’t expecting it. I don’t even know what it would look like, given all that has been said and done. And it ultimately wouldn’t be true. I’m not sure what would be gained by her doing so, other than signalling to Democrats that maybe when everybody outside of the party says a candidate is bad you should listen, even if you don’t agree with that assessment. That – which probably wouldn’t be received anyway – would pale in comparison to the fact that it would let a lot of other people off the hook.
The two primary culprits are Vladimir Putin and Jim Comey. She has quite a bit of ammunition to direct at each of them. However, if you were following the election, there wasn’t a whole lot of new information there. Nor does she do an exceptionally good job of juxtaposing the facts to create a great narrative. She doesn’t do an especially bad job, either, but the book bounces around a lot. If I wanted to know where the part is that she said that thing about Putin, there are four different places I’d have to look and three or so for Comey. She does do a pretty good job of differentiating between the things that kept it close and the things that “lost” it for her, which is something too few accounts of the elections do. I’m not going to rehash everything she said about Comey and Putin because almost none of it is new, which was a problem for the book.
Running a strong third in the Hierarchy of Blame is the media. This ties into both Comey and Putin and their coverage of each. It’s also a very broad complaint about how she has been treated since the beginning. And lastly, it’s about how they let Trump manipulate them throughout the course of the election. She presents a really strong case. The case is so strong that it remains strong even as you consider who is making it. She avoids peering too closely at why the issue of her emails proved as damaging as it did, but there are plenty of grounds for the media to self-reflect, and I have seen more self-reflection since the book’s release than I had seen in all of the post-election months prior.
A distant fourth, she blames Bernie, his supporters, and people who didn’t vote. They’re all “fourth” because they’re treated as one gelatinous blob. On some level, it’s those people that seemed to get the most under her skin. It’s also there where her outbound missiles are most misguided. It was her job to win over those voters and get them to the polls. She didn’t do it. And Bernie? Bernie mostly just ran against her and did so with unusual gentleness, for the most part. If your path to victory depends on other politicians foregoing their ambitions, it’s a bad plan. Her criticism and frustrations with his lack of specificity (seven-minute abs, ponies for everybody) are not invalid, but more personal than really pertinent.
One of the areas where listening to the audiobook enhanced the consumption experience is when she was talking about her Goldman Sachs money. On paper, she argues that she handled that poorly, but her voice seethes with contempt for the voters to whom it mattered. You can tell from the tone of her voice that her “mistake” was believing that voters weren’t morons who would credit her the good faith which she earned through her impeccable integrity.
That was the first of many places where she “takes responsibility” in ways that are not remotely taking responsibility. She absolutely demolishes the argument that she said anything substantively wrong (or just wrong at all) with her “coal miners” comment. Then she accepts responsibility for her phrasing. But everything she said was on the up-and-up. She had thoroughly convinced me of that in the proceeding ten minutes. She’s taking responsibility just so the reader (or listener) can say “But no, it’s not your fault.” And it wasn’t – at least, not for poor word choice. It was basically an admission like some offers of resignation: extended explicitly to be rejected. The areas where mistakes were actually made, real or optical, she doesn’t admit error (except in the Wall Street way).
She also pulls a really neat trick where she talks about how we could blame bad messaging or overreliance on poor data, but ultimately she accepts responsibility. This is a neat trick because it sounds like she’s taking responsibility while the sentence is actually devoted to distancing her responsibility for two of the things that she was, ultimately, responsible for: messaging and use of data analysis. The other ways she admits that she contributed to her own loss was her refusal to be a demagogue and caring too much about the children of Flint. It’s very much along the lines of “You ask for my biggest weakness as an employee, sir? I would say it’s that I just care too much.”
Ultimately, I don’t care that she “didn’t accept responsibility” for the loss. There’s not much percentage in it now. Many of the errors she made, I made right along with her. But giving the appearance of accepting it while dodging it became grating. When it came to her deplorables comment, she expressed no regret as she clarified what she meant. She clearly believed that the impromptu meeting between her husband and Lynch was not the least bit inappropriate. Her only mistake with the pneumonia was giving in to her immense work ethic (“My biggest weakness is that I try too hard.”) No regrets. I actually found that less aggravating than the blame jujitsu found elsewhere.
Clinton was at her strongest when she was talking about the gender dynamics of her campaign, which to be blunt was not a section of the book I thought I would like. The best part was her early experiences in Arkansas as a female lawyer and later as the First Lady. It’s easy to forget how much progress was made just over the span of her lifetime. She also did a really good job on the more contemporary struggles, outlining the difference between sexism and misogyny really well and managing to avoid offering too much condemnation or absolution of men (and women). Her Panda Principle (the public wanting to know about trivial personal details in the life of candidates) certainly held for me as I found the personal touches to be more interesting. And I like that she made a point around “Believe it or not, it actually kind of hurts when people call you the anti-christ” and that it’s not actually okay just because they don’t mean it.
While the book was personal in parts, and about the campaign in parts, it was for the most part lacking the personal touch. That may be why I didn’t come out of it as sympathetic to her as I expected. When I was on chapter 30 or so, I looked at the progress bar and saw that I was less than a third of the way through the book. I couldn’t believe it. Not because it had been bad – up to that point, a solid B+ – but because I wasn’t sure how much there was to say. Then went on for about two hours on the importance of gun control, and I had a bad feeling about where we were going to go from here. Policy sermon after policy sermon, ideological admonition after ideological admonition, intermixed with reasons that others were to blame for the loss. The middle section included a fair amount about Russia/Comey.. Little of it was really meant to persuade, and I wasn’t its target audience. It was, to be honest, pretty miserable. Even if I had agreed with more of it, most of the arguments weren’t interesting or novel. I did like hearing her point to Russia as – to use the words of a different candidate – “our #1 geopolitical rival,” and her interest in the Rise of the Robots and universal income was interesting, but that’s really all the middle section had to offer.
In the third section, where she began to wrap everything up, her ruminations on Bowling Alone and its ramifications were right up my alley. She talked more of the election and her experiences on election day, which had a rubberneck appeal. She also surprised me by giving one of the best accounts of (non-deplorable) voters I’ve heard to date. She managed to avoid falling too hard into either specific narrative about whether it’s racism or economic anxiety and explained how, in her view, it’s the two feeding into one another. Though she didn’t specifically draw the connection, her earlier discussions on the differences between misogyny and sexism helped here. The deplorables were the equivalent of misogynists whose motivation is a disdain for women (or, here, minorities) and sexists whose are guided by societal norms and expectations in ways that lead them to devalue women (or, in this case, be suspicious and display some degree of hostility towards minorities) when they feel threatened. It was both sympathetic and unsympathetic. She is in the camp that doesn’t want to write all of them off, but also pointed out that even in the most sympathetic light even those that weren’t guided by racism and sexism were willing to tolerate it along the way.
Unless you just can’t get enough of Clinton, I can’t really recommend the book as a whole. It might, however, be worth getting from the library, and reading the first 33 (1-33) chapters and last 28 (70-97). The rest of it reminded me of attending a couple classes in college where I knew 90% of the material and staying tuned to get the additional 10% was really hard and, ultimately, not worth the effort. It felt like it was never going to end. It’s one thing to get all of this from someone who is angling to run for president (which she is not), but it is less interesting as an exit interview.
In the end, she is who she is and that is who we’ve known her to be. There aren’t many surprises and there isn’t a completely different side to her. I’m sorry that Trump is president, but still not sorry that she isn’t. The part about the struggles she faced as a woman really did resonate me and in a way actually made me feel better about my decision to vote for her, which was a decision I’d been questioning since the election.
One of the more immediately important takeaways from this book is that I am convinced that she has no intention of running for president in 2020. Whew. While at times the book feels like an “about to run for president” book (like Audacity of Hope), it is sufficiently unguarded and goes places someone who intends to run for the Democratic nomination for president simply won’t go. She’s done. These are her parting thoughts and parting shots. We haven’t heard the last of her, obviously, but her platform won’t be what it was, and this is what turning the page looks like.