Like a dedicated political junkie, I followed in real time the events that Hillary Clinton retraces in her book about the 2016 presidential campaign. I thoroughly enjoyed reading What Happened because I liked comparing her insider interpretations with my own outsider perceptions. She was living the highs and the lows while I was simply watching what transpired on television, but most of the time our assessments coincided.
What Happened contains no stunning political surprises. Hillary, like the proverbial dog with a bone, chews over the endless e-mail news cycles, the unexpected James Comey talking points, the Russian hacking and internet interference, and of course the conundrum of how to confront a Republican opponent who dominated television time with sound bites and pithy pronouncements. An admitted policy wonk, Hillary voices the most frustration when writing about her inability to focus the press and the public on substance rather than spectacle. Ironically, some of her harshest critics were faulting her for lapses largely out of her control.
In this review, however, I don’t want to rehash exactly what happened. Rather, I want to point out the things I learned about Hillary that largely went unnoticed during the election cycle. For example, I was struck by how often she retells the stories of men, women, and children she met on the campaign trail. She genuinely seems to have listened to their concerns, and in What Happened she talks about these conversations in a personally connected way. Family matters to Hillary Clinton, her own family, and other families as well. What Happened repeatedly dissects the disconnect between the public’s perception of her and what was occurring when she actually was talking with would-be voters. The book also acknowledges her frustrations when speaking with people who simply didn’t believe her. Ever.
I realize that What Happened necessarily is skewed by the perceptions of its author. Any Trump supporter who reads its pages will never be convinced of its honesty, whereas most Clinton supporters will applaud its forthright analysis. Many reviewers (mostly male) have maligned the book because Hillary partially blames outside forces for her defeat. I, on the other hand, found her words refreshingly honest. She does accept responsibility for losing, while nonetheless pointing out systemic failures that compounded her loss.
Forthrightly, too, she discusses the issues confronting any female candidate for public office. Makeup, hair-styling, pants suits or dresses, intimate conversations and exchanges versus large rallies, the soprano tenor of a woman’s voice? I must admit that such dilemmas resonated with me. Only a few years older than Hillary, I too had to make such superficial decisions, and I certainly knocked my head against more than one glass ceiling. I especially appreciated the credit she gave her mother, as I would credit my own, and I applauded the tenacity that Hillary has displayed throughout her career. I may not agree with all her choices, but I appreciate her commitment to causes she cares about, and I especially commend her introspection. She thinks broadly and deeply, frequently turning a critical microscope on herself.
One final accolade regarding What Happened: Hillary’s narrative closes with a turn toward the future. Just as she thinks about how she can make herself healthy and sane after such a devastating electoral loss, so she considers how the country likewise can move successfully forward. Some of her suggestions are concrete, others more ephemeral. I think that even Trump voters might find her final chapters enlightening to read and contemplate. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Hillary Clinton: It Takes a Village; Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets; An Invitation to the White House: At Home with History; Living History; Hard Choices; Stronger Together