By Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon & Schuster, $30, 494 pages
There are plenty of snappy titles that Hillary Clinton might have chosen for her personal account of the 2016 presidential race. “Born to Lose,” “Running on Empty,” “The Sun Also Sets” and “What a Way to Go” all spring to mind. “What Happened” does not. A question mark at the end might have helped. But then people could point to the name written in oversized capital letters directly under the title on the dust jacket, concluding that the answer to “What Happened?” was “Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Obviously, the question mark had to go. Unfortunately, without it, “What Happened” is more suggestive of an accident report or a coroner’s verdict than of a living document. So is much of the text that follows the title.
Hillary Clinton knows what happened in the 2016 election but readers who manage to make it through all 494 pages of her rather plodding, self-serving (and often self-pitying) account may come away convinced that she is still clueless about why it happened. How could an intelligent, relentlessly ambitious person like herself who has spent most of her adult life in the political arena manage to be outmaneuvered at every turn by a brash, shallow political amateur most Americans — including many who voted for him — had serious doubts about?
The obvious answer is one that, for all her seeming soul-searching, Mrs. Clinton seems to shy away from. She is not now and never has been very good at running for public office. Her only real electoral win was bagging a Senate seat in New York — one of the most Democratic states in the Union — while her husband was sitting president and she was exploiting her position as first lady.
Eight years before her failed 2016 bid for the presidency, she managed to blow her lead as front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination to a young, inexperienced and little-known African-American senator who came out of nowhere and, like Donald Trump eight years later, beat her with a much smaller war chest.
Despite a few hasty, half-hearted mea culpas (“I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes. There are plenty, as you’ll see in this book, and they are mine and mine alone”), the part this hardened political professional spends most of her time playing is that of innocent victim. In a way that Irving Kristol certainly didn’t have in mind when he coined the phrase, Mrs. Clinton ends up as a liberal being mugged by reality.
Sometimes the truth seeps through in the form of Freudian slips. Consider her attempt to rebut charges that she took usually Democratic Rust Belt states for granted: “Here’s the bottom line: I campaigned heavily across Pennsylvania, had an aggressive ground game and lots of advertising, and still lost by 44,000 votes “
It never seems to occur to her that she was the problem and that the more voters saw of her and her policies the less they liked them. Mrs. Clinton inadvertently makes this point elsewhere: “It’s revealing to compare the results in the suburbs of Denver and Las Vegas, where the vast majority vote early and I did well enough to carry both Colorado and Nevada, with the results in the Philadelphia suburbs, where nearly everyone voted on Election Day.”
What this really indicates is that time and exposure were her enemies. It even suggests that if the early voters in Colorado and Nevada had observed Hillary for as long as those in Pennsylvania did, she might have lost in two more states. But it was FBI Director James Comey, Bernie Sanders and the good old “vast right wing conspiracy” — not to mention Reds under beds — who all combined to add to Hillary Clinton’s victimhood as she tells it.
The reader comes away wondering why Hillary Clinton bothered to write a book that, unless it was an attempt at personal catharsis, can only further tarnish her image. It is all very sad and very depressing. Once the election has been called for Trump, we read that she and her husband, who, earlier that night, “was full of nervous energy, chomping on an unlit cigar” — the man seems to have a thing about unlit cigars — finally decide to turn in.
The image is eerily akin to that of a broken-down old show business couple who have stuck together for career reasons, only to learn that what may be their last show has closed on opening night: “We lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Bill took my hand, and we just lay there.”
The melancholy memoir of a little engine that couldn’t
• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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