What (Might Have) Happened

“It’s important that we understand what really happened. Because that’s the only way we can stop it from happening again.”

Last year’s election of Donald Trump prompted me to write an open breakup letter to American political coverage. My resolve has eroded steadily over the past 10 months, but it shattered today. This morning I started reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s 464-page memoir of the 2016 election, and I finished it in the afternoon. I couldn’t put it down – not because it’s another insider account of public events, but because it’s so much more than a private memoir. (Also, it was my birthday. And I’m on sabbatical. So my inbox could wait.)

What’s it really like to be Hillary Clinton? You’ll find some hints here, but her confession still feels guarded. Depite rumours to the contrary, Clinton isn’t running for future poltical office. So she (mostly) writes like someone who has nothing to lose from an honest, embittered, unflinching account of how she lost the Presidency to a manifestly unqualified man.

Trump and his campaign earn their share of blame, as do James Comey, Bernie Sanders, Vladimir Putin, the electoral college, sexism, misogyny, fake news, voter suppression, and the media’s obsession with the non-story of her private email server. (The New York Times is a particular target, as they mentioned in their review today.)

But Clinton also focuses unrelentingly on her own mistakes and flaws. She should have commiserated better with suffering people, instead of offering policy prescriptions. She should have simplified her message into bumper-sticker slogans (“Build the Wall!”). Sometimes it feels like false modesty, like in her recurring frustration that national campaigns aren’t the place for earnest, detailed, intelligent, nuanced, substantive policy disussions. Or in her regret that she couldn’t do anything to shake people’s entrenched ideas of her identity. Or that she couldn’t harness the cultural anxiety and economic malaise and be the ‘change’ rather than the ‘establishment’ candidate.

At times her laments feel like they’re about a broken system, not a flawed candidate. And they’re probably right. One of her most compelling chapters, “On Being a Woman in Politics,” is about double standards and ingrained suspicions of ambitious women in public life.

There are also moments here that feel out of place, like a lengthy disquisition on gun rights and public safety. Her chapter on the Russian hacking is so technically detailed (on algorithms, bots, and trolls) that you almost see her researcher’s notes; at least, it feels out of character for one who repeatedly claims to be more digital naivité than digital native.

Still, Clinton closes the memoir on a hopeful tone. Her prescription for future change involves (not surprisingly) more people committed to public service, more empathy for people unlike yourself, more love and kindness. She’s optimistic about seeing a woman President elected in her lifetime.

For those who anticipated Clinton’s acceptance speech on election night, it can be hard to read excerpts from that speech, and to learn how carefully her team planned every element of her Presidency’s first hundred days. It’s difficult to hear that from the most qualified candidate for that office in a generation, one who just happened to be a woman. The worst part of 2016 isn’t what happened, but what might have happened.

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