As you just might have heard, a certain former government official named Hillary Rodham Clinton has a new book out. Not only that, on the day of its release, What Happened went to no. 1 on Amazon, beating out Stephen King’s It (now in theaters) and Princesses Wear Pants, an inspiring children’s book about royal sartorial choices (I assume) co-written by TV’s Savannah Guthrie. Turns out there are more than a few people interested in what Clinton has to say about the 2016 election.
And why shouldn’t there be? Despite all the desperate pleas for Clinton to shut up and go away, this is precisely the political book we need: one in which a much maligned figure, freed from the restrictions of worrying about how things might play in her next campaign, finally tells us what she really thinks.
So far I’ve only read excerpts from Clinton’s book and not the entire thing. But it appears that though it may not be a lurid tell-all, it’s remarkably candid, especially from someone who has been so cautious and controlled for so long. She talks about the moment she and aides learned that former FBI Director James Comey had gone public with the news that he was looking at Anthony Weiner’s laptop because it had some emails on it from Clinton to her aide Huma Abedin, Weiner’s then-wife (“This man is going to be the death of me,” Abedin says). Clinton talks about being “shivved,” and calls Trump’s inauguration speech “a howl straight from the white nationalist gut.” She has some nice words for Bernie Sanders, but also goes after him for helping to lay the foundation for the attacks Trump would later aim at her (“Because we agreed on so much, Bernie couldn’t make an argument against me in this area on policy, so he had to resort to innuendo and impugning my character”).
And she talks candidly about the sexism she faced, not just in personal terms but from a broader perspective. “I wish so badly we were a country where a candidate who said, ‘My story is the story of a life shaped by and devoted to the movement for women’s liberation’ would be cheered, not jeered,” she writes. “But that’s not who we are.”
And Clinton doesn’t mind naming names. She tells how Ryan Zinke, the GOP congressman who would become interior secretary, brought his wife over to meet her at Trump’s inauguration, despite the fact that a couple of years before he called her “the antichrist.” When she brings it up, “he was taken aback and mumbled something about not having meant it. One thing I’ve learned over the years is how easy it is for some people to say horrible things about me when I’m not around, but how hard it is for them to look me in the eye and say it to my face.” She calls former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who used to be the chair of the House Government Oversight Committee, a “wannabe Javert,” which is hard to argue with (without Clinton to pursue, Chaffetz decided to leave Congress). And she tells of an older woman who, upon seeing her in public, dragged her nogoodnik daughter over to apologize for not bothering to vote:
“I wanted to stare right in her eyes and say, ‘You didn’t vote? How could you not vote?! You abdicated your responsibility as a citizen at the worst possible time! And now you want me to make you feel better?’ Of course, I didn’t say any of that. These people were looking for absolution that I just couldn’t give. We all have to live with the consequences of our decisions.” [Hillary Clinton]
If Clinton wants to settle a few scores and tell us who she thinks is a jerk, what could be wrong with that? What we usually get from books written by politicians is a bunch of banal stories from their youth — in an amazing coincidence, most all of them had an older relative impart the wisdom that if they worked hard and never gave up, in America they could achieve anything they wanted! — and empty rhetoric about how with the right leadership we can tap into the American people’s innate goodness and come together to solve our problems. Because she’s not running for office again, Clinton seems to feel free to tell us how she really feels and what it was like from inside the extraordinary 2016 campaign. And if I’m going to read a book she wrote, I want to know all about her anger and bitterness.
Any such candor is especially welcome from Clinton, someone who has had her every move scrutinized since her husband began his political career four decades ago and responded by getting more and more careful about how she presented herself in public. Perhaps most unfairly, Clinton was told for decades to suppress her true self (cut her hair, take her husband’s name, accept responsibility for his sins, stick to being a traditional first lady), and then, at the end of it all, was told that she wasn’t “authentic” enough for voters.
Clinton became a vessel for millions of people’s feelings about feminism — particularly their negative feelings, and particularly about women who have their own professional ambitions. No figure in American history had as much sexist vitriol poured on her for as long as Clinton did, culminating in a campaign where “Trump That Bitch” was one of the most popular T-shirt logos to be found at her opponent’s rallies. In the end, she did everything that was demanded of her, studying more diligently than everyone else in the hope that her talents and hard work would be enough — and she was beaten by an ignorant, misogynistic buffoon whom people voted for even after he was caught on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity. You could barely come up with a more weighted symbol of women’s challenges if you tried.
All that gives Clinton a unique perspective on issues about power and gender, which is just one of the reasons we should welcome whatever she has to say. There’s still some of the politician there, and even at this point she’s no doubt presenting herself with a degree of care (just as every public figure does, or every nonpublic figure for that matter). But whether you agree with what she has to say or not, it’s still worth hearing.