For whatever reason, I only recently decided to listen to the audiobook version of Hillary Clinton’s 2.5 year-old post-mortem of her own 2016 presidential campaign, What Happened. I had just finished the much newer book A Very A Stable Genius by a pair of Washington Post reporters and saw that What Happened was available for free as an audio book from my local library. So I figured “Why not?”, and took the plunge.
And what a plunge it was.
What Happened is a 560 page book, which equates to a roughly 18.5 hour-long audiobook. Hillary Clinton, in her very own voice (a touch that I personally thought was nice), has been reading to me for the past several weeks on my daily walks and through my more mundane hours of work. Now, not all of this length is justified – like almost anything written by a politician, easily 20% of the book is made up of redundancies, rabbit trails, and unimpressive pontificating. That being said, the book does cover a lot of ground. Everything from the childhood of Hillary’s mother to Trump’s response to the Central Park Five, from the election night on November 2016 to the launch of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run, from a UBI-esque policy proposal to calls to war with Russia – What Happened covers it all.
I’m by no means a fan or supporter of Clinton. I didn’t vote for her in 2016, and I stand by that choice. But I don’t hate her either, I’m not one of these “Lock her up!” folks. I view her just about the same as I view 99% of politicians – I think she often has well-enough intentions but she’s easily seduced by power. I will say that I think she’s much more competent than many other politicians though.
I won’t sugarcoat it – I didn’t enjoy this book. Parts of it were truly interesting and informative, to be sure. But just as much if not more reeks of a person refusing to take responsibility for her own shortcomings and the shortcomings of her failed campaign. Every time Clinton makes a good point or lays out a solid critique of an opponent, she ruins the moment by immediately following with some sort of self-righteous diatribe.
A large portion of this book is basically a wonkish essay on policies that the Democratic Party should start/continue to champion. She lays out the major domestic and foreign policy views of her campaign and explains how she came to hold those views in a surprising amount of detail. While I don’t agree with many of her proposals, I do appreciate her thoughtfulness. She also talks about a view policies that her campaign flirted with but ended up not launching. One of these was fascinating to me: a UBI program based on the royalties program in Alaska.
Hillary writes a lot about how she had prepared for a heavily policy-centered campaign – how she had hired a whole team of policy writers and researchers and had literally tens of thousands of pages of proposed legislation and executive orders written up during her bid for the White House. I imagine this approach was decided on when she still believed that 1) Bernie would not pose a serious challenge and 2) that her eventual Republican opponent would be a Jeb Bush or Scott Walker figure.
She described in great detail the frustration that she felt when Bernie an Trump hijacked the nation’s attention and dashed her hopes of a policy-centered election. She was quite frank with her admission that she struggled to pivot away from this approach. I felt frustrated for her – personally, I would much rather have had a policy-centered election as well, and her sense of being robbed of that quickly rubbed off on me.
Throughout What Happened, Hillary kept saying that she took responsibility for her defeat… right before blaming Bernie or Joe Biden for not campaigning for her enough, Trump for fueling sexism, Putin for manipulating American voters, the GOP for eroding democracy, or James Comey for reopening the investigation into her.
Aside from the complaint that Bernie and Biden didn’t do enough – they campaigned like crazy for a candidate neither of them really cared for all that much – I do think that there is weight to her accusations. Trump and his team (primarily Steve Bannon) did intentionally and deliberately inflame some of the worst impulses in America. Rather than rejecting racism, nativism, and sexism, Trump embraced them as weapons. Vladimir Putin did – and continues to – infuse Russian propaganda into American minds and he clearly leveraged the power of the Russian state to help Trump win. The GOP has used gerrymandering and various voter-suppression techniques to dampen voter turnout, primarily in minority-dense urban areas or rural swing districts.
The most damning accusation of all though, and the one that holds the most water is against James Comey, the former director of the FBI. Clinton rightly acknowledges that – while her lead was clearly narrowing in the final weeks of the election, Comey’s decision to publicly announce the reopening of the investigation in her emails in late October, 2016 blasted her hopes of winning away. Her polls never recovered from that setback, and the results of early-voting (done before the announcement) and the results from votes cast on election day show a clear decline in her popularity among undecided and independent voters.
Whether or not you believe that Comey was justified to do what he did, Clinton makes it very difficult to believe that he did not cost her the election.
Whew. Thank God she did not become president. I had this thought more than once while reading What Happened. While he domestic policies were no worse than those of a standard moderate Democrat, her foreign policy ideas – though well-thought out and explained – are horrifyingly hawkish.
She barely acknowledges that her support for the War in Iraq was a mistake, and she still clings on to the idea that the War in Afghanistan needs to continue. She derides Trump’s trade war with China while calling for a no-fly zone in Syria and essentially a declaration of war against Russia. Yes, you read that right: a declaration of war against Russia. She heaps praises on Democratic hawks of ages past like Lyndon B. Johnson, who oversaw the slaughter of millions in South East Asia.
Clinton truly embraced the worst parts of both major party’s foreign policy platforms. Her one redeeming quality in this arena is her support for the Iran Nuclear Deal.
One part of the book that is eerily timely now is when Clinton is writing about Trump’s inability to effectively manage and staff the executive branch of the Federal Government. She mentions several times that she is terrified of how his administration would handle a genuine crisis. Keep in mind that What Happened was published in September of 2019.
Flash forward to the Spring of 2020 and we are seeing Clinton’s fears play out in real-time.
As the COVID-19 pandemic runs through America and the world, leaving thousands of dead, shut down cities, and ruined economies in it’s wake, Trump and his administration have been utterly incompetent in how they have handled the crisis. I would even make the case that he has been criminally negligent.
Clinton’s fears that Trump would go on to be an impulsive, bull-headed, and incompetent leader have been proven true by this crisis. Her hopes that he would rise to the occasion have been killed.
There is much more I could (and maybe will, someday) write about What Happened, but I’ll leave it at this for now.
If you are a big fan of Hillary Clinton, then you’ve already likely read or listened to this book. If you haven’t you should – I imagine you’d like it. If you are political junkie, you enjoy a good semi-memoir, or are interested in being heavily involved in the Democratic Party, then you should read it as well. You might not enjoy it, but you’ll learn something from it, I’m sure.
For everyone else: this is a trudge, don’t bother.