This is a book that needs no subtitle. Although we all know what happened on the night of November 8 – the most prepared candidate in the history of, not just American politics but in the history of preparedness, lost to a man who entered the race because Barack Obama had made some jokes about him years before – none of us really know how it happened.
This extraordinary memoir by an extraordinary politician offers flashes suggesting that Hillary Rodham Clinton knows exactly how it happened. But at other times, it descends into the sort of score settling that is meant to immunise her from blame.
Like any good book these days, it begins at the end: the end of the campaign, the end of a dream and the end of a career. The days after her shock election defeat offer some of the most candid passages, as she explores what it was like to have failed so publicly and so spectacularly. Friends recommend the power of Xanax and various therapists. There is Chardonnay, comfy clothes and meditation. “If you’ve never done alternate nostril breathing, it’s worth a try,” she offers breezily. Bill recommends television, in particular NCIS: Los Angeles (the best in the franchise in his view).
There is a dry wit on display along with some touchingly intimate moments at home. She describes how she hunted down a particular design of wallpaper so they could decorate their bedroom in their upstate New York home to match the one they loved so much at the White House.
But you would have to be a hard-hearted reader not to remember the sense of destiny that clung to her presidential run, without understanding how that magnified her fall. Imagine weeping into a pillow while surrounded by that particular wallpaper print. And if her wallpaper comes from a bygone political era, it feels like her campaign did too. “I was running a traditional presidential campaign with carefully thought-out policies and painstakingly built coalitions, while Trump was running a reality TV show that expertly and relentlessly stoked Americans’ anger and resentment,” she writes.
It wasn’t just Mr. Trump. She reserves particular criticism for Bernie Sanders, her rival for the Democratic nomination, who also trots out big, bold ideas that he knew would never need to be costed or steered through Congress. He was also responsible for developing the Wall Street line of attack, she argues, that Mr. Trump plundered so successfully during the election campaign.The only thing wrong with taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the big banks who helped plunge the country into the great recession in return for lectures, she reasons, was the “optics”. The problem lay not with the act – everyone has to earn a living – but how it played in the eye of the cynical observer.
This then is the meat of the book. What happened, it turns out, was not that Mrs. Clinton was a flawed candidate with an uninspiring campaign, but that she was the victim of a world that wasn’t ready for her. And fake news, Rupert Murdoch, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, the New York Times and above all James Comey, the then FBI director, were “what happened”. Mr Comey, you remember, was in charge of probing the homebrew email server that Mrs. Clinton had used as Secretary of State. Just 11 days before the election, he announced he was reopening the investigation ensuring a slew of negative headlines at a crucial moment. “Even if Comey caused just 0.6 percent of Election Day voters to change their votes, and even if that swing only occurred in the Rust Belt, it would have been enough to shift the Electoral College from me to Trump,” writes Mrs. Clinton.
We’ll never know the impact but I’m happy to imagine the intervention would have caused a 0 percent shift if she and her media team had got out ahead of the controversy, instead of going into a defensive crouch for months beforehand and avoiding legitimate questions. It all smacks of the entitled status that so turned off voters. Throughout the book are reminders of the Clintons’ world: the hobnobbing in the Hamptons and the billionaire friends from the dotcom world.
She is strongest when detailing the sexism that has plagued her political history and caused countless bouts of introspection as she wondered how to walk the chromosome-define line between shrill and assertive. But ultimately it is her analysis of Mr. Trump’s appeal that reveals her flaws. She quotes the Voter Study Group, a professor at the University of Washington, a Democratic polling expert, one of Bill’s pollsters and several other unnamed academics as she unpicks how Trump voters made their decision – almost as if she hasn’t ever met a Trump voter.
When dissecting why she failed to connect with the Rust Belt states, the key factor in handing the election to her rival, she concludes that the fault lay not with her but with the actors arrayed against her. That’s what happened. Or perhaps a more fitting title for Clinton’s thesis here might have been the modern expression for the verbal shrug that suggests sometimes bad things just happen for no particular reason. The one that rhymes with “It Happens”