Clinton’s What Happened: A Frank Post-Mortem on the 2016 Election

The title What Happened can be taken two ways: “This is how it went down,” and, “How did this unexpected, horrendous, and still mystifying result obtain? WTF Happened?” Clinton covers both, and is finally able to mention, now that the election is done, the role gender played.

In addition to the female factor, here is the short list of reasons Clinton enumerates that caused her defeat: race, the pseudo scandal of her emails, voter rage and desire for change, the media, fake news, the Russians, Comey, and Bernie. Plus, it is rare for a party which has held the presidency for two consecutive terms to win a third. Moreover, as Clinton points out several times, she won the popular vote—as did Al Gore in 2000—suggesting that the electoral college is a poor mechanism for expressing the national political will. To the above autopsy, add Republican voter suppression and gerrymandering.

I don’t think these are “excuses” as some critics claim, but rather explanations, many of which are mutually reinforcing, and all of which have been advanced by other observers as well. Moreover, because the election was so close, almost any one of them could have been that decisive factor tipping the balance. Naturally, we don’t have to accept all of what Clinton writes as truth, but I find it dispiriting that without having read the book (of course), some bright-lights are shouting, “What happened is that you lost, now shut-up!” But Clinton has good reason to speak:

The lessons we draw from 2016 could help determine whether we can heal our democracy and protect it in the future, and whether we as citizens can begin to bridge our divides. I want my grandchildren and all future generations to know what really happened. We have a responsibility to history—and to a concerned world—to set the record straight.

One area Clinton won’t go is the actual workings of her campaign, and how ultimately it failed to put her in the White House. If you are reading What Happened to find out who dropped the ball in Michigan or Wisconsin, prepare to be disappointed. Understandably, she doesn’t want to torch her team, who surely must be smarting almost as much as she is in the wake of the defeat. And, it’s poor form for the general to blame the soldiers. Instead, Clinton name-checks dozens of the people who worked on the campaign—as well as her hairdressers in Chappaqua and Manhattan—and notes how brilliant, amazing, fun-loving, kind-hearted and hard-working they all were.

There are also tidbits that “humanize” Clinton, and we learn that Hillary is an aficionado of Goldfish crackers, the Chicago Cubs, Downton Abbey, NPR, Dove ice cream bars, Broadway musicals, and Elena Ferrante novels. Plus, she owns two dogs, is a devoted grandmother, and cared for her mother in her final years at home, a luxury she is quick to admit most people can’t afford.

Clinton’s political and personal loyalty is displayed throughout What Happened (if you had never before heard of Bill Clinton, you’d conclude from this account that he couldn’t be more of a mensch and devoted, supportive spouse). Another Clinton quality is resilience. It is amazing that less than a year after the election she has produced a tome of this size (464 pages) and quality. (It’s not all gold, and she is not a lyrical or clever prose stylist, still, there is more good stuff here than is found in many books by politicians). So, points to Hillary for not retreating into a years-long Netflix, Doritos and vodka binge, as would be her perfect right.

Hillary’s ability to bounce back is nothing new: after Bill’s scandals in the 90s, and the contempt that she too was held in during that period, she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000, ran for the Democratic leadership in 2008, served as Secretary of State under Obama, and then again stood for the presidency in 2016. It doesn’t appear that she intends to leave public life any time soon, and is clearly a workhorse. She seems barely to have paused in the nearly half century since she served as class speaker at her 1969 Wellesley College graduation.

But back to What Happened. One thing that happened is covered in the chapter, “Those Damn Emails.” Here Clinton points out that she was not alone in using a private email account for government business. Hard not to sympathize with her on this point. The email drama was a partisan exercise by the Republicans who, having failed to “get” Clinton with Bengazi, found another cudgel with which to beat her. If the Republicans started this grotesque snowball rolling, it was, in Mrs. Clinton’s telling, the media and James Comey who made sure that it wouldn’t melt but rather grew to become a weaponized ice pellet capable of taking out a political eye.

The scandal had two dimensions – one was that the ever-secretive Clinton was trying to keep her dirty dealings off the books, the other that even if there was no actual malfeasance on her part, she recklessly endangered national security by potentially exposing classified documents. In the summer of 2016, long after the brouhaha over her private server had started, hacked DNC emails were published by WikiLeaks, and again the words “Clinton” and “emails” were in the news, even though the hack and the private email account were unrelated. Clinton admits that using her own account for government business was a mistake, still no evidence of wrongdoing or security breaches have ever been produced. That the Republicans would try to exploit this non-scandal is no surprise, but what really frosts Clinton is that The New York Times (and other media outlets) devoted an inordinate amount of space to the matter, week after week, month after month.

For months after the election, I tried to put it all out of my mind. It would do me no good to brood over my mistake. And it wasn’t healthy or productive to dwell on the ways I felt I’d been shivved by then-FBI Director Jim Comey—three times over the final five months of the campaign.

As angry as Clinton is with The New York Times (and NBC’s Matt Lauer), she is even more furious with FBI Director James Comey, who had stated on July 5, 2016 that that he was closing his investigation, but also noted on July 7 that while Clinton’s conduct wasn’t criminal, she was careless and had potentially jeopardized national security. Clinton argues that by publicizing the investigation Comey was interfering in the election. And, she asks rhetorically, if Comey was so committed to openness, then why did he not reveal that the Trump administration was being investigated for its Russia ties?

Even worse, on October 28, less than two weeks before the election, Comey announced that he was reopening the investigation. Why? Well, Clinton’s right-hand, Huma Abedin, had made an unfortunate marital choice—disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner—and the FBI was investigating him, and so was examining laptops belonging to Weiner and Huma, which contained emails with Hillary. There was no indication that the emails that Comey was looking into were new or were problematic, and Comey said as much, but the fact that emails were again in play was highly damaging.

One need not assume bad faith or partisanship on Comey’s part to recognize that his handling of the email episode was poor. One explanation, which Clinton lightly touches on, is that it was generally assumed that Clinton would win, and if it was revealed post-election that she had been under investigation, particularly if something did come of the new emails, then it would be demanded of Comey why he had kept quiet, since he had previously announced the closing of the investigation.

The word “emails,” Clinton notes, was the most talked about element of the campaign. It is both specific and vague, fueling the notion that something was out there, something was being concealed, even if one couldn’t specify what that was. Trump’s scandals—sexual assault, fraud, voluminous conflicts of interest, serial bankruptcies, unseemly relations with foreign powers, not disclosing tax returns—and his crude insults of women, Mexicans, African Americans, Muslims, veterans and the disabled—not to mention key people in his own party and random public figures—were, of course, much worse, but the email non-scandal had remarkable staying power and potency. Of course, not all of the attacks on Clinton were nothing-burgers served up as main courses, there was some tainted beef amongst the garnishes. From Clinton:

I spoke to audiences from a wide range of fields: travel agents and auto dealers, doctors and tech entrepreneurs, grocers and summer camp counselors. I also spoke to bankers.

Here Clinton seems willfully obtuse in her account of taking money from investment banks for speeches. She says it was wrong, but puts it down to “bad optics.” She reasons that in her three private talks to Goldman Sachs, for which she received $225,000 each (she never mentions the audience or amounts involved, but is highly attentive to detail elsewhere) she spun yarns about her time as Secretary of State and didn’t tell her listeners anything of consequence. She argues that she often sides against Wall Street interests, and would never tarnish her record by changing a vote because of a speaking fee. If we are talking about a quid pro quo, I tend to believe her, but she fails to acknowledge the root issue. Why is Goldman Sachs paying her such handsome fees? Because they are nice guys and can’t think of anything else to do with their loot? No, it is a way to retain access and cordial relations with a person whom they assume will become the next president. Easy to see how this money helps Clinton and her campaign, but hard to understand how it aids those outside the upper-most income brackets. Of course, Wall Street coziness is in no way limited to Clinton, and the Trump administration is nakedly corrupt in ways that are almost without precedent. Still, when Clinton claims that Bernie snuck in and sucked up the space that she was occupying as a feisty progressive, I have to say no, that door was opened very wide for him.

Clinton notes that she and Bernie wrote the Democratic convention platform together, and that he endorsed her and campaigned for her, but there is lingering bitterness toward this unlikely challenger. Her chief complaint is that Sanders was continually upstaging her with lofty, lefty promises that he would never be able to fulfill, making her look like a scold and a wet blanket. She’s correct, but since she was the establishment candidate and had no serious opponent from that quarter after Biden decided not to run, the only place opposition was going to come was from the left. Hillary says the primary battle damaged her, but that is part of the American system, and there was no point in Bernie competing against her if he was not going to distinguish himself in a substantial way. Hillary also complains that the “Bernie Bros” harassed her supporters online (not clear how widespread this was), but omits mention of the “Sanders Sisters,” young women who were fervent Bernie backers, but never really warmed to Hillary.

Clinton dispatches in a line or two the pre-convention resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz as DNC Chair. This came in the wake of the WikiLeaks dump revealing that the DNC was not a neutral arbiter, and wanted Clinton over Sanders. Naturally, the Berners were not happy. I was not surprised; after all, Sanders was a Johnny-come-lately to the leadership game and was essentially trying to blow up the party. Clinton dismisses the matter as sour grapes on the part of Sanders’ supporters. But if the shoe were on the other foot, and she was the challenger and it emerged that the party leadership was putting its finger on the scale, I doubt that she would be so cavalier.

Clinton is also ticked at Green Party leader Jill Stein, and notes that the Green vote totals in key swing states were more than the difference between hers and Trump’s. The implication being that had Stein dropped out and told her people to vote Democrat, we wouldn’t have Trump. This kind of math is always dangerous; Clinton could ask why millions of voters stayed home, rather than why a few percent chose to vote for a female candidate other than her. Is it possible there were valid reasons for voting for Stein (war, environment, income inequality) other than foolishness, hubris, or spite? Clinton writes:

In 2016 our democracy was assaulted by a foreign adversary determined to mislead our people, enflame our divisions, and throw an election to its preferred candidate. That attack succeeded because our immune system had been slowly eroded over years. Many Americans had lost faith in the institutions that previous generations relied on for objective information, including government, academia, and the press.

Clinton is plenty fired up about the Russians, and with good reason, although she sometimes engages in overreach. It is one thing to note that the Russians tried to influence the election, that their activities helped Trump, and that the Trump camp had inappropriate and likely illegal dealings with Russian interests before and after the election. The Mueller investigation is now teasing out these strands. However, one must proceed with caution before going further on this. It is a commonplace among Democrats that the Russians “hacked” the election, but some are conflating the email hacking and other dirty tricks with voting-machine tampering.

Moreover, planting targeted “fake news,” trolling social media, and hacking the DNC are one thing. But it is a stretch to say that Trump is Putin’s puppet; if so, the Russian strong-man seems to be a poor puppet master. In September, Russia expelled 755 U.S. diplomats in response to new sanctions from Congress. The Russians probably did not expect Trump to win (their end game appears to be weakening U.S. democracy), and Trump, while a narcissistic buffoon, is nothing if not unpredictable and unable to keep his mouth shut, so poor puppet material, despite his affinity for authoritarian he-men like Putin. Also, the U.S. is a vastly more powerful country than Russia (whose GDP is roughly that of Spain). The idea that the U.S. has become a puppet of this flailing autocracy is hardly credible.

Clinton casts the U.S in the role of victim here, an outpost of good, forever standing up for its European and Asian allies, yet continually being undone by the Russians and Chinese, who just don’t play fair. Influencing, and actively disrupting, foreign governments and elections in ways both subtle and violent has been a staple of U.S. foreign policy for well over a century. Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right, but it seems this would merit at least a tiny mention if we are speaking as frankly as Mrs. Clinton suggests we are.

Clinton is silent about her own very hawkish foreign policy; most recently she was the architect of the policy to engage in regime change in Libya (“We came, we saw, he died”), a move which helped fuel the rise of ISIS. All kinds of ridiculous things have been pinned on Clinton, things that she either did not do, or for which responsibility falls on many shoulders. Libya is not one of them, that was her baby. She also voted for the Iraq war. Not sure what’s worse, that she thought it was a good idea, or did so out of political expediency. This is not nit-picking; Clinton seems to have little problem with U.S. militarism (the U.S. has bases in roughly 75 countries and troops in many more), and she mentions not once the United States’ astonishingly high defense budget, which surely is crowding out spending on the domestic programs that she champions.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a change maker for most of my life. My journey took me from student-activist to citizen-advocate to politician-policy maker. Along the way, I never stopped searching for the right balance of idealism and realism.

It’s on the issues of health care, reproductive rights, gun control, and improving the lives of children where Clinton writes most passionately. She is a veteran of battles in these areas dating to the 1970s, and rightly wears the mantle of leader. While Sanders owned the issue of income inequality, Clinton points out that he has been squishy on guns and abortion rights. Most recently, Clinton was a strong advocate for the victims in Flint, after the astonishing dereliction by Republican officials in Michigan resulted in lead-poisoned water in a poor, largely African American city.

Clinton has been accused of being too wonkish and too caught up in policy details (this seems like criticizing a heart surgeon for being overly preoccupied with cardiac anatomy). This is a problem that other smart candidates have also faced: a kind of ignorant, delusional decisiveness seems to be de rigueur among presidential aspirants. Obama skirted this barely (it couldn’t have hurt that he was following two terms of Republicans who prosecuted a disastrous war and prevailed over the worst economic collapse in 80 years). But yes, Clinton is an “A” student, and like Democratic candidates Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 learned, that is suspect. To suggest that trade, immigration, education, health care, and taxation are difficult issues that have complex solutions and many trade-offs is heresy in Trump Land. Remember “I alone can fix it!”? Of course, this was followed a few months later by, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” No, nobody knew that. Nobody at all. Zero people had such knowledge.

And you can throw truth out the window. In 2004, Kerry, a Vietnam vet, was portrayed as a ditherer who was “soft on terror,” while his dimwitted draft-evading opponent George Bush was a plain-spoken brush-clearing man-of-action ready to take on foreign bad guys big and small. Amazingly Bush, scion of an oil dynasty, and a former president’s son, was seen as a regular joe with whom you’d like to share a beer, and Kerry an arrogant, French-speaking, flip-flopper, exposed by the patriotic Swift Boaters as a fraud. Similarly, in 2000, Gore the Bore was unredeemable with his yakking about social security, the environment and other complicated policy stuff and junk. Trumpism is a three-legged stool of sexism, racism and anti-intellectualism, and Clinton, like some of her Democratic predecessors, may on occasion be too smart for the room.

I know that for a lot of people, including a lot of women, the movement for women’s equality exists largely in the past. They’re wrong about that. It’s still happening, still as vital and urgent as ever.

And it was and is the story of my life—mine and millions of other women’s. We share it. We wrote it together. We’re still writing it. And even though this sounds like bragging and bragging isn’t something women are supposed to do, I haven’t just been a participant in this revolution. I’ve helped lead it.

Clinton states that for some time she felt that she did not have Bill or Obama’s grand backstory. She was one of three children who grew up in a stable middle-class home in the Chicago suburbs. Her childhood was not one of struggle and privation like that of her husband, nor did it have the amazing arc of biracial Obama’s journey from Hawaii to Indonesia, Harvard, Chicago and the White House. She states that over time it was the women’s movement that formed her, and which she in turn helped inform.

Clinton’s book may be most valuable in its recounting of the role that gender played in the election. “Build the Wall,” was big among Trump fans, but so too was “Lock her Up!” and “Trump that Bitch!” It’s one thing to dislike Clinton, but for some she was an embodiment of evil, an almost mythical or biblical source of it. Clinton writes:

In my experience, the balancing act women in politics have to master is challenging at every level, but it gets worse the higher you rise. If we’re too tough, we’re unlikeable. If we’re too soft, we’re not cut out for the big leagues. If we work too hard, we’re neglecting our families. If we put family first, we’re not serious about the work. If we have a career but no children, there’s something wrong with us, and vice versa. If we want to compete for a higher office, we’re too ambitious. Can’t we just be happy with what we have? Can’t we leave the higher rungs on the ladder for men?

Clinton notes on many occasions the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position she was in. A woman in politics must project strength and authority, but once having done so is perceived as aloof, calculating, and ambitious (the latter term is used in a pejorative way when applied to women, but not men). She notes that she received high praise for her job performance when she was helping with Bill’s campaigns, serving as First Lady, Senator, or Secretary of State, but all of that melted away when she aspired to lead the country.

She also remarks that as men gain power they are seen as more likeable, but for women the opposite is true. Clinton writes that she was often asked why she was running, as if there was some dark motive at her core. The same question is rarely asked of male candidates. For women in politics, there is also the continual emphasis on appearance (being unattractive and attractive are both bad, as are being too stylish or a frump). And women are often attacked for their voice (grating, shrill), and demeanor (too emotional, too cold).

Sexism is nothing new for Clinton. She details how after she was admitted to Harvard Law, a professor there told her, “‘We don’t need any more women at Harvard.’” She chose Yale instead. As a lawyer in 1970s Arkansas, she was considered a curiosity, and notes that retaining her last name may have cost Bill the 1980 Arkansas gubernatorial election. She subsequently added “Clinton” to the “Rodham.”

Many people said during the election: sure, I’d vote for a woman, just not her. It’s a fair comment; after all, we say the same about male candidates (I’d vote for a man, but not him!). The problem is that because of the paucity of female candidates, particularly at the top end, it is hard to separate Clinton the candidate from Clinton the female candidate. Clinton rightly concludes that the only way to combat the very deep biases against women in politics, and leadership roles in general, is through exposure: more female candidates at all levels are needed.

Of all the influences that Clinton cites, she is most grateful to her mother, Dorothy Howell Rodham, a woman who essentially raised herself from the age of eight, and whose parents were negligent and neglectful. Amazingly, she survived her difficult childhood to become an engaged and loving mother whose support helped propel her daughter to great heights. Clinton’s passages about her mother, who died in 2011, are some of the book’s most compelling and heartfelt.

In addition to gender, Clinton cites race as a key factor in her defeat. As the dust settles on the election, there seems to be more and more evidence of this. For many people, Trump was payback for the U.S. having had a black president for two terms. Trump didn’t win in spite of his toxic stream of racist insults, he won because of the them. While there is a lot of talk about alienation and economic dislocation among the non-Coastal white working class, which Clinton is sympathetic to, in the October issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehesi Coates writes at length (“The First White President”) that antipathy toward non-Whites was the best predictor of Trump preference, not income. (Don’t forget that Trump won among white women, something that still seems incredible). If people thought that progress was being made on race relations with the election of Obama, those hopes have been doused with a very cold bucket of water with Trump’s ascendancy to the White House. From Clinton:

Unless people stay engaged and find ways to translate protests into political power, we aren’t going to stop Trump’s agenda or win future elections. To do that, we need to invest in political infrastructure: rebuilding the Democratic Party, training new candidates and staffers, improving our data and social media operations, beating back efforts to restrict voting rights, and more.

I know there are a lot of people—including a lot of Democrats—who are not eager to see me leading such an effort. They feel burned by my defeat, tired of defending me against relentless right-wing attacks, and ready for new leaders to emerge. Some of that sentiment is totally reasonable. I, too, am hungry for new leaders and ideas to reinvigorate our party. But if Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain, and Mitt Romney can find positive ways to contribute after their own election defeats, so can I.

At the very least, Clinton can contribute in her particular areas of expertise, and she has several of them. Her anti-NRA comments following the Las Vegas shooting were spot on, and reflect her long-time advocacy in this area.

This is a watershed moment in U.S. politics. We may be witnessing the end of the two-party system with the Republicans splitting into a pro-business center-right party (embodied by people like Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and so on) and a racist, nativist, populist element of Trump acolytes and tea partiers. For their part, the Democrats surging leftist faction (Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris) may separate from its more mainstream wing (Clinton, Diane Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, and most elected Democrats). Or maybe not, perhaps the dysfunctional two-party system will keep hobbling along, despite the contempt Americans feel toward their elected officials.

Where does Hillary fit into this picture? She is certainly an éminence grise in the party, and to this end has formed Onward Together, an organization devoted to supporting promising, up-and-coming progressive leaders and groups. With her motto, “Resist, insist, persist, enlist” she will not be retreating to her parlor anytime soon. As Clinton notes, she was hardly an objective observer of what happened in November 2016, and the events are still very close in the mirror. It will take some years for a full understanding to emerge, and we may never be satisfied with the answers.

Related:

Clinton Foundation Brings Together Over 40 Partners for Girl Athletes

What Happened: Clinton’s Account Reveals Our Broken Democracy

Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

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