So someone has ghost-written another Hillary Clinton memoir. My biggest question when I picked it up was: Did Hillary stiff the writer out of the final payment as she did Barbara Feinman, the real author of It Takes a Village?
You don’t have to read any further than the cover of the book to answer the question posed by its title: What Happened: Hillary Clinton. Glutton for punishment, I took a masochistic dive into its dark pages anyway.
It soon became apparent that Hillary shouldn’t have treated Feinman so churlishly. What Happened would have greatly benefited from her stylistic enhancements. The prose in this book is as brittle as the mind behind it. Notice the lack of a question mark in the title. This is a telling punctuational elision. It signals that this text will not be an investigation into the dynamics behind the most perplexing election in American history. Don’t skim these pages in search of a self-lacerating confession or an apologia. What Happened reads more like a drive-by shooting rampage. The book is a score-settling scattershot rant, enfilading anyone who stood in Clinton’s way, from Bernie Sanders to James Comey. Amid Hillary’s hitlist of villains, even toothless Joe Biden gets gut-shot.
There are, naturally, two ways of interpreting the results of the 2016 elections pitting the two most unappetizing candidates in American history against each: either Trump found some way to defeat Hillary or, more probably, Hillary managed to lose to Trump. But Hillary’s psyche can’t swallow either scenario. So, she endeavors to create a mystery where there is none. The outcome was so inexplicable, she reasons, that there must be some hidden mechanism at work: Russian hacking, press bias, left betrayal, FBI sabotage. Clinton summons a lineup of the possible suspects: Bernie Sanders, Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange, Jill Stein, the New York Times, CNN, and Jim Comey. Alas, Hillary and her ghost-writer are not John LeCarré. She can’t spin a coherent and plausible cyber-spy yarn, in part because Clinton keeps getting sidetracked by a compulsion to wash her own hands of any culpability in blowing the election.
The closest Hillary comes to any admission of personal liability is when she discloses that she may have blundered when she smeared Trump’s supporters as “deplorables.” Then she suddenly pulls back, recalibrates and defends her denunciation of white working class voters as an act of courage, speaking truth to the powerless, even though it may have harmed her. “I regret handing Trump a political gift with my ‘deplorables’ comment,” she writes. “[But] too many of Trump’s core supporters do hold views that I find — there’s no other word for it — deplorable.” What started as a confession ended in a boast.
Of course, Hillary Clinton has never been able to conceal her contempt for her enemies, real and imagined. It’s one reason she’s never been a successful politician. Where others are supple, she is taut. Unlike Bill, Hillary is a prolific, but graceless and transparent liar. She is also probably the nastiest political figure in America since Nixon. Yet she lacked Nixon’s Machiavellian genius for political manipulation. Hillary wears her menace on her face. She could never hide her aspiration for power; her desire to become a war criminal in the ranks of her mentor Henry Kissinger (symbolized by the laurels of a Nobel Peace Prize, naturally). Americans don’t mind politicians with a lust to spill blood, but they prefer them not to advertise it.
Thus, Clinton was miscast from the beginning as a political candidate for elected office. Her skills and temperament were more suited to the role of political enforcer in the mode of Thomas Cromwell or John Erhlichman. But her ambition wouldn’t let her settle for the role of a backstage player. “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,” she fumes with Nixonian fury, “but how hard it is for them to look me in the eye and say it to my face.”
Hillary has tried to reinvent herself many times and does so yet again in this meretricious coda to her failed campaign. She made herself more domesticated for the southern electorate in Arkansas. She shifted the blame to her advisors after the disaster of her health care bill. She washed off the blood-spatter from the Ken Starr investigations by portraying herself as the target of a witch hunt. She exploited an addled Daniel Patrick Moynihan to justify running as an interloper for Senator in New York. She rationalized her votes for the Iraq War by saying she was duped by Colin Powell and Dick Cheney. She manufactured a timely tear for the cameras after her loss to Obama. She assumed the mantle of unrepentant war-monger during her belligerent tenure as Secretary of State and transubstantiated into a white dove during her debates with Bernie Sanders.
She has weeded and blurred inconvenient episodes from her resumé. She has gone on talking tours. She has appeared in town halls. She has reintroduced herself, again and again. She’s changed her name, hairstyles and fashion designers. She exchanged dresses for pantsuits. She shifted from drinking pinot noir to craft beers. She’s backed wars both before she opposed them and after she condemned them. But she remains the same Hillary Rodham Clinton Americans have known since 1992. Everybody sees this except her. Americans know Hillary better than she does herself. All of her manufactured mirages are translucent to the very the people she wants to deceive. When Hillary looks in the mirror, she must see what might have been (should have been in her mind) and not what is. And that schism enrages her.
“Why am I seen as such a divisive figure and, say, Joe Biden and John Kerry aren’t?” she mopes. “They’ve cast votes of all kinds, including some they regret, just like me? What makes me such a lightning rod for fury? I’m really asking. I’m at a loss.”
This self-pitying book should prove a challenge for library cataloguers. Shall they shelve it as non-fiction or fiction? What do we make of a woman who lies so casually about matters great and petty, including the origins of her own name? For years, Hillary has insisted that her mother named her after Edmund Hillary. HRC was born in 1947. The New Zealand mountaineer and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest six years later in 1953.
Hillary rarely offers anything remotely revealing about herself, other than plastic platitudes and self-flattering fables. But what seeps through this memoir page after page is an animus that seethes beneath her very thin-skin against anyone she believes has slighted her. Brooding on her fate, she writes mordantly: “It wasn’t healthy or productive to dwell on the ways I felt I’d been shivved.” Yet that’s precisely what she does, incessantly. [Note the deployment of the prison slang “shivved,” with its faint whiff of black criminality. The cunning use of racist tropes is a familiar trick in the Clinton playbook. It implies that she has been stabbed in the back by a friend or someone she thought she owned.]
Hillary’s politics never really matured much beyond the inbred conservativism that drew her to Barry Goldwater in the mid-60s. She’s a moral prude, a hawk, and an unrepentant capitalist, who is deeply suspicious of black people. Eventually, the Democratic Party devolved toward her austere political views, abetted by her husband, Al Gore and the other neoliberal “New Democrats.”
What she had, the ace of up her sleeve, was her feminism. But it was a unique brand of feminism. Call it power feminism, which asserted individual ambition rather than a militant political agenda. She also weaponized the feminism of victimhood. At one point in What Happened, she compares herself to Cersei Lannister in “Game of Thrones.” Not Cersei the torturer, assassin and war-monger, mind you, where the parallels might have been germane. But Cersei the victim of male power, who was forced to walk naked through the streets of Kings Landing while being jeered and pelted with garbage and feces by the townsfolk in a ritual of public shaming. Hillary charges that her chance to rule was undone by a nation of misogynists, who thrilled at her torments. “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. But that’s not who we are.”
As for the 53 percent of white women who voted against her, they too are portrayed as victims. We are led to believe that these women weren’t acting on their own agency in the voting booth. Rather they were captives, little more than automatons controlled by their husbands, fathers, bosses and preachers.
Throughout her career, HRC regularly scolded poor black and Hispanic families about taking “personal responsibility” for their dire circumstances. Indeed, Clinton cast welfare reform as the penance the poor must pay for not getting their shit together. But personal responsibility is a quality that Hillary never adopts for her own failures and screw-ups, including grave ones such as the invasion of Libya or sliming black teens as “super predators” in her lobbying blitz to enact her husband’s vicious Crime Bill. She can’t forgive Bernie Sanders for having the temerity to challenge her pre-ordained coronation and shining a spotlight on the more ignoble chapters of her political career.
“Bernie routinely portrayed me as a corrupt corporatist who couldn’t be trusted…Bernie was outraged about everything. He thundered on at every event about the sins of the ‘millionaires and billionaires,’” she raves. “I was more focused on offering practical solutions that would address real problems and make life better for people.” She then cynically blames Sanders for her losses in Ohio and Pennsylvania with apparently no assist from Putin: “What did matter, and had a lasting impact, was that Bernie’s presence in the race meant that I had less space and credibility to run the kind of progressive campaign that had helped me win Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2008.” Tell Putin the news, Bernie.
Hillary Clinton has been obsessed with power her entire adult life. Now it has finally slipped from her hands, and, like some deposed monarch or disgraced CEO, she can only see a conspiracy behind her downfall. Of course, the Clintons have always been professional paranoids. Every roadbump in their political careers has been covertly placed in their path by some shadowy, malign force. In What Happened the “vast right-wing conspiracy” Hillary inveighed against in the 1990s has morphed into a vast “left-right conspiracy of men,” who, in her portentous words, “want to blow up the system and undermine it and all the rest of the stuff they talk about.” The system, of course, is a stand-in for herself. Her defeat at the hands of a ruthless and scheming patriarchy, we are encouraged to believe, is a trembling testament to American political decline. This egotistical gibberish comes from the woman who seemed eager to bring the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust over Syria and Ukraine.
What Happened is a sordid book, petulant and spiteful. It made me feel queasy and dirty while reading it, like the whole 25-year-long experience of Clintonism itself. By the end, I got the sense that its sleazy torrent of invective and blame-mongering was more an attempt to console the frail psyche of the author rather than to repair her shattered image to any readership the book might find. In the years to come, What Happened will prove much more valuable as documentary evidence for psycho-historians than political scientists.