Candor, defiance and dark humor mark Hillary Clinton’s book about ‘What Happened’

Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares to sign copies of her book “What Happened” at a book store in New York on Sept. 12, 2017.
Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares to sign copies of her book “What Happened” at a book store in New York on Sept. 12, 2017. AP

Hillary Clinton has written a book. Have you heard?

Choice quotes have been seeping out for weeks, and I’ll admit that I reacted to one of them – “Now I’m letting down my guard” – as if the smoke alarm had started shrieking in my living room. Why believe her? In her previous books, she measured her words with teaspoons and then sprayed them with disinfectant.

Then again, we’ve been told over and over that Clinton is very different in private. And she is now a private citizen.

This distinction seems to have made all the difference.

“What Happened” is not one book, but many. It is a candid and blackly funny account of her mood in the direct aftermath of losing to Donald Trump. It is a post-mortem, in which she is both coroner and corpse. It is a feminist manifesto. It is a score-settling jubilee. It is a rant against James Comey, Bernie Sanders, the media, James Comey, Vladimir Putin and James Comey. It is a primer on Russian spying. It is a thumping of Trump. (“I sometimes wonder: If you add together his time spent on golf, Twitter and cable news,” she writes, “what’s left?”)

It is worth reading. Winning the popular vote by nearly 3 million might not have been enough to shatter the country’s highest, hardest glass ceiling, but it seems to have put 2,864,974 extra cracks in Clinton’s reserve.

In the run-up to the publication of this book, Democrats have been privately expressing their dread, fearing it will be a distraction and reopen old wounds.

I wonder if, after reading it, they will feel otherwise. Are there moments when “What Happened” is wearying, canned and disingenuous, spinning events like a top? Yes. Does it offer any new hypotheses about what doomed Clinton’s campaign? No. It merely synthesizes old ones; Clinton’s diagnostics are the least interesting part of the book. Is there a full chapter devoted to her email, clearly intended to make her own closing arguments in this case? Yes. She can’t shake her inner litigator.

But this book is not just a perseverative recap of 2016. It is the story of what it was like to run for president of the United States as the female nominee of a major party, a first in U.S. history. The apotheosis of Leaning In. Doesn’t this experience rate an account from Clinton herself? Especially when, after sticking her neck out, the only place some people could envision it was in a stockade?

More generally, something truly extraordinary happened in U.S. politics last year, and Clinton was at the center of it. Fifty years from now, are historians going to complain that she had no business offering her perspective?

“I was running a traditional presidential campaign with carefully thought-out policies and painstakingly built coalitions,” she writes, “while Trump was running a reality TV show that expertly and relentlessly stoked Americans’ anger and resentment.”

The first two chapters of “What Happened” are wry and dramatic. Clinton recounts the otherworldliness of Inauguration Day – she briefly imagined herself in Bali – and the bleak weeks following the election, when she watched bad television, got in touch with her inner Marie Kondo and did lots of yoga. “If you’ve never done alternate nostril breathing,” she writes, “it’s worth a try.”

You may have heard that “What Happened” is angry. It’s true. Or defiant, anyway. Love it or loathe it, chafe at it or cheer it; you will now see, for the first time, what it looks like when Clinton doesn’t spend all of her energy suppressing her irritation. Former FBI director Comey gets it on the chin; so does the mainstream media. She’s got a special rucksack of descriptors for Trump (“hateful,” “a fraud”), whom she says is pulverizing democratic norms into a paste.

As her book’s title implies, Clinton has her own version of what happened in 2016, and she eventually forces readers to reckon with it. She seems at once the best and worst possible person to carry out this assessment. But here, at any rate, is her bottom line:

Comey’s letter of Oct. 28, 2016, which notified Congress that he was reopening his investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct State Department business, effectively ended her candidacy. (She leans heavily on various analyses done by data maestro Nate Silver to make her case.) Combine that letter with the full-saturation media coverage Comey’s investigation had been getting all along, and then add to it Russian interference – fake news stories on social media, email hacks – and you have the perfect storm.

Clinton also blames sexism, citing a 2014 Pew Research Center poll that showed just how few voters hoped to see a female president in their lifetime. She blames racism, too, which she considers inseparable from economic anxiety. She believes that voter suppression in swing states, made possible by a ruling by the Supreme Court in 2013, also made a difference. So did the ever-present animus toward her, which remains, she writes, something she doesn’t fully understand.

It’s hard to say whether readers will buy these explanations. It’s possible that a more inspired candidate would have won the Electoral College, simple as that. Or that the Clinton brand was tarnished among black voters. Or that her campaign, despite its extensive networks and deep pockets, failed to detect that something on the ground was wrong. Or that she should have appeared in more rural areas.

We’ll be arguing about these questions for decades, surely. But one thing we know for certain: History conspired against Clinton. No non-incumbent Democrat has succeeded a two-term Democratic president since 1836, and 2016 was a year when voters were pining for change.

In spite of that – in spite of everything – Clinton still won the popular vote by almost 3 million. What happened is, it wasn’t enough.

“What Happened”

By Hillary Rodham Clinton

Simon & Schuster, 494 pages