When I heard that Hillary Clinton was releasing a book, and that it was about the aftermath of losing the election, I was sceptical about how much insight into her true feelings we would get. After her shocking loss to Donald Trump in the US presidential election in 2016, she seemed to disappear from the public eye, despite her gaining the popular vote. This to me was unsurprising, as the previous two years in the run up to the election were, as she describes, the “most intense years I’ve ever experienced”.
Hillary had a long and successful political career and that led her to the 2016 presidential candidacy and an election many believed she would win without difficulty. Her loss caused many people to be disappointed, and I, along with many others, wondered if she would ever return to the powerful and dynamic woman she was.
“What Happened” is notably frank; she doesn’t hold back on the bitterness and anger she feels towards Trump, the Republican party, and most importantly, herself. Her story is told through the perceptive and sharp persona that Hillary perfected during the presidential debates. She repeatedly triumphed over an under-prepared Trump. The fire that carried her through the rallies and build up to the election is still there, but is somewhat dampened by the sexism and scandal she had to battle in the aftermath following November 8th, 2016.
Hillary is no stranger to speaking to the public; her time at Wellesley and Yale, as the First Lady and as Secretary of State all navigated her into being a qualified and capable presidential candidate. She speaks with the gravitas and care that is expected of a politician with such a long spanning career. In “What Happened”, She is just as quick-witted and composed, and engages the reader to think she is talking to just you, face to face over a cup of coffee. She feels guilt and anger at herself for the loss of the election. The blame for this is thrown around to others just as much. Hillary seems enraged at Bernie Sanders, her rival for the democratic candidacy. She creates the idea that she couldn’t have imagined that Sanders would fight so hard for the presidency, as if she were the only candidate that was fit for the job and thinks the reason she lost is due to her rivals.
I can see why her irritation is there; she has nearly four decades in public service in some capacity, and her whole life had been leading up to this moment. She had in some respects a right to believe that she would win, opinion polls going into the final days of the election gave her a 70% chance of victory and Trump was clouded by controversial tweets and speeches. How would any of us feel if our whole life’s work, something that we’d put a great deal of passion and energy into, fell short at the last hurdle? The perfect red white and blue picket fence smile she’s been holding in place sometimes needs to fall into a grimace.
The book opens to Hillary standing on the steps of the Capitol at Trump’s inauguration, and you feel how raw her emotions were on that day. She recalls telling herself to “breathe out, scream later”. After winning 65,844,610 votes, which is more than any other presidential candidate, excluding Barack Obama. The devastation she felt is clear in her writing. It’s carefully structured but the grief is present in every single word. She speaks of how much she relied on her husband Bill though the immediate days and in the slow painful months following the loss. It is interesting to see her talk of her marriage throughout the book and of her daughter Chelsea. In the past, she has kept her personal life extremely private, especially after the so-called Lewinsky scandal.
This vulnerability brands the post 2016 Hillary Clinton. She is more open about her roles as a mother and wife as a political figure and wears this as a badge of honour. The reliance and love she has for her family who carried her though the toughest time of not only her career, but her life, gives her humility, and helps her to break down barriers that her privileged life had built between her and the public. She admits to “inventing a new past time: imagining the past electoral losses” and seems to try to mask her own failure in amongst previous candidates defeats instead of outright admitting her true fault. She was not as in touch with the people as she thought she was. This relatable and empathetic approach unfortunately, seems too little too late.
Predictably, Trump plays a key part in her retelling of the election. She calls Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia “worse than Watergate” and explains how she thinks that future generations deserve better than “the toxic masculinity Trump embodies.” She clearly expresses her dislike for him in the book. He is truly an amalgamation of all the things she has fought through her career, the inequality running through his policies, the disregard for the conduct expected by politicians and the outright misogyny and sexism she faced just being a woman in Washington. There was no real shock that Donald Trump was going to be mentioned by Hillary after the election, but the way she speaks of him now is especially cutting. The gloves are off and she doesn’t have to hold back. She doesn’t have to worry about voters and opinion polls. I wish she was this brutal and accepting of her feminist role during the debates, because I believe this is what caused distance between her and some potential voters.
I think one interesting and surprising section to the book was her whole chapter dedicated to “those damn emails”. The email scandal was something that completely overshadowed the whole election, and could be argued as what ultimately lost her the presidency and the trust of many American people. The chapter is packed with quotes which range from the FBI Director Jim Comey, Barack Obama and Colin Powell, who also used a personal email account during his time as Secretary of State. You finish this chapter feeling as if you have been bombarded, it feels over practiced and forced, as if she has been planning her answer to the controversy since deciding to write this book. In some respects, this is justified. The emails were perfect weapons for the Republican campaign’s plan to be damaging, defamatory and the perfect way to deflect the constant controversy Trump created for himself. The uphill battle she faced as a woman in a male dominated profession meant that she was constantly having to justify herself and her actions, and this feels like her having to still prove to the world and her political rivals that she is capable and more than just a scandal that had been amplified for political gain.
I have been a supporter of Hillary Clinton ever since I become interested in politics. Personally, I believe her actions have helped many Americans and people around the world, and helped shaped me into the woman I am today. Saying this, I do recognise the faults she has as a politician and as a feminist. No one is perfect, of course and being in the public eye as much as she has does creates complications.
“What Happened” is not the tell all account many may have thought it would be, but it is a door, admittedly a slightly opened one, into the life of one of the most high-profile women in politics. She writes in part with affection and thought, and switches to urgency and wariness to the reader. Intimacy and connection between herself and the people who will read “What Happened” is very obviously something she isn’t sure how to establish in this degree, but just the fact that she has attempted to do this in such a personal way is something I respect and commend her for.
**** 4/5 Stars