Posts Tagged ‘Hillary Clinton’

Book Review: What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

November 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Hello, all!

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’m a creature of politics. I don’t often write about it here on this blog, but when I do I try to explore subjects deeply. Some of you may know that I ran for State Representative in Michigan in 2014, and in 2016. I kept another website for the 2014 campaign, and if you’re interested at looking at some of the things I talked about you can find it here. One of the things I’m proudest of during my first run was taking a stand for LGBTQ rights, which you can read about in this piece, entitled “Read This Mich. Democrat’s Epic Response to Antigay Group’s ‘Pile of Excrement’” by Advocate.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that I would pick up Hillary Clinton’s new book about the 2016 election, perhaps too obviously titled What Happened. I’ve never read a post-election book written by a presidential candidate before, and I typically stray away from political books in general (unless it’s an academic, scholarly work). Still, given the events of the election I felt that this was a time that I could expand my horizons, if only just once. Before we get into the review, I want to plug her new project, Onward Together, an organization created to promote progressive values.

Every day that I was a candidate for President, I knew that millions of people were counting on me, and I couldn’t bear the idea of letting them down. But I did. I couldn’t get the job done, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.

What Happened tells the tale, from the perspective of Hillary Clinton, of the 2016 presidential election. A good deal of the book focuses on the Democratic Primary, which, as anyone who pays attention to politics can tell you, was especially acrimonious. However, the book is quintessentially a feminist book under all of the focus on recent history. Indeed, Clinton spends a great deal of time talking about women’s issues and how they impacted her life and political career.

To say that What Happened is biased misses the point. Of course it’s biased, but the book acknowledges that. I think the level of enjoyment you’re likely to derive from this book is how much credibility and trustworthiness you’re willing to lend Clinton. I voted for her in the general election, and I supported her for much of the primary (I voted for Bernie, but started out supporting Clinton). I’m probably willing to give her a little more credibility than a good deal of people, and I think that this comes from my own experience in politics.

The book is split into sections, with titles like “Perseverance,” which are, in turn, split into smaller chapters. These sections are thematic, and give the book a sense of order and purpose. I appreciated this because it helped to order the events as I remembered and experienced them, and orientated them toward themes about politics, the election, feminism, and policy that Clinton explores in the book.

It’s a long book, clocking in at 492 pages (including the index), so it requires a good investment of time. However, if you’re as interested in politics, history, and policy as I am, the pages seem to turn themselves. Whether or not you agree or disagree with Clinton’s perspective–or even if you don’t like her, personally–the book is still a good resource for those of us who are interested in learning more about the way the 2016 presidential election unfolded.

I wear my composure like a suit of armor, for better or worse. In some ways, it felt like I had been training for this latest feat of self-control for decades.

What really works in the book is Clinton’s voice. I’m very aware that she didn’t write the book without help from two other people, but somehow her voice comes out clearly in the pages. Her voice is intelligent, stately, and sure (except for the times it isn’t, and you can empathize with that). The result is that it creates a narrative that doesn’t let you go very easily. I found the book extremely easy to read, and it certainly held my interest. One of the greatest criticisms you hear lobbed at her is that she is robotic and closed off, but the voice she lends here is extremely personal.

Clinton opens herself up to criticism in this book, and she shows us a vulnerable, insecure side under the calm and collected veneer she presents for the camera. Her riff on what it was like to be with Donald Trump on the debate stage is testament to her self-control, and if you read it with an open mind I think you get a sense of the strength of character it would take to step on the same stage with him. As the above quote notes, and as she spent many pages illustrating, being a woman in politics, especially in national politics, is difficult. Clinton claims, and I agree, that she had to maintain composure and restrain herself, whereas her male counterparts could express anger and raise their voices.

Early in the book she writes about the daily ritual on the campaign trail, including how she relied on people for makeup and hairdressing. There’s definitely a note of resentment in her voice when she notes how it’s easier for men. In fact, on page 88 she says, “The few times I’ve gone out in public without makeup, it’s made the news.” I can’t even imagine operating in politics and having to put so much energy into my appearance. I was the kind of person who would throw on a shirt and some blue jeans and I could get away with that.

I could even get away with looking angry and not shaving. Five o’clock shadow may have doomed Nixon in the 1960 election, but it was all the rage in 2014.

In politics, the personal narrative is vital.

I think, perhaps, one of the most gut-wrenching things that I read in the book is when she writes, on page 117, that part of the reason she went to Yale was because a Harvard professor said to her, “We don’t need anymore more women at Harvard.” This came after a paragraph of explaining how men approached her when she was one of two women taking the law school admissions test. The men essentially behaved as if Clinton and her friend were stealing their places, and not earning their own.

Later, on page 118, she writes, “I was used to a narrow set of expectations,” noting how sad she is that women are judged by their appearance. Especially relevant is how women will only have attention paid to them if they look a certain way, otherwise they’ll be dismissed. She then says, “…one of the reasons he lost the Governor’s race in 1980 was because I still went by my maiden name…When he lost, and I heard over and over that my name–my name!–had played a part, I was heartsick that I might have inadvertently hurt my husband and let down his team.” I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the kind of mindset that would cause people to not vote for a candidate because his wife did not share his last name. This way of thinking seems foreign to me, but it also betrays another ignorance of mine: the fact is that people blamed Hillary for Bill’s loss. It was her responsibility, and her blame to take.

There’s definitely a current of feminist fury running through the book, and it is well-justified given the ground we’ve already covered. Clinton had a lot of barriers to break in her life and in politics, and she has, despite her detractors, made truly historical accomplishments. In a lot of ways, What Happened is a feminist manifesto, and this shines through in Clinton’s voice throughout the text. On page 143 she makes sure to note that, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Princess Leia gets a promotion to general. And she’s right: general is seen as a promotion–a higher rank than merely princess–and denotes merit rather than inheritance.

A few pages later, on 147, she writes that someone at NASA wrote to her, in response to a letter testifying to her desire to be an astronaut, “Sorry, little girl, we don’t accept women into the space program.” She then writes, “The fact that I was female was secondary; sometimes it practically slipped my mind. Other women may have had different experiences, but that’s how it was for me.” Gender was not front and center in her life unless someone put it there. When she got that letter from NASA, or her experiences noted above, or when she gets news coverage for not wearing makeup. There’s an extremely powerful story in her life, and she tells it without flinching.

And show tunes are the best soundtrack for tough times. You think you’re sad? Let’s hear what Fantine from Les Miserables has to say about that.

Absolutely one of my favorite aspects of this book is Clinton’s voice. It’s an incredibly personal account, written from a first-person perspective, as if she’s having a conversation with you. It’s easy to connect to her, especially if you share the emotions which come breaking through the pages. She’s constantly making references to pop-culture, to TV shows like Game of Thrones, and shares opinions on all of them.

She’s also fantastically snarky. She makes sure to poke Russian President Vladamir Putin in the eye, and one of my favorite lines in the book was, “Good ‘get’ for the Times; they really ate CNN’s lunch on that one” (pg. 60) in reference to an analysis of her lunch at Chipotle  conducted by The New York Times. As Clinton says a few sentences later, “…sometimes a burrito bowl is just a burrito bowl.”

The FBI wasn’t the Federal Bureau of Ifs or Innuendos.

The book delves fairly deeply into the controversy surrounding her use of emails. The above quote is from a long section related to the press coverage of the emails, the way that congress investigated them, and especially James Comey’s conduct in the investigation, his much-castigated press conference admonishing Clinton, and his general mishandling of the entire affair. She lays out her case using quotes from respectable and credible sources with a rather complete timeline, and she shows how biased The New York Times was in its reporting. She gives stats and data about the slant of the news coverage about her emails compared to other campaign issues, and shows how all of that dominated the narrative of the campaign.

Of course, I’m already primed to agree with her about the way the political press handles politics and policy reporting. I didn’t have any negative experiences personally when I ran for office, but I’ve long seen how the 24/7 news coverage demands creating narratives about scandal to get those sweet, sweet clicks and views. Policy and facts are rarely covered, while sensationalist pap is unrelentingly broadcast at all hours. Experts have been swapped out for pundits and talking heads who are, in my judgment, wrong 90% of the time and right merely by accident in their critiques and predictions. Truly our newsmedia is failing us.

I’m coming around to the idea that what we need more than anything at this moment in America is what you might call ‘radical empathy.

The book did leave me uneasy specifically in one regard. Throughout the text Clinton talks about how her faith and spirituality play an important role in her life and the actions she takes. I respect that, of course, just as I hope she would respect my lack of faith and spirituality as an atheist and secular humanist. However, she says that faith and spirituality play a big part in civic virtue. My problem with this is not in the inclusion of faith and spirituality in the conversation or as an aspect of civic virtue for some people. What worries me is that this feels exclusionary. I’m left to ask if my values fit in with this conception of civic virtue, and I honestly don’t know the answer to that. In the past I’ve been in conversations with people who have said that “the Democratic Party cannot be the party of atheists.”

It seems unnecessarily exclusionary to me, and I react with dismay at these kinds of sentiments. I understand that faith and spirituality play a huge role in many people’s lives. I don’t have an inherent problem with that, and I want to include them in the party and the process of government. But they’re not the only components of civic virtue, and I would argue that they’re not even intrinsic in a general sense. I really don’t want to litigate this issue anymore, but if I’m to be told that the Democratic Party doesn’t have a spot for me because I’m an atheist then I’m left to wonder why I should support that party.

But I’m not cynical enough, yet, to think that it was meant to be exclusionary. A lot of the book is dedicated to the proposition that what’s needed in politics is less anger and resentment, but more empathy and conversation. I know how hard this will be to achieve, and for me personally it might be a lot to ask for me to empathize with people who are fundamentally opposed to my values or even my basic existence as a biracial person. However, I’m willing to try because I think empathy should be our rallying cry as we push back on the politics of division and anger. As Present Barack Obama often said, “I am my brother’s keeper.”

Things are going to be hard for a long time. But we’re going to be okay. All of us.

Despite how badly the election turned out, the book does end on a hopeful note. She quotes from Tala Nashawati, the student speaker at Wellesley’s 2017 graduation ceremony, “You are rare and unique. Let yourself be flawed. Go proudly and confidently into the world with your blinding hes to show everyone who’s boss and break every glass ceiling that still remains” (pg. 464). She juxtaposes this against the hopelessness and despair a lot of people felt after Donald Trump was declared the President-Elect, and it’s effective. Don’t give in to the bad impulses or despair.

Keep fighting. Keep pushing forward. Things change, and they eventually get better. The fact that we can go from NASA telling Hillary Clinton that they don’t accept women as astronauts to her winning the popular vote by three million votes is testament to that.

In the final analysis, I found What Happened to be a good read. I give it a rating of 5 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in politics, policy, and current events.

Thank you for reading!