The thing that spurred me to read Hillary Cliton’s new memoir, What Happened, was a quote. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, wrote that “people who fail do not seem to write memoirs” because readers “would not pay $26.95 for a story of failure.” People tend to prefer learning about the experiences of winners over losers. They avoid the narratives of losers “even if you convinced them that it had more useful tricks than a story of success.”
The question is: were there useful insights that could be extracted from Hillary’s failure?
What Did Hillary Actually Learn?
The answer is yes, but with a caveat: most of the lessons were already known in the political realm.
Hillary knew that she was walking a tight rope, and was a “flawed” candidate. A cloud of dust was enough to disrupt her efforts and tip her over—and there was plenty of dust thrown her way.
She initially seemed to have victory assured–at least for herself. But as genuine scandals were largely ignored, and nothing was made into scandals, things started to become a bit dangerous. By the end of the campaign, the whole thing felt like it rested on a coin toss.
Chance, as Hillary would learn, is extremely indifferent to circumstance.
Hillary’s new memoir is different from her previous ones in that this time she’s not angling for something. Mainly, she’s not trying to convince the public on why they should vote for her (Hard Choices). There’s no election to win, no voters to persuade, and no office to occupy. She’s direct and open, and comes across as genuinely searching for explanations of the events leading up to 2016.
“What makes me such a lightning rod for fury?” she asks. “I’m really asking. I’m at a loss.”
The Blame Game
Hillary mainly blames her loss on several factors. Comey’s surprises, Bernie’s relentlessness, Putin’s interference, overblown emails, WikiLeaks’ leaking, the media’s ignorance, her mistakes, Trump’s teflon coat, sexism’s role, the electoral college, and distressed voters all played a role.
The book should not be mistaken as a definitive or an official explanation of what took place in 2016. That discussion is mainly centered on the extent of Russia’s interference, the Obama administration’s limited response, the electorate’s vulnerabilities, and Trump and his associates’ role in the fiasco.
It is, however, a considerable contribution to the dialogue. What Happened will contribute well into the future to discussions of what took place between 2015 and 2016. It both defends how her campaign was run, and attacks those who acted unfavorably towards her.
The opening salvo begins with her recollection of Donald Trump’s inauguration. She remembers thinking that his 2015 campaign announcement “was another joke.”
However, the “joke, it turned out, was on us.”
A “Perfect” Plan
Hillary had everything planned out for what she do once elected. She’d even prepared her wardrobe: a white suit for her victory speech (as a nod to the suffragist movement), and a gray and purple suit for her trip to Washington. She also reveals how many hours she spent on make up. “I once calculated how many hours I spent having my hair and makeup done during the campaign. It came to about six hundred hours, or twenty-five days!”
This theme of extensive planning and preparation reflected her overall approach to campaigning—and politics. Her campaign team consisted of Silicon Valley tech nerds, political geniuses, public relations whizzes, former Obama campaign aides, informal grassroots advisors from her Arkansas days, “sleep-deprived twentysomethings,” and the first chief diversity officer ever for a campaign. “It felt like a cross between a tech start-up and a college dorm,” she says.
The analytic firepower Hillary borrowed from the Obama campaign playbook would shape much of her campaign. “I wanted to bring that spirit to the 2016 campaign, along with the best lessons of Obama’s victories.”
However, the overarching lesson she seemed to miss was that one doesn’t fight a conventional war against an insurgent. “I was running a traditional presidential campaign with carefully thought-out policies… while Trump was running a reality TV show that expertly and relentlessly stoked Americans’ anger and resentment.” The perfect campaign plan was useless if it was applied at the wrong time.
Hillary’s plan was constantly disrupted, both by predictable and unexpected forces.
For example, it was no secret, Hillary admits, that “millions and millions of people—decided they just didn’t like me.” This number included Vladimir Putin, who decided that the last person he’d prefer as the American president was her. That, and the fact that no “nonincumbent Democrat had run successfully to succeed another two-termer since Vice President Martin Van Buren won in 1836.”
She further observes that voters tend to want a “candidate to be as angry as they were, and they wanted someone to blame.” She added that anger “didn’t come naturally to me.” These elements provided some of the ingredients for the strong headwinds that would blow against her as an establishment candidate.
Headwinds certainly weren’t difficult to come by during “a resentment election.” Eventually, the conditions that initially made it appear as if she was winning the presidency turned into a “perfect storm.” She posits:
…one boneheaded mistake turned into a campaign-defining and -destroying scandal, thanks to a toxic mix of partisan opportunism, interagency turf battles, a rash FBI director, my own inability to explain the whole mess in a way people could understand, and media coverage that by its very volume told the voters this was by far the most important issue of the campaign.
She reveals the frustration she felt against actors she thought were unfair to her. “I was tempted to make voodoo dolls of certain members of the press and Congress and stick them full of pins.” She firmly asserts that the then FBI director James Comey cost her the election. She argues: “if not for the dramatic intervention of the FBI director in the final days, I believe that in spite of everything, we would have won the White House.”
On The Offensive
Hillary attacks a lot of people. First, Comey: “What the hell was Comey doing?” Then, she goes against Trump. He appealed “to the ugliest impulses of our national character.”
However, one thing that clearly bothers her–besides the myriad of excuses she provides–is the presidential system.
She writes that “women leaders around the world tend to rise higher in parliamentary systems, rather than presidential ones.” She lists things that Trump did well that might not have panned out had he run under a parliamentary system. “Presidential systems… reward different talents: speaking to large crowds, looking commanding on camera, dominating in debates, galvanizing mass movements, and in America, raising a billion dollars.”
All of these were things that she failed to do better than her opponent (except for the monetary portion). “You’ve got to give it to Trump” she writes, “it’s hard to look away from him.”
The book also reveals how she felt during the second debate against Trump, where he infamously roamed behind her.
Now we were on a small stage, and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces. It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled.
She admits that, even through she won the debates against him, “his supporters awarded him points for his hypermasculine, aggressive behavior.” For these same Trump supporters, their “distrust went too deep, and the weight of history was too heavy.” Hillary wishes she “could have found the words or emotional connection to make them believe how passionately” she wanted to help them.
The Email Question
Hillary dedicates large portions of the book re-litigating the coverage of her emails. She points out that former Secretaries of State have used private servers (again). Hillary even infers that her private server may have been more secure than the government’s (which is patently false). She writes:
A lot of people suggested that the server maintained by my husband’s office might be vulnerable to hacking. As it turned out, the State Department network and many other highly sensitive government systems, including at the White House and the Pentagon, were all hacked.
… [A]s Comey stated, there has never been any evidence that my system was ever compromised. Ironically, it turns out it may have been one of the safest possible places for my email.
The Final Verdict: A Frustrating Read
Most of the book is a mishmash of news articles. It covers Trump’s recent fiascos, or explains why things went wrong–or why Hillary was actually right. This makes the book an infuriatingly exhaustive read, but not an impressive one. Most of what she writes is widely known in the public domain.
She finishes with what looks like a failed attempt to troll her detractors who doubted her authenticity and blew up her flaws. Remembering a graduation speech at Wellesley, she recounts a student’s speech where she defended the flaws of emeralds as a metaphor for her. “Flawed emeralds are sometimes even better than flawless ones… because the flaws show authenticity and character.”
It’s impossible not to chuckle at that remark. Authenticity and character, apparently, do not win presidencies. As Hillary observes: “I may have won millions more votes, but he’s the one sitting in the Oval Office.”