Fittingly, Hillary Clinton tells us two contradictory things about the purpose of her confusing, tedious new tome What Happened?. First page: it’s “the story of what [she] saw, felt, and thought” during the 2016 presidential campaign. Second page: “We can’t understand what happened in 2016 without confronting… the Kremlin,… the FBI, [the] political press… and deep currents of anger and resentment flowing through our culture.” So her story is fundamentally a story of paranoia about others who are never sufficiently pliable, never sufficiently supportive, always so frustratingly unlike her loving inner circle. But what, ultimately, happened? How does Clinton answer the book’s titular question? The reply seems to track that old quote, whose original source is difficult to determine: What happened was just one damned thing after another. List upon list, name after name, event to event to event. In the book, as in the campaign, it is difficult to make any of it mean anything.
— A review of Hillary Clinton’s What Happened? —
There is something so profoundly shattering about this book, about its failure to tell us what happened — its failure to make sense of this cavalcade of experience, or even to really imagine what sense-making would look like. In one respect it is rather like a feeling I had as a child looking at the stars, realizing there was no commerce among them. Ben Franklin famously said: “If we don’t hang together, we’ll surely hang separately.” Perhaps it is that way with facts as well. They wheel into our vision, then out of it, like dimming suns probably long-dead in the light-years of light’s transit. They’re replaced by the sound of a “morning bell,” a day in which “the lights are on but nobody’s home.” In another respect the book is like a pastry that tastes like the paper on which it’s provided, or like a new lover who offers the same perspectives as the old one. Much of Hillary Clinton’s unique and phenomenally fortunate life is transcribed in these pages. It doesn’t seem to have been such a beautiful or transcendent time for her. It doesn’t seem to have added up to anything more than the sum of its parts, parts now being crushed, in her perception, by a clown, a despot, and various packs of morons.
Last winter, epistemology was everywhere: “ideological bubbles,” “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and so on. Hillary Clinton stresses “facts and reason,” but like most politicians, Clinton’s sense of truth shifts between objectivity and subjectivity whenever convenient. Of “[t]he financial crash of 2008-2009” she writes that “[i]t seemed like no one was ever held accountable.” Give you one guess why it “seemed” that way. Of the Obama administration’s accomplishments, though: “These are knowable, verifiable facts.” Over and over we seem to be told the public is easily fooled by the conspiracies and incompetencies of politicians and the media. It’s unclear whether Clinton has ever considered that she herself is part of such a system.
Sometimes in the recount she takes the role of the rube. She describes learning, in the wake of her loss, a yoga practice called “alternate nostril breathing,” which she says “allows oxygen to activate both the right side of the brain, which is the source of your creativity and imagination, and the left side, which controls reason and logic.” This requires not only believing a ridiculous popular caricature about the lateralization of brain functions, but thinking, on top of that, that usually only one side of the brain is “activated” at once. Perhaps this is true of presidential candidates.
Emotionally, What Happened? is to self-pity what Roger Federer’s Wimbledon was to tennis. Clinton writes: “as a person, I’m doing okay. [paragraph break] This book is the start of that journey.” Maybe “doing okay” is a “journey,” but if it is, that’s for Taylor Swift to explain, not Hillary Clinton. The first section (“Perseverance”) has a first chapter (“Showing Up”) where the first paragraph reads: “Deep breath. Feel the air fill my lungs. This is the right thing to do. The country needs to see that our democracy still works, no matter how painful this is. Breathe out. Scream later.” Later on we hear that “let[ting] people do things for [her]… doesn’t come easily.” Is this satire? How many staff members has she had for the past twenty-five years, writing her speeches, getting her coffee, making her reservations, driving her around, and so on? Being prescribed antidepressants “wasn’t for me. Never has been.” What a strong, nasty woman! I’ve been prescribed antidepressants myself — for clinical depression. Not for fucking up an easy election.
Hand in hand with self-pity is Clinton’s pervasive defensiveness. She “never stopped getting asked, ‘Why do you want to be President? Why? But, really — why?’ The implication was that there must be something else going on, some dark ambition and craving for power.” That’s not the implication. Clinton’s campaign famously went through eighty-four potential slogans, all complete gibberish. People asking her why she was running gave her an opportunity to ameliorate this confusion. But what she provides in the book is just a potpourri of talking points and a piece of a cover letter: “I believed that my experiences in the White House, Senate, and State Department equipped me to take on these challenges.” She did not want to be elected President. She wanted to be promoted. She’s defensive, too, in saying she “should have realized it would be bad ‘optics’” to make a ton of money giving speeches on Wall Street. An absurd use of scare quotes. It’s her job to understand optics and she has dozens of advisors. She knew the optics and did a calculation. She follows this up by saying she learns from her mistakes and Donald Trump doesn’t.
Yes: everything under the sun seems to remind Clinton of Trump, Republican obstructionism, the horrible media, Bernie Sanders, or some other bugbear. Her favorites: Russia and the Electoral College. Asides about these topics abound; they’re confusing unless you think of the book as a speech on paper. It’s like those videos of bad sitcoms with the laugh tracks removed: the unfunniness takes on an existential flavor — a sense of abyss.
Hillary Clinton, additionally, is unable or unwilling to summon any moving prose of her own, or really to flesh out her feelings in a remotely interesting way. She relies on others’ words and actions. Some of those, from young students and campaign staff, are worth reading. Others are simply the most cloying expressions of her most unhinged supporters. Peter Daou gets special mention, as does Kate McKinnon’s ridiculous Saturday Night Live performance of “Hallelujah.”
The feeling of old scores being settled is not limited to the major salvos that have created commotion online. Minor incidents where Clinton felt attacked or misrepresented just have to be rehashed in order to set the record straight. Without mentioning the accusation that it was staged, Clinton goes over the episode where she and her husband met a supporter in the woods and posed for a photo. She deploys an extraordinary level of detail to tell the story of eating guacamole with a spoon, and of what happened “when members of the press found out.” On the other hand, her September 11th collapse is described in the following way: “My head ached. You know the rest.” One gets the sense that the imagined reader both purports to hate the level of media scrutiny to which Clinton is subjected and indiscriminately consumes all Clinton-related media. What Happened? has a whole chapter for people who’ve “ever asked [them]sel[ves], ‘Does Hillary Clinton just… eat lunch, like a normal person?’” (ellipsis in original). It is excruciating.
That chapter is based on what Clinton calls the “Panda Principle,” her “favorite explanation” of the questions she gets about her day-to-day affairs. The explanation goes like this:
“Pandas just live their lives. They eat bamboo. They play with their kids. But for some reason, people love watching pandas, hoping for something — anything — to happen.”
Needless to say, anything that includes the phrase “for some reason” is not an explanation, favorite or otherwise. We should, instead, posit something like a Meta-Panda Principle: Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton-adjacent people, will never have any idea why people want the things they want. All their “explanations” will be lacking in this way. Some people will just love pandas. Some people will just be deplorable. That’s all there is to it, in the minds of those thus afflicted. Clinton mocks the media for treating her like an “extraterrestrial,” but isn’t she one? Isn’t she proudly alien? Think of her “basket of deplorables” — didn’t it strike her not just as an insult, but as a terrifyingly awkward turn of phrase?
Clinton’s distaste for voters and their silly preferences and predilections is never clearer than when talking about sexism and misogyny. She tells us that “[i]n politics, the personal narrative is vital.” Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had great narratives. What about her? Well, she had one too, but she couldn’t deliver it, because the stupid electorate wouldn’t have been receptive. Her compelling master narrative: She’s a woman. Being a woman “was and is the story of [her] life.” She calls this “not a typical political narrative,” but of course it’s something half the population can claim. How typical is that? (She later writes that as a woman, “just by being in the room, you’re making government more representative of the people.”) Is it sexist that being a woman is not compelling on its own? Seems the opposite. Her section on feminism includes a chapter on the mothers of victims of gun violence, but Clinton seems unable to acknowledge that such victims are overwhelmingly male. This is reminiscent of a famous quote of hers: “Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat.” Maybe loss, to her, is worse than death.
Especially irksome to me personally, she cites David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College graduation speech to explain the role these forces play: “Two young fish are swimming along. They meet an older fish… who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’… [O]ne looks at the other and asks, ‘What’s water?’” Sexism in politics is one of “the most obvious realities,” she’s trying to say, but is also one of “the hardest to see and talk about.” That’s odd: I remember people seeing it everywhere and talking about it constantly during the last election. In fact, it’s not at all the sort of thing that Wallace was trying to get at in his famous speech.
And yet, at the same time, one has to feel for Clinton when she asks, “What makes me such a lightning rod for fury? I’m really asking. I’m at a loss.” It’s confusing because, at least if this book is any guide, she’s so insanely boring: a droning bureaucrat at heart, and the most — well — basic ideologue. The book features passages like this:
“Then I had to hurry to the arena. We had NPR on the whole way so I didn’t miss a minute. [paragraph break] I watched backstage as Chelsea gave a perfect introduction that brought me to tears. [paragraph break]… Chelsea finished her remarks and introduced a film about my life by Shonda Rhimes. I love how Shonda makes tough, smart female characters come alive on television, and I was hoping she could do the same for me. Boy, did she deliver. Her film was funny, poignant, just perfect. When it was over, Chelsea came back on and welcomed me — ‘my mother, my hero’ — to the stage. There was a deafening roar.”
Never has being nominated as the presidential candidate of a major American political party seemed so much like being a variable in an Excel spreadsheet macro. I get more excited than that thinking about the prospect of eating lunch. Writing about Donald Trump “looming behind” her during a debate, she relays that she thought to herself, “’This is not okay.’” She has positive things to say about new feminist ideas like “mansplaining,” “intersectionality,” “revenge porn Trolls” (capitalization in original), and “emotional labor.” Discussing Black Lives Matter: “One hard truth we all have to face is that we all have implicit biases.” Here, you know what Hillary Clinton needs: a poorly-trafficked, desperately conformist blog.
So it grates when she writes of herself and her daughter as “women stepping out.” One does not “step out” into six-figure speaking fees. And one does not “step out” by recycling mainstream bromides on policy and cultural politics. Elsewhere, Clinton writes, “Listening to Trump, it almost felt like there was no such thing as truth anymore. It still feels that way.” But that’s the feeling one has reading this book, too. The viciousness of the 2008 primary is forgotten. She castigates Bernie Sanders for doing a tenth of what she did to Barack Obama back then. No mention of her convenient evolution on gay marriage and other issues. Her Iraq War AUMF vote she calls “controversial,” like something cool and new that got people talking. She repeatedly presents herself as developing policies and political stances ex nihilo in 2016, as though she didn’t have an extensive record of public statements and actions — and inactions. She presents the “challenge” of “being perceived as a defender of the status quo” as an image problem, as though she has ever run for office on anything other than “experience” and “qualification.”
Discussions of false media “balance” fail to acknowledge that mainstream journalists largely depicted Trump, explicitly, as a boorish, bigoted lunatic. Clinton writes that “[i]t was impossible [for her] to ignore Trump — the media gave him free wall-to-wall coverage. I thought it was important to call him out for his bigotry,” without realizing that that’s precisely what everyone in the media thought as well. The wall-to-wall coverage was negative. She calls herself “an unapologetic policy wonk” and chastises the media for not focusing on policy, but does not mention that her campaign’s advertisements were overwhelmingly character-based. And of course there’s no memory of the convenient edits of interviews with Clinton and her husband by CBS and CNN, or of all the lost feeds, broken microphones, and poor connections that seemed to plague networks last fall when interviewees or protesters were saying negative things about her.
Another of her statements about Trump: “When the most powerful person in our country says, ‘Don’t believe your eyes, don’t believe the experts, don’t believe the numbers, just believe me,’ that rips a big hole in a free democratic society like ours.” What about when a powerful person says “Don’t believe your eyes, do believe the experts?” Readers will remember the New Yorker‘s satirical cartoon about pilots being “out of touch” and passengers flying a plane.
It expresses a profoundly anti-democratic sentiment — one Clinton holds. When it comes to actually doing democratic exegesis — trying to figure out what voters want, casting aside the Meta-Panda Principle — Clinton’s efforts are questionable. Talking about West Virginia she develops a whole line of thinking about whether the electorate there would really be receptive to Sanders-style left-wing economic populism. It lacks any sense of the dynamic potential of new ideas, new visions.
Epistemology returns in Clinton’s extensive account of Russian interference in the election. I am not qualified to comment on any of the substance, but the subsection “The War on Truth” merits some of my attention. Clinton writes: “There has been a concerted effort to discredit mainstream sources of information, create an echo chamber to amplify fringe conspiracy theories, and undermine Americans’ grasp of objective truth.” She goes on to cite the Southern Poverty Law Center as an authority on this concerted effort. The SPLC itself has spent years now engaged in a massive reality-distortion campaign to which the Wall Street Journal has offered a good introduction. It’s funny, though, that Clinton sees the war on truth as starting here, with Russia and Breitbart and so on. Perhaps it was just a minor skirmish when she and the New York Times helped send the nation to war in Iraq. The notion that “mainstream sources of information” are not synonymous with “objective truth” and can, in fact, be an “echo chamber” with “conspiracy theories” of their own — this notion is anathema to Clinton’s worldview. In the book she uses graphs from Vox and quotes from Ezra Klein, one of her favorite and most fawning interviewers. I wonder if she knows how horribly false many Vox pieces turn out to be. (She cites as evidence of racism the statistic that 26 percent of white Republicans say that black people are less intelligent than white people. But this spring Vox published an article saying the same thing.)
Throughout the book, Clinton refers back constantly to her love for “data.” With Sheryl Sandberg she’s moved by “hearing it put that simply, with data behind it.” Concerning the power of friendship she jokes that her own “friends would say, ‘Of course Hillary has data.’” Aggregated PolitiFact judgments about the veracity of public figures’ statements? That’s “data” too. That former FBI director James Comey’s letter about her lost her the election? “You can agree or disagree with that analysis, but it’s what [Nate] Silver’s data said.” Racism lost her the election as well? “A lot of data point toward” that conclusion, and “[she] find[s] the data on all this to be compelling.” But data does not do what Clinton thinks it does. Data on men’s and women’s wages does not tell us men and women are innately different; nor does it tell us that they are socialized to be different, nor that there is discrimination going on. Theoretical models must be developed and experiments conducted to answer these questions. So it is with all data.
Data is what you get when you see people watching pandas and are satisfied with “for some reason” as an explanation. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and What Happened?, fail to move beyond the data and offer a coherent interpretation, a sense of what it means and what sort of purpose it should give us as individuals and as a society. In his new book The Once and Future Liberal, which I reviewed harshly at Quillette, Mark Lilla calls this sort of thing a “dispensation.” I still think that word mystifies the concept. We don’t need anything enormously special in a leader. All we need is someone who can say: “This is what’s been going on, with all of us, and here’s how we can come together and make it better.” To make us feel we are more than the sum of our parts, that we needn’t be fragments or cold distant stars anymore.
According to Wilfrid Sellars, “[t]he aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Remembering Ben Franklin, we can think of the aim of Hillary Clinton and her data, abstractly formulated, as understanding how things (in the narrowest possible sense of the term) hang separately. And they do, in her account, hang separately, just as they do in the America of 2017. They hang separately: just one damned thing after another.