Four stars, or maybe 3.5, read in September 2017.
I haven’t actually spoken to many people about Hillary Clinton, because I try not to for my own sanity. But when I have, and when I’ve read articles and books about her, they have almost never—the “almost” might not even be necessary—been entirely reasonable. Hillary has said about herself that she is a Rorschach test, and that’s pretty clearly true; but every political issue is a Rorschach test now, and even within that landscape, the biases people have about her are unique.
I grew up having zero opinions on her. My family was conservative, but we didn’t talk politics, so it wasn’t until I was in college that I even knew what we’d been was conservative. Maybe this is why I feel like I’m one of only a few people in the entire country capable of talking about her rationally—because I came to Hillary with no biases. But now that I’ve caught up, now that I know her history and have listened to both her and her critics for myself, I do have some pretty strong feelings. They are mostly anger. It makes me angry when people are not just unable but unwilling to see past their biases. It makes me inexpressibly frustrated when people who are usually reasonable become suddenly not. And that is 95 percent of what is happening when most people talk about Hillary Rodham Clinton. They say they know about the double standard she faces, and then they go right on applying it.
I heard a lot of drama about this book before I read it, and none of it was remotely justified. She does not “blame everyone but herself”; she specifically blames herself, multiple times throughout the book, in completely unequivocal language. She also, as any other person would do in her situation, examines all the factors that went into her defeat, and that includes other people’s actions.
I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made. I take responsibility for all of them. You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want—but I was the candidate. It was my campaign. Those were my decisions. I also think about the strong headwinds we faced, including the rise of tribal politics in America and across the globe, the restlessness of a country looking for change, excessive coverage of my emails, the unprecedented late intervention by the director of the FBI, the sophisticated misinformation campaign directed from the Kremlin, and the avalanche of fake news. Those aren’t excuses—they’re things that happened, whether we like it or not [emphasis mine].
The degree to which people insist that everything was her fault is frankly insane. Completely aside from the fact that she won the popular vote—motherfucking Vladimir Putin interfered in our presidential election. If that had happened to any other person, this country, which has gleefully made Russians the villains in every action movie of the last fifty years, would be raising absolute hell. That is how strong the anti-Hillary bias is in the United States: we have literally sided with Putin against her. James Comey specifically intervened in a way the FBI never does, in a way that specifically hurt her campaign, and specifically did not choose to intervene with “similar” (or rather, actually significant) information regarding Trump. The press devoted over three times more coverage to her email “scandal” than they did to every other issue combined. And is anyone still pretending that that was a legitimate concern?
Since the election, we’ve learned that Vice President Mike Pence used private email for official business when he was Governor of Indiana, like so many other state and federal officials across our country (including, by the way, many staff in the Bush White House, who used a private RNC server for government business and then “lost” more than twenty million emails). We’ve learned that Trump’s transition team copied highly sensitive documents and removed them from a secure facility. We’ve learned that members of Trump’s White House staff used encrypted messaging apps that seem to evade federal record laws. And we know now that Trump associates are under federal investigation for far more serious things. Yet most of the fulminating critics have gone silent. It’s almost as if they never really cared about the proper maintenance of government records or the finer points of retroactive classification, and the whole thing was just a convenient political pinata [emphasis mine].
But “if it’s all my fault,” she says, “then the media doesn’t need to do any soul searching. Republicans can say Putin’s meddling had no consequences. Democrats don’t need to question their own assumptions and prescriptions. Everyone can just move on. I wish it were that easy. But it’s not.” She goes on to address the common critiques she’s received—that she neglected the Midwest, when in fact she campaigned there a lot, more than Obama did in 2012, and sent high profile surrogates like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Tim Kaine there; or that she didn’t have an economic message, when in fact that was the thing she talked about more than anything else (they looked at her speeches and counted her words) (but wait, Hillary tried to tell us her ideas and we completely ignored them then blamed her for not telling us her ideas? Shocking).
She won the popular vote by nearly three million. “It’s hard to see how that happens if I’m hopelessly out of step with the American people,” as so many people like to claim.
That’s not to say this is a perfect book (it’s not), or that she was a perfect candidate (there’s no such thing). This is the first time I’ve noticed how much more natural she is when talking about policy than about . . . well, pretty much anything else. You can hear it suddenly pick up when she switches gears, shifting from “out of touch” to competent and passionate. This is not off-putting to me, because I’m the same way. Some people aren’t natural salespeople, especially when selling themselves. She’s a politician, which means that she has to say certain things and phrase them a certain way. Talking about Trump’s inauguration, she mentioned “culturally traditional white voters unsettled by the pace of social change, black men and women who felt as if the country didn’t value their lives,” and that “he didn’t seem to see or value any of the energy and optimism I saw when I traveled around the country.” Oy.
But look—she’s not just some privileged old lady who has no idea what’s going on. That’s how everyone likes to paint her, and that’s how she keeps getting labeled the “establishment candidate”—as though it’s even possible for a strong liberal woman in her sixties to be part of the American establishment. She started out an activist, and she’s been an activist her whole life. Just her existence upends the status quo, and has done for multiple decades now. Get her talking about policy—you know, the actual responsibilities of the job she was campaigning for—and she’s as “natural” as can be. HRC knows what’s going on.
The biggest reason I shied away from embracing this narrative is that storytelling requires a receptive audience, and I’ve never felt like the American electorate was receptive to this one. I wish so badly we were a country where a candidate who said, “My story is the story of a life shaped by and devoted to the movement for women’s liberation” would be cheered, not jeered. But that’s not who we are. Not yet.
No one knows that better than she does.
In short, it’s not customary to have women lead or even to engage in the rough-and-tumble of politics. It’s not normal—not yet. So when it happens, it often doesn’t feel quite right. That may sound vague, but it’s potent. People cast their votes based on feelings like that all the time [emphasis mine]. I think this question of “rightness” is connected to another powerful but undefinable force in politics: authenticity. I’ve been asked over and over again by reporters and skeptical voters, “Who are you really?” It’s kind of a funny question when you think about it. I’m . . . Hillary. You’ve seen me in the papers and on your screens for more than twenty-five years. I’ll bet you know more about my private life than you do about some of your closest friends. You’ve read my emails, for heaven’s sake. What more do you need? What could I do to be “more real”? Dance on a table? Swear a blue streak? Break down sobbing? That’s not me. And if I had done any of those things, what would have happened? I’d have been ripped to pieces.
She explains that a lot of it has to do with our system of government, too. Women rise higher in parliamentary systems, because they’re chosen by their colleagues, people who work with them every day. “Presidential systems aren’t like that. They reward different talents: speaking to large crowds, looking commanding on camera, dominating in debates, galvanizing mass movements, and in America, raising a billion dollars.”
After the “cookies and tea” fiasco in 1992, and the way she was mocked for getting passionate about her ideals:
None of these experiences made me retreat from my beliefs. But I’ve never really been naive again. Not much surprises me anymore. Throughout the 2016 campaign, my staff would come to me wide-eyed. “You’ll never believe what Trump said today. It was vile.” I always believed it. Not just because of who Trump is but because of who we can be at our worst. We’ve seen it too many times to be surprised.
Proof, then, that she really is smarter than the rest of us. No matter how many times we’ve seen it, we’re surprised every time.
There’s been so much said and written about the economic hardships and declining life expectancy of the working-class whites who embraced Donald Trump. But why should they be more angry and resentful than the millions of blacks and Latinos who are poorer, die younger, and have to contend every day with entrenched discrimination? . . . I look at the people at Trump’s rallies, cheering for his hateful rants, and I wonder: Where’s their empathy and understanding? Why are they allowed to close their hearts to the striving immigrant father and the grieving black mother, or the LGBT teenager who’s bullied at school and thinking of suicide? Why doesn’t the press write think pieces about Trump voters trying to understand why most Americans rejected their candidate? Why is the burden of opening our hearts only on half the country?
Why indeed? Maybe it’s because our national narrative still treats white rural Americans as the only “real” ones, while everyone who lives in a city (over 60 percent of the population) or is part of a minority group (about 70 percent of the population) doesn’t count.
So here’s your summary of the book. What happened? The same thing that’s happened for the last 25 years. Hillary Clinton was the most competent person in the room, her every word was either ignored or distorted, and she tried to figure out exactly what ludicrously complicated formula she could follow to make the people who should be her supporters stop hating her for no good reason. And, just like for the past 25 years, American misogyny held her back. She was right—we would have been stronger together. But Americans don’t care about that. They don’t care about what’s practical, what’s right, or even what’s in their own best interests. They care about one thing and one thing alone: Hating the people they want to hate. If you think about it, truthfully, that’s what motivates the entirety of American politics (on our end, anyway; on the other end, it’s billionaires and their money).
Hermione Granger ran for office, and we elected Crabbe and Goyle instead. I have more notes from the book, but those are things I’ll probably keep for myself; as far as most people are concerned, clearly, what Hillary Clinton has to say is a pearls before swine situation. Sometimes she’s funny, sometimes she’s stilted and awkward, sometimes she’s overly sentimental in that patriotic way politicians do, which makes me gag. She’s also smart, a little idealistic, a lot pragmatic, and more prepared than any other person has been in the entire history of the world. You can see that here.
For everyone who just wants more reasons to mock their favorite punching bag, go ahead and skip this book; you already know what your responses will be, and nothing she says here is going to change them. For all the members of Pantsuit Nation, go ahead and read it—you also know what your responses will be, and yes, it will be as depressing and infuriating as you’re expecting. For anyone who’s capable of removing the lens of misogynistic hatred from their perspective, go ahead and read the book. Maybe if enough of us do, we can dig ourselves out of the garbage pit we leapt into, face first, while she tried to hold us back.