Remembering but not learning

What Happened

By Hillary Rodham Clinton

Simon & Schuster, A$45, 492 pages

Somewhere, there is an explanation of just what took place in the 2016 US Presidential campaign. Not here, though – although expecting it might have been too much. For Clinton to lose the election was obviously difficult for her; to lose to Donald Trump was both devastating and mystifying.

What HappenedYes, she has a long – very long – list of reasons. The FBI probes into her email server, the Russians doing something or other, Bernie Sanders taking a lot of young voters away from her, the harsh arithmetic of the Electoral College, the … well, you get the picture. It actually gets a bit silly at some point. For example, she blames the media, somehow forgetting that most of the media endorsed her and that some journalists even covertly worked with her campaign (step forward, Glenn Thrush). It begins to sound like the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ theory that she trotted out to explain Bill’s peculiar dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. Maybe the real answer for her defeat is a simple one: she failed to campaign in swing states like Wisconsin. Apparently, the maths model said that it wasn’t necessary.

But there is more to it than that – not so much in explaining Clinton’s defeat but Trump’s victory. Clinton, as the book makes clear, campaigned as if it was a policy debate. Trump was campaigning in terms of a culture war. And he struck a deep, visceral chord with those people who felt they had been cheated by the political class. Not just cheated but treated with disdain, even hatred. To them, Hillary was not just a product of the machine, but the machine itself.

Clinton seems a bit mystified that so many people could be so unhappy. She notes that there are many poorer people, so what are you complaining about? She does say, at one point, that she under-estimated the depth of discontent but the comment comes across not as a realisation but as something that came out of a focus group. There was a revolution looking for a place to happen but, to borrow a phrase much loved by feminists, Clinton just didn’t get it.Clinton and Trump

None of this would matter much if What Happened was a decent read. Unfortunately, it just isn’t very good. It purports to be about the campaign but she constantly veers off the point to discuss her time as Secretary of State, or education policy, or how much her mother meant to her, or … something. It gives the reader the feeling of: wait, we’re talking about this thing now, are we?

What she has to say in these diversions is not uninteresting; it’s just not what the book is supposed to be about.  It is as if she can’t stop touting the curriculum vitae, can’t stop saying that she was obviously the smarter, more experienced, better candidate and therefore should have been elected. What the book needed was a strong-minded editor to keep her on track. It would have made for a more well-organised book, and maybe would have helped Clinton herself understand what did, in fact, happen.

Those who already love Clinton will like this book. Non-Clintonistas are likely to go: meh, nothing new here. In the end, Clinton seems to have remembered everything and learned nothing. The title of this book should not be What Happened but What Happened!?

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