What Happened (to) Hillary Clinton, bottom line:
The U.S. Presidential elections of 2016 were messy, dirty even. So what happened to Hillary Clinton?
What Happened explains the elections. It elaborates on Hillary’s mindset throughout the campaign (and after), and it tells her side of the drama.
This book is quite an interesting read overall. Worth reading if you want to know how what happened to Hillary (easy, I know) and if you want to know how politicians think. The book would also be worth reading if you want to learn more about American politics in general. Especially if you are not American, actually!
I must say that selective-reading helped me get through the book, which I found too long. There’s a lot of food for thought in there, however. Read my review to find out more!
Book review: What Happened – Hillary Rodham Clinton.
What Happened is a big book written to tell the world about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s perception of the U.S. presidential election of 2016. The book is accessible, easy to read and instructive on various counts. I found it particularly relevant to those who want Hillary Clinton’s views on what happened (quite obviously). It is even more relevant to those interested in understanding a little more about American politics.
I first saw Hillary Clinton’s What Happened book in my bookshop and didn’t give it much attention. I shrugged and thought… well, no surprise here, they all end up publishing books anyway, right? Besides, the book was big (500+ pages)… I just wasn’t up for it.
Later on, I talked about it with a friend. He said he wouldn’t buy the book, but he was curious to know what Clinton had to say. Of course, he suggested that I read the book, that I wrote a review that he would read for sure. So I gave it some thoughts.
After all,… Hillary Rodham Clinton was the candidate of the Democrat party for the Presidential elections of 2016 in the United States. Her political career and commitment started during her twenties. She then worked as a lawyer, became the First Lady from 1993 to 2001 before becoming a Senator for the State of New York until 2009. After losing a primary campaign against Barrack Obama, Clinton joined the Obama administration as the Secretary of State…
Chances are that she has things to say, I thought. After a quick look, opinions on the internet are quite diverse, which sounds promising… Ok, Why not.
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author's main topics explained in detail.
- The book's main themes, questions and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
A brief book review, for starters…
My opinion is that What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton is an interesting book relevant to those interested in United States politics. Especially if they are not American, actually.
Again, the book is quite a piece to read because it is big. However, an important part of it (40% on a Kindle reader) is made of acknowledgments and index elements, so do not let the numbers scare you.
The book discusses …
… the backstage of the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections from Hillary Clinton’s perspective (obviously). It touches upon a very large number of topics including her own analysis of the campaign, her feelings, her opinions on Donald Trump (whom she calls “Trump” throughout the book). the book also explores the email scandal, the Russians and their efforts to influence elections. Not to mention the press’ inability to avoid manipulation and to focus on what really mattered…
Hillary Clinton also talks about her strong belief that U.S. democracy must be preserved. She insists that the American people need to be represented and encouraged. She talks about politics, perseverance, grit, idealism and frustration but ends, without a surprise, with the idea that the American people need to “keep going”.
The style …
… is very approachable. The book could have been written in a complex style and could have discussed politics with a very political touch. Instead, it is written simply, to talk to the reader very directly. ‘What Happened’ is meant to explain what Hillary Clinton “saw, felt and thought “during two of the most intense years [she] ever experienced”.
About the Author?
Well, as just mentioned, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the candidate of the Democrat party for the Presidential elections of 2016 in the United States. Her political career and commitment started during her twenties, she then worked as a lawyer, became the First Lady from 1993 to 2001 before becoming a Senator for the State of New York until 2009. After losing a primary campaign against Barrack Obama, Hillary Clinton joined the Obama administration as the Secretary of State.
Now, I’m getting into the details with a much more comprehensive book review below (keep reading!), but to finish the brief overview here is what the book is about:
Next… A more comprehensive book review.
What Happened is divided into six main parts which deal with multiple topics. Perseverance, competition, sisterhood (and motherhood). Idealism and realism, frustration and resilience – the keep going part.
What Happened… in bullet points
Hillary Clinton explores these major themes:
- What happened during the Presidential elections of 2016.
- The hidden part of American politics.
- Being a woman in politics.
- Political idealism.
- The Clinton / Trump rivalry and the Russian Plot.
- The fundamental importance of preserving representation.
What Happened asks a series of questions throughout:
- What happened? (of course)
- How to deal with loss and failure as a politician?
- What type of President will D. Trump be?
- Why did H.C run for President in the first place?
- What do years of political commitment teach you?
- How would Clinton’s typical day look like?
- What is the difficulty of being a woman in politics?
- Is there any advantage in being a woman in politics?
- Should we be idealists or realists?
- What is the difference between activism and policy-making?
- Why is it difficult to communicate with the people?
- What are the differences between Democrat and Republican policies?
- What was the impact of the “emails scandal” on the campaign?
- So, what happened with the Russians?
- What are her biggest sources of frustration?
- Where is Hillary Clinton going from now? Will she run again?
Now, let’s dig into the big themes, shall we?
What Happened – Theme #1: Perseverance
The first theme in What Happened is perseverance. Understand: the difficulty of facing the reality and the complexity of dealing with loss.
Hillary Clinton starts the book with a very practical situation: going or not going to Donald Trump’s inaugural speech after losing the election.
She describes the waiting, the feeling of it. Putting herself in the shoes of previous nominees, she thinks about what losing means. With transparency, she also tells how her close advisors suggested her not to go… and insists on how some people resented the man’s lack of legitimacy…
The chapter is, of course, an occasion to talk about Donald Trump, who clearly is a large theme in the book. While there is not a specific chapter on him, he is described as “a clear and present danger to the country and the world”. Clinton calls him a “liar” when thinking about his words against Barrack Obama during the campaign. She explains how she thought his candidacy would be a joke, how “it was hard to take him seriously”. But she also wonders how he overall managed to gain any credibility against ”talented Republican candidates, not with brilliant ideas or powerful argument but with ugly attacks”.
Most importantly, Clinton also talks about the importance of preserving the peaceful transfer of power.
What happened? A different America?
Hillary Clinton does not recognize the America depicted by Trump. She insists on his ability to play with facts as he deems fit and describes the habit as a “feature of authoritarianism”.
She also describes ugly Congress politics and talks about her pride and refusal to give up in light of the silent and peaceful Women’s March which, soon enough, started resistance and perseverance towards democracy.
How to deal with loss and disappointment is another topic in the “perseverance” theme and chapter. Here, Hillary Clinton goes through her feelings after the defeat, talks about a duty to hug and smile, to “wear composure like a suit of armor” despite feeling depleted and being incapable to understand.
To her, perseverance is about not giving up after failure, about going back to the people to get back on tracks and reconnect. In this regard, gratitude is another important word here because the powerlessness and devastation feelings emanating from the people became another reason to persevere.
Here, Hillary Clinton appears as a human more than as a politician. She talks about mac and cheese, gives some advice about yoga, talks about how designing her home helped move on, talks about Broadway shows and TV shows such as The Good Wife and NCIS Los Angeles (Bill’s favorite).
What Happened – theme #2: Competition.
The next theme is called ‘Competition’ but Hillary mainly talks about her need to do something, and about how she got into the Presidential race.
She first writes about why she decided to run as for President of the United States, talks about challenges faced by the Americans, such as inequalities, the lack of growth, the fear of globalization and terrorism, the fear of change more generally.
People got suspicious, however. She felt the “Clinton fatigue”, the issue of her gender too, but also found comfort in contributing to the work of the Clinton Foundation and of the Clinton Global Initiative. She also legitimizes her candidacy with years of foreign policy work at the Department of State and regrets that for many people she would still not be “tough enough on national security” and would rather opt for no guns and gay marriage Democrat priorities.
What decided her, she says, was “a chance to do the most good [she] would even be able to do” and the belief that she was “the best-qualified candidate, had good ideas about the future on and demonstrated a capacity to get things done with both Republicans and Democrats” during her years in politics.
The importance of trying
All in all, what mattered to her was not to win or lose but “to get caught trying”. So, Hillary Clinton describes her approach to starting and trying. Meeting people more than giving speeches. Reconnecting, talking with families about their daily issues. Building a team of trusted advisers as well as an “organization that could go the distance” whilst working with a largely adversarial press.
Clinton describes her belief in the “strong together” message. She discusses the issue of what to say and of how to say it. Not to forget the difficulty of being seen as a “revolutionary figure” considering how long she had been around on the political scene.
This part of the book ends with a description of her typical day that I didn’t really enjoy. Waking at 6 AM, daily contemplation, scrambled egg whites with vegetables, yoga and make-up or the presence of Secret Service officers in her daily routine. She then moves on the events, rallies, interviews, fund-raising, the power of selfies, events with kids making her happy. Again, tens of anecdotes.
What Happened – Theme #3: Being a woman in politics.
The third main theme in What Happened is “sisterhood” but what matters here is the complexity of being a woman in politics. Here, Hillary Clinton discusses years of frustration “about the tightrope [she] and other women have had to walk in order to participate in American Politics”.
Bill’s story was about being the first to go to college in his family. Obama’s was about being a citizen of the world. Her story is about being a first woman. The first women partner in her Arkansas law firm, the first First Lady to be elected in public office, the first woman senator of NY, the first woman to be nominated for President.
She however talks about look and judgment, about how it hurts to be mocked because of your gender, about how it is not normal to be a woman in politics (“not Yet”). This unsurprisingly leads to Trump again, who – she writes – makes fun of women’s “fat” faces when they oppose to him and “loves to humiliate women, loves to talk about how disgusting they are”.
But being a woman is also about being a mother.
Hillary Clinton explores the theme in two ways. One relates to her daughter Chelsea and how proud she is of her. Another relates to her understanding of other mothers. To the ability of a mother to understand how it feels to lose a child because of a lost bullet. In other words, being a mother helps to understand the necessity of setting up policies on weapon control, despite NRA pressures. Again, the book provides pages of practical examples, just get to read it and see for yourself.
What Happened – Theme #4: Change.
The next important theme focuses on “idealism and realism”, which is an opportunity for Hillary Clinton to write on change. A big challenge for Hillary Clinton was to be seen as a member of the establishment or, as she says it, as “a defender of the status quo”.
Food for thought: being a doer when the whole world sees you as a non-doer…
Hillary Clinton explains how her life always turned around being a doer, an activist. She mentions how she debated “the morality and efficacy of civil disobedience” in her twenties and her fight for women’s rights. To her, change comes through field work, “step by step, year by year, sometimes even door by door” to “stir up opinion and put pressure on local leaders”.
Activists tend to refuse negotiation unless they obtain all they require. She had to win elections and deal with Republicans in Congress. So? She learned the importance of compromise and constructive engagement. Or, in her words, “finding the right balance between principle and pragmatism isn’t easy”.
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Talking about idealism and realism also leads her to talk about foreign policy and about how the press preferred talking about her emails rather than being pragmatic about the world. To her, the details matter because policy-making is about finding practical solutions, about making lives easier. With humor, she relatedly comments on her opponents. See in particular Bernie’s “ponygate” story (very funny) and her comments on Trump who, to her, “seemed proud of his ignorance and didn’t even pretend to come up with plans”, rather calling policy “a waste of paper”.
Of course, she also discusses her own proposals and calls on Democrats to double their efforts to think outside the box to come up with solutions.
What Happened – Theme #5: Frustration.
The next theme (“frustration”) is perhaps the most interesting one because it talks about how things went wrong. In very practical terms.
Hillary Clinton discusses her frustration of being misunderstood and of not being able to fight Trump’s offensive discourse with ideas.
In retrospect, she found hard to communicate with tired and angry people in need for an angry candidate, but she admits that people needed to share resentment more than arguments. While Trump played the angry card, she therefore admits her difficulties connecting with blue collars workers without a job, admits a failure in dealing with Trump’s “demagoguery” (it’s them or us).
Frustration also comes from the idea that the “emails” prevented debates and diverted attention. She admits a “dumb mistake” but wonders why the press ignored the main aspects of her campaign. That part of the book is long because Hillary Clinton talks about the impact of the investigation on the elections and explains how traffic and buzz took over editorial and political conscience. Nonetheless, it is really thought-provoking and worth a read.
What happened with the Russians?
The point leads to a very interesting (and scary) discussion on how the Russians have “infected” the U.S. To her, their purpose was to “undermine” American democracy. Hence, she explores the new Putin / Trump “bromance”, questions how it influences domestic security politics and threatening national security. Clinton describes surprisingly strong ties between Trump, his teams and Russia and describes in length how hackers (combined with the WikiLeaks) created a “war on truth” that destabilized the system while delegitimizing the media. Read that section of the book, it is also eye-opening. And scary.
When asking why she lost, Hillary Clinton thus comes to different conclusions. One, the Covey effect influenced voters to focus on the emails scandal and diverted attention to from policy to dirty politics. Two, the “Russian plot” made things worse and gave Trump a considerable advance. Three, anxiety and resentment in the American society led to populism and a fear of immigration, a fear of black and Muslim people, to ideas best incarnated by Trump’s speech.
What Happened – theme #6: What comes next.
The last theme (Resilience) is about what comes next. Here, Hillary Clinton has two main points.
One is the theme of ‘love and kindness’, two words which to her have disappeared from the political language. Unsurprisingly, indeed, the people feels “invisible”, “abandoned and disrespected”. Hence, Hillary Clinton finds that the country nowadays misses “a sense that our lives [are] part of some greater effort, that we were all connected to one another and that each of us had a place and a purpose”. An important message to convey to what she calls “an angry electorate in a cynical time”.
Another point, logically, is the importance of moving “onwards together”. Again, the question is about what to do next.
Hillary Clinton talks about whether she ought to stay aside for a while. But when looking at the Russians, the Medicaid and Obamacare dismantling and the risk of letting the society, she prefers working toward “translating protests into political power”. Hence, from now on, her goal might well be to help “supporting the next generation of Democrat organizers”.
The answer to the question ends the book in the same way it began: “keep going”.
The main insights
Hillary Clinton comes to the following conclusions.
- The best way to deal with political failure is to go back to meeting people Because politics are about the people.
- President Trump is the worst-case scenario for the United States.
- Hillary Clinton ran for President to solve more problems and have an impact. Years of political commitment teach you that politics is about perseverance, gratitude and frustration.
- Being a woman in politics means facing constant criticism. It also helps talk to other women and mothers and get closer to families because you understand their reality in a very different way.
- Years of activism teach you perseverance and idealism. But being a politician requires learning the art of compromise in order to have results.
- Communication is difficult because the people is angry. People feel abandoned and want angry representatives more than ideas and constructive thinking. Frustration is the result of the difficulty to talk to people, from the inability of the press to focus on important matters and to see through propaganda of all types. Hence, the most important debates have been occulted.
- The “emails scandal” diverted attention from the campaign to the benefit of D. Trump, who has strong business ties with Russia. Hence, he largely benefited from Moscow’s interference with the elections, through many tactics.
- Hillary Clinton is pushed forward by the necessity to keep going, by the necessity to resist and by the necessity to train the next generations of Democrat leaders… which is perhaps far more important than running again in the future.
Food for Thought
So, let’s finish this book review with some food for thought! The book overall provides insights on a variety of topics.
First, What Happened gives Hillary Clinton’s perspective and version of how the presidential elections of 2016 took place. Hillary Clinton explains the process from the inside, tells her own approach and her own feelings about it. She talks about why she got involved and how these things work, explains her motivations, discusses her desire to change things for the best, what policy means to her.
Values and people at the heart of things, at the beginning, and until the end
To her, the book is also an opportunity to reconnect with values and people, whilst expressing thoughts on the country’s numerous divisions. It is, also, an opportunity “to get this right” and “face the future again”. “As an American”, she writes, “I am more worried than ever-but as a person, I’m doing ok”.
The book contains hundreds of anecdotes and tells the stories of many people Hillary Clinton met during her political career and presidential campaign alike. It is, simply put, one of those books that make politicians human.
About Trump, too…
Second, What Happened provides interesting food for thought on the Clinton / Trump rivalry. Hillary Clinton talks about fundamental differences in terms of ideas and personal convictions. She also explains the differences in Republican and Democrat approaches to public policy… That makes the book an interesting introduction to American politics for those interested in simply learning about that.
Part of the discussion also relates to the people. Hillary Clinton talks about their expectations, about the idea that politicians should get to meet the people instead of merely thinking in terms of electorate. The other aspect relates to the hidden face of American politics, to this ability of politicians to rely on dirty attacks, behind each other’s back while smiling when necessary.
Third, What Happened provides a lot of information as to … what happened (yes, that one was easy, I know) regarding the emails and the Russians. Hillary Clinton explains what developments had an impact on her campaign. She says why and how things happened (from her point of view). Importantly, also, she elaborates on why the press only saw a small fraction of what was happening. People heard about those issues for years, it is interesting to find at least one clearly formulated analysis of the whole thing.
Particularly relevant to non-American readers, in my opinion.
All in all, the book is interesting to read whatever your ideas and political opinions. If you are an American citizen, and even more if you are not an American citizen.
What Happened is a very interesting opportunity to have a look at American politics that very few really know about. It would be interesting, of course, to have a look at the writing of other candidates. Including Bernie Sanders’. Meanwhile, the book provides a good sample of what Presidential elections are about.
Call me naïve, but it is also interesting to read and learn more about how politicians feel and think. Why do they do this or that? How do they manage failure and permanent attacks? Those questions are easy to ask but they are far more difficult to answer. There you go, food for thought.
Oh, and in case you are interested in books on US politics, also take a look at my review of Noam Chomsky’s book, Who Rules the World?. The style and the content are totally opposite, but that’s still worth a look!
In a completely different style, David Runciman’s book Politics is also worth your time. That book is not written by a politician but by the Head of Cambridge’s Politics Department, there’s some very interesting food for thought in there. Just saying…
In my opinion...
… a long book which can be worth your time if you’re interested in Hillary Clinton’s Presidential race or more generally if you are curious about US politics.
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