There’s an anecdote Hillary Clinton tells about the frenzied run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. She was in Scranton, Pennsylvania, campaigning with Joe Biden in his swing-state-set hometown. She noticed a woman staring at her—with more intensity than even Hillary Clinton is used to being stared at by members of the public. The woman finally approached her. She’d been staring at Clinton, she explained, out of confusion. “I’d read you’d gained 130 pounds!”
It was a Kinsley gaffe made not by the politician, but about her: Many people, after all, will believe pretty much anything about the former first lady/senator/secretary of state/presidential candidate. In her, the demands of American celebrity and the dynamics of American politics have mingled in an extremely targeted form of magical thinking. Whatever Hillary Clinton might do, a hefty chunk of people will assume its nefariousness. Whatever she might say, a significant portion of the populace will simply assume she is lying: Lady Macbeth, in the age of alternative facts. Is her marriage a sham? Is she sick with a chronic disease? Did she kill Vince Foster? Is she, just under those perfectly pressed pantsuits, hiding the scales of a reptile?
“I’m a Rorschach test,” Clinton said of herself, during the 2008 presidential primaries, and she was correct. The trouble, for all involved, is that she is also a human, with the moral and emotional freight the designation implies. Clinton may be a vessel for this moment’s internet-fueled iteration of the paranoid style; she feels them, though, those accusations flung in her direction. Once, when Clinton was the first lady, a staffer read aloud from a magazine story that repeated one of the moment’s trendy rumors: that Hillary had had sex with a colleague. Hearing it, the Post’s Marc Fisher reported—or, rather, mishearing it—“Clinton’s eyes filled with tears.” She asked the staffer, “It really says I had sex with a collie?”
Every politician’s story will fuse the mundane and the mythic. Each will involve a strategic blend of fact and fiction. Each will rely on performances that a dubious and tenacious public will attempt to decode. Clinton’s story, however, has involved such things in decidedly disproportionate amounts. This is one of the themes of What Happened, the new book Clinton released on Tuesday.
Set in the negative space of a presidency that wasn’t, the book is a political memoir in the tritest traditions of the genre. Its chapters include titles like “Perseverance,” “Grit and Gratitude,” and “Making History.” It offers inspirational quotes from Rilke, various Roosevelts, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Hamilton. But What Happened—its blunt title belies its tone—is also casually conversational. It is personal. It is a book fit for a time in which celebrity demands intimacy, and in which even one of politics’ most common works of poetry—the campaign memoir—will revel in the idle revelations of prose. It marks a transition for Clinton; it also suggests much broader transformations at play in American politics and American life. “In the past,” Clinton writes, “for reasons I try to explain, I’ve often felt I had to be careful in public, like I was up on a wire without a net. Now I’m letting my guard down.”
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“There are times all I want to do is scream into a pillow.”
“I knew the proper and respectful thing to do was to keep quiet and take it all with grace, but inside I was fuming.”
“I answered a ton of emails; I returned phone calls. It hurt. There’s a reason people isolate themselves when they’re suffering.”
Suffering is not a word one would likely expect to read in a political memoir, particularly one written by one of America’s foremost practitioners of classic Clintonian pragmatism. There it is, though, along with “pain” and “anger” and “scream,” in What Happened. There is the country’s almost-president, talking not just of her dreams for the American future, but also of the anger she bears toward it. There she is, confiding to her readers about her fears. And her frustrations. And her love of Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers (a generous serving of which, she notes, has “only 150 calories—not bad!”).
What Happened, whose title of course requires no further predicate, occasionally engages in blame, what-happened-wise: of Clinton herself, of Donald Trump, of Bernie Sanders, of James Comey, of Vladimir Putin, of the American media, of many more. It is occasionally dishy, as per the commercial demands of most such post-campaign political memoirs (at one point, Clinton refers to Jason Chaffetz as “the then-Utah Congressman and wannabe Javert”). It also, however, takes the performative authenticity so common in those books—the focus-group-approved anecdotes, the personality-by-committee—and attempts to subvert it. “Reading the news every morning was like ripping off a scab,” Clinton writes, and this is probably another thing you would not be expecting to read in a campaign memoir.
One of the ideas that has solidified around Clinton in recent years—an outgrowth of a media environment that once allowed her to believe that a magazine had accused her of bestiality—is that there are essentially two of her, contradicting each other: the persona versus the person, the public figure (controlled, cautious, calculating) versus the private one (warm, witty, capable of holding strong opinions about snack foods). “What’s remarkable,” Henry Louis Gates wrote of the then-first lady, in 1996, “isn’t that she can be funny, spontaneous, and mischievous, and has a loud, throaty laugh; what’s remarkable is the extent to which she has sequestered her personality from the media.” It’s a narrative that grew as Clinton twice sought, and twice lost, the American presidency. In 2016, the writer Rebecca Traister diagnosed the matter as “Hillary Clinton versus Herself.” The journalist Ezra Klein noted that “the Clinton America sees isn’t the Clinton colleagues know.” He named the disconnect “the gap.”
You could read What Happened as a post-facto attempt to bridge that distance: Here are 494 pages of concessional humanity, full of the kind of confessional revelations most commonly associated with the first-person industrial complex. Clinton’s earlier memoirs, Living History and Hard Choices, often embraced the prosaic prose of the big tent (“In this world and the world of tomorrow, we must go forward together or not at all,” “One thing that has never been a hard choice for me is serving our country. It has been the greatest honor of my life”); What Happened, which rehashes some of the former works’ aphorisms and insights, does, too. More often, though, it relies on simpler, and more personal, exposition. It is written in the first person, but often slides into the second. It is cautiously diaristic.
In it, Clinton discusses the wounds not just of November 2016, but of insults accumulated within a system so often baffled by women who has seek power. (“For the record, it hurts to be torn apart,” she writes. “It may seem like it doesn’t bother me to be called terrible names or have my looks mocked viciously, but it does”). She discusses the partially unexpected joy Chelsea’s arrival brought her when she was born in 1980, noting that “getting pregnant was not easy for me.” The woman so often denigrated as “shrill” shares how she once enlisted the help of a linguistics expert to help her make her speeches more appealing to audiences. And how once, in college, she went on a blind date with a man “who wouldn’t take repeated nos for an answer,” and whom, finally, she had to slap to rebuff. (“But he did back off,” she notes, “and I went to bed that night shaken but not traumatized.”)
There is a certain circularity to such revelations: In early 2009, just before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton won awkward plaudits from media outlets when, answering a question about how she kept going during the grueling campaign—“I mean, as a woman, I know how hard it is to get out of the house and get ready,” the voter had said, asking, “Who does your hair?”—the candidate teared up. Just a little. But still. While Clinton’s response had mostly elided the question (she had joked about how she “has help,” hair-wise, and then explained that she did the work of campaigning because the issues are both “personal” for her and “about all of us together”), it was the tears, to the press, that were the salient point. They were evidence of “the gap” in action, answers to the unsolicited advice pundits had been offering Hillary for decades—thoughts on how she might more effectively accomplish the task of her own self-humanization. “Clinton Finds Emotion on the Trail,” CBS put it. “Question draws out a usually guarded Clinton,” the Los Angeles Times had it. The Washington Post announced that it had detected “A Chink in the Steely Façade of Hillary Clinton.”
Others saw calculation. “There was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up,” The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd wrote, in an op-ed asking, “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?” The columnist shared her theory that “what was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her”—and that “in a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us.”
Eight years later, in What Happened, Clinton gets the last say—and gives a decidedly different answer to the “who does your hair?” question. She talks in detail about her “glam squad.” She name-checks her (two) hairstylists and her makeup artist (“recommended to me by Vogue’s Anna Wintour after she saw me at an event and knew I needed help”). As before, though, she puts it into political context. “I’ve never gotten used to how much effort it takes just to be a woman in the public eye,” Clinton notes, adding, “I once calculated how many hours I spent having my hair and makeup done during the campaign. It came to about 600 hours, or 25 days! I was so shocked, I checked the math twice.”
There are several exclamation marks in What Happened. There is also much evidence of the wry humor those who know her—those on the “person” side of the gap—tend to emphasize: “I doubt that many people reading this will ever lose a presidential election,” she acknowledges, adding, “(Although maybe some have: Hi Al, hi John, hi Mitt, hope you’re well).” She refers to the period after November 8 as “that horrible, no good, very bad time.” She talks about eating over-refrigerated Quest bars on the campaign plane—and about the fact that warming them up enough to make them edible often required sitting on them, “with as much dignity as one can muster at such a moment.” Clinton begins the chapter titled “Showing Up” with an epigraphic observation: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” She attributes the line to “Friedrich Nietzsche (and Kelly Clarkson).”
Mostly, though, Clinton shares. She emphasizes the relatable smallness of her post-election life, the mundanity of it, the casual humanity of it. After she delivered her concession speech on November 9, she writes, she went home to Chappaqua and put on yoga pants and a fleece. She hiked in the woods, with Bill and their dogs. She drank lots of Chardonnay. She organized her closets and FaceTimed with her grandkids and watched Downton Abbey (she likes the latter show because it reminded her of a night she spent in Buckingham Palace, when she was the secretary of state) and the assorted programmings of HGTV. She finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. She prayed. (“I can almost see the cynics rolling their eyes,” she notes of that last one.)
And also: She got really sad. She got really angry. “I didn’t go public with my feelings,” she notes; “I let them out in private. When I heard that Donald Trump settled a fraud suit against his Trump University for $25 million, I yelled at the television. When I read the news that he filled his team with Wall Street bankers after relentlessly accusing me of being their stooge, I nearly threw the remote control at the wall.”
She didn’t go public then; she is going public, of course, now. And in some ways that’s its own kind of concession. Hillary Clinton is at this point pretty much a metonym for gendered double standards, and one of the paradoxes of her long career in politics has mirrored one of the paradoxes of sexism itself: It can be unclear whether something is happening because of gender or because of something else. The media coverage of Clinton often carries this whiff of uncertainty: Is she treated the way she is because she is a politician—a performer, a celebrity, a body that seeks to rise above the body politic—or because she is a woman?
What is clear, though, is that the media’s ongoing obsession with her emotions is tinged with sexism. (Remember when, the morning of her concession speech, CNN pundits offered a thorough analysis of the emotions she must surely have been experiencing as she delivered her address?) And with What Happened, Clinton is feeding the beast. She is doing in the book what the American media have long done to her, ostensibly on her behalf: commercializing her humanity. She is selling her emotions, for what will likely be a tidy profit. As the book’s jacket promises, “This is her most personal memoir yet.”
It delivers on that, notably, in spite of one of the ongoing villains in the book: the American media. Much of the coverage of What Happened, in the run-up to its release this week, took delight in framing it as an “anguished, angry memoir,” and as Clinton’s “woe is me” book, and in general as genuflection to our well-established rituals of public apology: the stuff of rehabilitation and reconciliation and agreements to appear on Dancing With the Stars, performed by an emotional Clinton.
The book itself both embraces and rejects that framing. It does the thing so many women politicians and women citizens have done, recently, in response to a world that refuses to make space for them: It reclaims. It takes the logic of “nasty woman” and “nevertheless, she persisted” and “reclaiming my time” and makes it literary. In What Happened, the woman who has for decades contended with a media system that demands ever more of her—more emotion, more authenticity, more humanity—is giving that system what it asked for. But she’s doing that on her own terms. For the purposes of selling her own books. “I’ll bet you know more about my private life than you do about some of your closest friends,” Clinton points out, in her most personal memoir yet. “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 yet now, just a little bit, it is. Here is yet one more “me” Clinton is displaying, a self that will be embraced by some and disbelieved by others. A self that emerged, likely, from some heady fusion of Clinton’s leaked emails and political strategizing and Kim Kardashian and social media and a culture that sees information that confides and confesses as the most honest information of all. What Happened arrives in the year 2017, and also takes its measure: It takes for granted a new and newly emotional style of political engagement. It acquiesces to a moment in which an author, before explaining how we might move Onward Together, loses her patience with the public meant to do the moving: What more, she asks, not bothering to mask her frustration, do you need?
Clinton’s book almost—almost—takes a cue from Donald Trump, whose unlikely victory in November emphasized, among so much else, the political power of the unfiltered id. What Happened is in that way one more concession that Hillary Clinton has offered up to the American republic. It is cannily emotional. It is savvily confessional. It is a series of controlled explosions. “When I feel wronged,” Clinton confesses, “I get mad.” She adds: “And then I think about how to fight back.”