I’ll keep this one relatively brief. I’ll avoid a lot of what you could get by listening to any number of great interviews with Clinton (e.g., Ezra Klein‘s, Longform‘s, or the New Yorker Radio Hour‘s).
Basically I divide the book into two types: there’s the rigorous analytical piece — on why exactly she lost the election, or on how misogyny and sexism work — and then there’s the homespun piece. The homespun piece is what you expect from most political memoirs: my mommy always taught me this, my Methodist faith taught me that, etc. I didn’t get terribly much out of the homespun piece … until I thought about it a bit more. Clearly there is something strong within Secretary Clinton that has kept her in the public eye for 20+ years despite being demonized by the Right at every turn. Is it so far-fetched to believe that, when things get bad — and they’ve been really, really bad for her quite often for decades — she falls back on a deep reserve of fundamental values? I’ve not been tested a millionth as much as Clinton has; I imagine that if I had been so tested, I would spend at least some of my time trying to understand how I’d pulled through. A lot of the answers I would come to would probably sound too clean-cut, but that’s because life is much messier lived forward and much clearer understood backward.
As for the other half of the book — the analytical piece — it alone justifies the price of admission. In 20 years, when we want to understand the madness of the 2016 election and the madness of the Trump presidency, the final 1/3 or so of What Happened will be a vital primary source.
Then there are the “please imagine” bits, like this:
I’ve written about this before but it’s worth saying again: one of the reasons he lost the Governor’s race in 1980 was because I still went by my maiden name. Let that sink in for a moment and please imagine how it felt.
We’ve certainly had dark days in our marriage. You know all about them—and please consider for a moment what it would be like for the whole world to know about the worst moments in your relationship.
I did, repeatedly, stop and imagine the constant attack she’s been under for 20 years, and it was horrifying.
Without her going into very much detail about them at all, there are what appear to be changes of heart on policy since the election:
Targeted programs may be more efficient and progressive, and that’s why during the primaries I criticized Bernie’s “free college for all” plan as providing wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids. But it’s precisely because they don’t benefit everyone that targeted programs are so easily stigmatized and demagogued.
That sounds to me exactly right: push for universal programs. I would go further: push for universal programs that are free at point of service, funded by steeply progressive taxes.
Other parts, again echoing what you’d expect from a political memoir, are not believable — like this:
More than anyone else, it was Chelsea who helped me to see that my stance on same-sex marriage was incompatible with my values and the work I had done in the Senate and at the State Department to protect the rights of LGBT people. She impressed upon me that I had to endorse marriage equality if I was truly committed to equal human dignity, and as soon as I left the State Department, I did.
I have a very hard time believing that Clinton had some realization about the incompatibility of two of her principles, which led her — through the pure light of Reason alone, guided by her daughter’s steady hand — to support gay marriage. My cynical mind says that the story is simpler: for a time, the American public wasn’t behind gay marriage, and then it very quickly came to support it. I likewise don’t believe that Obama’s views “evolved”.
What’s strange about her treatment of this issue is that it’s not that hard to frame the cynical reasoning as correct. I can certainly believe that, had Clinton supported gay marriage, she would’ve lost some elections, or would’ve lost some votes in the Senate. You judge politicians, I should hope, by the overall direction of their policy accomplishments; to the extent that gay marriage held other issues back, there’s a fine argument for opposing gay marriage. I find it a little odd that she doesn’t address this policy thought process much at all in her book. Instead it’s what we heard during the campaign: I’ve fought for decades on this and that and the other thing — it’s a steady forward march, driven ever onward by my bedrock principles. Unless I skimmed too quickly, I didn’t catch any instances when Clinton was forced to compromise her bedrock principles in the service of a greater good.
That aside, What Happened is a very, very good book, worth reading if only for the pieces about misogyny and electoral nuts and bolts. It’ll make you sad all over again, and remind you — as though you needed reminding — of the crisis we’re still in.