We had dinner guests not long ago, one of whom noticed my copy of What Happened atop a stack of books on the living room floor. This occasioned an interlude at table of what I can only call anti-Hillary venom, although every man and woman present had almost certainly voted for her. The book, in the view of my guests, was nothing more than an exercise in self-justification, in the course of which Hillary unfairly blamed Bernie for a loss that only her own deficiencies could explain. Why on earth was I reading it? None of our guests, it seems right to point out, had actually read the book in question. But that didn’t staunch the flow of passionate certainties, all of which centered on Hillary’s flaws as a candidate and even as a person.
That dinner party tempest haunted my subsequent reading. (I’d only been through the opening chapters when the exchange occurred.) Could the book help me understand the almost irrational hostility—irrational in the sense that these normally articulate people couldn’t really explain it—that many of my left-ish friends feel toward Hillary Clinton? Could the book, in the unlikely event that they read it, do anything to redeem her in their coldly skeptical eyes? The answer to both questions turned out to be “maybe.” What Happened does less to explain the left’s hostility to Hillary than complicate the question. And in order for skeptical readers to make their peace with Hillary’s campaign they will need to persevere to the book’s middle section, which I rather doubt many will do.
The book’s opening chapters introduce us to the personal Hillary—her recent political past, the decision to run in 2016, her adolescence and young adulthood. The narrative is amiably readable. Hers is the story of a particular cohort, which also happens to be mine: girls born to modestly prosperous parents in the early years of the baby boom. We got the college educations many of our parents lacked and often, thanks to the women’s movement, jobs of the sort that our mothers could only dream about. “I came along at just the right moment,” she quite accurately tells us, “like a surfer catching the perfect wave. Everything I am, everything I’ve done, so much of what I stand for flows from that happy accident of fate.” Coming of age at a time of social upheaval, young women like Hillary prospered, which presumably helps to explain the murky resentments stirred in 2016 by her candidacy. “Lock her up” for what? Perhaps for having embarked on success at precisely the moment when men’s fortunes began to falter, when their earning power began to erode, and their educational attainment to slip below that of their sisters.
Despite their engaging qualities, these early chapters too often read as if a politically minded editor were ultimately in charge. (The book was in fact written in collaboration with several of her staffers.) I didn’t so much doubt the sincerity of the narrative as feel irritation at details transparently designed to make this exceptional woman seem just like the gal next door. Conflict is oddly missing, too, although political campaigns and indeed political families are notoriously fractious entities. But that’s just to say that this is a politician’s book. Why should Hillary be obliged to dissect the emotional dynamics of her marriage or publicize her reputedly short temper with subordinates? No one expects male politicians to do anything remotely similar. For Hillary-skeptics, however, I fear that these mild evasions will confirm their belief, however misplaced, in her dishonesty. They will probably stop reading before they get to the good part.