Former presidential candidate and popular vote winner Hillary Rodham Clinton is finally free—of the grim job of trying to keep Donald Trump out of office, of the “Lock her up!” and #NeverHillary garbage lobbed at her daily from both the right and left, of needing the good opinion of a menagerie of male journalists now alleged to be sexual predators. Clinton has largely been vindicated by the events of the last few months—by everything from increasing evidence of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia (she warned us!) to the growing body of evidence that the coterie of male commentators who antagonized her in their very public coverage were also terrible to women in private. As Jill Filipovic put it in the New York Times, “These recent harassment allegations suggest that perhaps the problem wasn’t that Mrs. Clinton was untruthful or inherently hard to connect with, but that these particular men hold deep biases against women who seek power instead of sticking to acquiescent sex-object status.”
The voice of a woman seeking power—or, more accurately, owning her power—permeates much of Clinton’s memoir, What Happened, which came out in September and which Clinton will be promoting in Portland this week at a sold out event at the Schnitz. If you think that Matt “Secret Button Under Desk” Lauer losing his job is a witch hunt (lol), you may want to steer clear of this book, because it isn’t for you. If you didn’t like Clinton when she ran for office, you definitely won’t like her now. And if you already don’t like ambitious women, you really won’t like an ambitious woman who’s beholden to no one and has nothing left to lose.
But if, like me, you consoled yourself after Clinton’s loss with thoughts of her inevitable jaunty Al Gore-style DGAF era, I have good news: It’s here. Gone are the speeches written by committee, and in strides a delightfully (and justifiably) grumpy, long-suffering public servant who’s nonetheless unwavering in her belief in the promise of America. On the page, Clinton reads as the hyper-competent, mildly paranoid, charts ’n’ graphs-loving policy wonk who will be familiar to anyone who’s followed her career with any seriousness. Her temperament may not be the kind to fill stadiums with screaming fans (although even this is debatable; see Schnitz), but it would be perfectly suited to the presidency.
In a way, this makes reading What Happened an almost painful experience. I did it very slowly and had to debrief over drinks with a friend, because each time Clinton started talking about how her policy team considered adding universal basic income to their platform (yes please!) or how she kept her cool even when being creepily stalked onstage by louche dummy Trump (no thank you!) I just felt like climbing under my desk and crying. The cruel truth is that she would have been such a good president—this book, among other things, is evidence of that—and it still feels (more than) vaguely criminal that instead of governing, Clinton is writing memoirs and drinking Chardonnay (lord knows she’s earned it) and taking nature walks in the Chappaquah woods while being subjected to catty profiles by writers like the New Yorker’s David Remnick, as a large toddler in the White House endorses alleged pedophiles, enacts racist policies, burps out lies on Twitter, and treats himself to yet another round of golf.
In the book’s most powerful sections, Clinton addresses what Trump can’t: gender equality. She goes in hard for abortion rights, writing, “I believe that our ability to decide whether and when to become mothers is intrinsic to our liberty. When government gets involved in this intimate realm—whether in places like China, which forced women to have abortions, or in Communist Romania, which forced women to bear children—it is horrific. I’ve visited hospitals in countries where poor women have no access to safe and legal abortion. I’ve seen what happens when desperate women take matters into their own hands.” She pulls out diagrams to depict how she was treated differently from Trump in the news media’s coverage of the election. And she describes going back to her alma mater, Wellesley, a women’s college, and finding hope in the smart, ambitious young women she meets there. “If this was the future, then everything had been worth it,” she writes.
And that’s what’s weird about What Happened. Clinton is obviously angry—and, honestly, try to find a woman who hasn’t suffered low-grade anger for a year who isn’t also Ivanka Trump—but she doesn’t seem bitter. How is this possible? I wanted to ask as I read. I am so bitter about the election, Secretary Clinton. How are you not?
But she isn’t. Maybe pissing off the GOP for nigh on 30 years requires that a person adopt Pa Ingalls-grade pathological optimism if they hope to remain in public life. Maybe it’s because, whatever chaos Trump has loosed on the world of late, Clinton is a rich white lady who has a nice house in upstate New York, close family ties and friendships (including one with her favorite mystery writer!), and the feverish support of career-minded women throughout the land who know how it feels to be disliked for their ambition and intellect. Guys, she’s going to be okay.
But whatever the reason, though Clinton apologizes throughout What Happened for her loss and relays a sense of guilt at letting her country down, she still has hope, and an unkillable ambition too often misread as entitlement (the two are quite different). Like a lot of women, Clinton is smart and mad and channeling both into getting shit done. She has said she never plans to run for office again, but she isn’t going anywhere. We should all be grateful for that, because it means high-profile, high-dollar support for the work of emerging activist groups, and seeing Clinton in delightful new roles like guest editor at Teen Vogue, visibly uplifting a progressive outlet that supports the voices of young women and women of color. Hillary Rodham Clinton may be free, but she’s such a Hermione that I can’t imagine her abandoning public life anytime soon. I hope she never goes away.
by Hillary Rodham Clinton
(Simon & Schuster)