The Story Hillary Tells in What Happened
There have been many reviews of Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, most of them written by journalists. Clinton is explicitly, repeatedly, and justly skeptical about the media in What Happened, so I suppose it’s not surprising that journalists’ reviews of her book are less than glowing. A good example is this one from NPR that asks “Who is this book for?” and answers “It’s for Hillary Clinton, whatever that’s worth.”
And that’s simply and obviously wrong. It’s for history. It is an essential component of the historical record of the utterly bonkers 2016 presidential election; it documents her ultimate insider’s point of view on, well, what happened. How the most qualified candidate in modern history lost to a racist, subliterate reality TV star. (And PS: One of the reasons is the low quality media coverage of the campaigns.) (Also PPS: her own analysis lines up well with the actual research on what happened.) It’s for history.
But also — and this is something no journalists’ review comes close to acknowledging — it’s for me, and all the women like me.
It’s for all of us who understand that Hillary threw herself bodily against that “hardest, highest glass ceiling” — a ceiling reinforced by rabid white nationalism plus Russian interference — and that the wounds she sustained are equaled only by the crack she made, which will help the women who come after her to break through. She did it for us, and we love her for it.
What happened is a woman fought hard, for decades, and the world fought back… and the world fought dirty. Yet she didn’t stop fighting, and she didn’t stoop to the world’s dirty tactics. What Happened answers the question, “How did you keep fighting? How do you keep fighting?”
The purpose of stories is to answer the question “what if?” And the best stories answer the question, “What if the worst happens? How will I survive? How will I keep going?” The best of the best stories answer that question with “Here is how a person can not just survive, but grow.” That’s what puts What Happened among those best stories, what makes it worth reading, and what makes it for me. Because here she is, alive and laughing, proof that a woman can not just fall from a great height but also be kicked and cudgeled when she hits the ground… and still get back up. And look back at it and laugh. Gesture toward the people trying still to knock her down and say, “See what I mean? These jerks.”
This isn’t a book about the Democratic Party and their strategy going forward — or, it is, but who cares? The Democratic Party will do what it always does. That she is an expert on a lot of things, that she has a brilliant strategic mind, that she has deep historical and institutional knowledge about the Democratic party, the federal government, and global politics is almost incidental to the value of this book for women like me.
Women who — like me and like Hillary and like so many others — don’t want to spend time thinking about how we look, but have to, because we know we’re taken more seriously and thus are more successful at the work that matters to us, when we look a certain way.
Women who — like me and like Hillary and like so many others — are extremely good at what they do and would be awesome if they were in charge, but are only viewed favorably when they’re in a supporting role, rather than a starring role.
Women who — like me and like Hillary and like so many others — know that to participate in social media is inherently to set yourself up for abuse, threats, and the ugliest vitriol that anonymous trolls can throw, just because you dared to participate.
Women who — like me and maybe like Hillary and like so many others — woke up on November 9, 2016, and thought, “Oh. So this is how much America hates women.”
What Happened is, to me, not a book about specific policies and an analysis of the events of 2016. Or, it is that, but that’s not what matters. What Happened shows me how people — how women — can grow mighty in the face of the unconquerable.
I can see how a lot of people would prefer that she not to tell that story. After all, what would happen if we women were all as intelligent, resilient, and persistent… as nasty as she is?