WHAT HAPPENED, by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Simon & Schuster, 494 pp., $30.
Hillary Clinton is well aware that a lot of people, including some who voted for her, wish she would just go away. She acknowledges it several times in “What Happened,” her highly anticipated memoir of the 2016 election that went on sale Tuesday.
The book itself is a response to those people: No way.
It’s not because Clinton didn’t experience the intensity of the rage against her. In “What Happened” she describes a rally she attended in West Virginia during the primaries where she hoped to mend fences with coal miners. They were alienated by a sound bite that made it appear she wanted to put them out of work.
When Clinton got to the little town of Williamson, she realized there was much more going on than just a reaction to her gaffe. “They were angry, they were loud, and they hated my guts,” she writes.
By the time Election Day rolled around, she had heard the chants of “Lock her up!” so many times — plus Trump’s promise during the second debate to do so — that she had “no idea what to expect.”
At least she’s not writing the memoir from prison.
At close to 500 pages, “What Happened” feels very long — a gamble, considering the fatigue factor. If you ask me, it’s two books knitted together, and I’d bet almost everyone who reads it is going to read one half with interest and skim the rest.
The first part of the book starts on Inauguration Day, giving a dishy insider look at the scene on the podium. Exhausted by the enmity against her, Hillary had considered not going, but after she checked in with the Bushes and the Carters, she and Bill got on the program. The ex-presidents and their wives stood in thin rain ponchos listening to Trump’s “American carnage” speech with frozen expressions on their faces. George W. muttered a surprised expletive when it was over.
From there, we roll back to Election Day, retracing the hours from ebullience to defeat. We retreat with Hillary to her home in Chappaqua, New York, where she watched Kate McKinnon (as Clinton) perform “Hallelujah” on SNL, both Hillarys fighting back tears. Over the next few weeks, she tried to relax and enjoy life. She did yoga and alternate-nostril breathing, drank chardonnay and wrote thank-you notes, devoured mysteries and caught up on all the TV series.
But the ultimate relaxation exercise was writing the book and getting so much — so much — off her chest. At the beginning of this road, Clinton was sure she was the best candidate out there, and she was sure she would win. At the end, she settled down at her computer to figure what went wrong, how and when the tide turned. What happened?
Here begins the journey of 600 days, the details of the bizarre campaign cycle from Clinton’s perspective. She begins with an account of her daily routine on the campaign trail: hair, makeup, clothes, diet, schedule. Read about her discovery of Flavor Blasted Goldfish, her love of jalapeños and hot sauce, about the experience of having one’s illness become a paparazzi event, about the dynamics of debate prep. She writes about her collaboration with her best friend, Bill Clinton, which seems very real.
She meets with the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, the Sandy Hook children and other angry, heartbroken survivors of gun violence. She takes a depressing trip to Flint, Michigan. She meets up with her Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders — and around here Hillary gets to what’s really bugging her.
The second half of “What Happened” provides detailed diagnoses of all the problems and scandals of the campaign: The email debacle. The “deplorables” blunder. The contributions of James Comey, Vladimir Putin, Matt Lauer and others. What she calls the “schizophrenic” coverage of The New York Times. She provides word clouds and charts comparing her speeches to Trump’s.
One long chapter aptly titled “Sweating the Details” ends with the line, “As you can tell by now, I love talking about this stuff.”
Many people from across the political spectrum feel that Clinton is not the person she says she is. They don’t believe she loves her husband, that she is truly dedicated to the public good, that there was nothing to hide in those emails. “What Happened” gives us Hillary’s version of Hillary, and it has the ring of truth.