Book review: Hillary Rodham Clinton, “What happened” ( Simon and Schuster, New York, E.22.99)
“For me, political campaigns have always been something to get through in order to govern which is the real prize.” Hillary Clinton.
It’s easy to make fun of Hillary Clinton, after her election campaign ended in farce, and she was too crushed- so it is said- even to address her shell-shocked supporters on the night in question. It is easier still to make fun of this pretentious volume. It is, for example, almost unbelievable, that in it she devotes a chapter to gun control without apparently noticing that the right to bear arms is enshrined in the American Constitution.
But let us remember that Hillary was disorientated by her defeat, and had obviously not completely recovered her balance by the time she started to write. While then we should take some of what she says with a pinch of salt there are lessons here, and some other good stuff which is worth glancing at.
First though, let’s look for the lesson. We all have our faults. Neither the sons of Adam nor the daughters of Eve are immune from human weaknesses. Hillary’s problem is pride. There is no trace of understatement in her rhetoric. There is no hint of modesty in her character. It is a virtue quite alien to her nature. She can be kind, but she wants you to know that she can be kind. She can be responsible, but she demands that you respect her for her responsibility. She is intelligent, very intelligent, but she insists ( very much one of her words ) that you reward her for her intelligence. And perhaps most troubling of all she knows that she has read runes of history, and she is sure that she ( and her supporters ) are in tune with it, and she demands that we respect her for the profundity of her insight. She storms against inequality, and yet is the very embodiment of entitlement.
What else but entitlement can possibly explain the way in which she and Bill ( who really should have stopped on this one!) bought the house next door in order to accommodate the secret service agents with which she would be surrounded when she became president!
Of course Hillary is justified in raising questions about Russian interference in the election, ( but see below ) she is justified too in defending herself about the matter of her email server, and she is on firm ground when she points out that her opponent was less qualified than she to be president. But the difficulty was though that Trump wanted to win, and she merely thought that she should get the job. He relished the campaign. She campaigned. He loved the rallies. She addressed them. He was a rascal, and she made a point of sleeping every night at home, deeply confident that she would win. And this all showed, and she turned off millions of white working class voters who stormed the polling stations in record numbers across the “rust belt” to vote for “the Donald.” It wasn’t then so much a matter of what happened, but that he captured a mood which had been defined by Brexit.
The lesson then of this book is that in democratic politics good intentions, and competence are not enough. Something else is needed. There needs to be a lived recognition of one’s own fallibility. It is often called having a sense of humour, but however one defines it Reagan had it, Bill had it, most crucially Trump had something like it, but somehow Hillary lacked it.
As a practicing Methodist Hillary must have known that pride as comes before a fall( No need to read Milton for that!) . Why then did she run? Was she really so ignorant of her own weakness? She is an intelligent woman and it would be surprising if she were really so unaware of her own foibles. A more probable explanation for her presidential ambition ( which some of her friends warned her against!) is, as she explains, although she doesn’t put like this, that she was misled by the good and decent side of her character into imagining that she would make a better candidate than was ever really likely to be the case. Ultimately then Hillary lost because she did not know herself.
Poor candidate though she was Hillary was excited by the details of government, and by the possibilities of exercising power, and she really believed that she could do a better job of being president than anyone else. To me, the most interesting example of this side of her character revealed by her book is the proposal for a negative income tax that she and Bill worked on but ultimately rejected as too expensive. The passage in question is worth quoting, as it gives a little of the flavour of this important side of her character.
“I was fascinated by this idea, as was my husband, and we spent weeks working with our policy team [ trust our Hillary to have a policy team! ] to see if it could be…include[d] in my campaign [ as a proposal]…Unfortunately, we couldn’t make the numbers work. To provide a meaningful dividend each year to every citizen, you’d have to raise enormous sums of money, and that would either mean a lot of new taxes or cannibalising other important programmes.” ( p.239)
Oh dear, oh dear, here we have Clintons at their best and their worst. The intention is right- to get resources into the hands of those who don’t have them. The notion of bypassing the bureaucrats and instead just giving people a cheque is sound too. But obviously such payments would be in place of other benefits rather than in addition to them, as Hillary and Bill supposed!
So what are we to make of Hillary and her book? Hillary’s strong point are her intentions, which I don’t think can be faulted, and her seriousness, which is evident in everything that she writes. The problems though are deeper, she fails to see that despite, or perhaps because, of her experience in Washington, that the very multiplicity of solutions and programmes that she endorsed threatened to change the very nature of the American experience. For all his glaring faults, Trump persuaded enough Americans in the right places that more of the same, and particularly more immigration, meant less of America. That is what really happened. And this is something that Hillary shows no sign of ever being able to understand!
NOTE: It is interesting to find the left wing publication “The Nation”- easily accessed through the links on The Drudge Report- throwing cold water on the claims that the Russians played any significant part in the election.