Donnerstag, 28. September 2017

"What Happened" Review

Anmerkung: Ich habe dieses Review aufgrund diverser Bitten von Followern auf Englisch verfasst. "Breath now. Scream later." This is what Hillary Clinton told herself during Trump's inauguration, according to her new book, "What Happened". It's one of the things that I always wondered about: how do you feel when you lost something like that? If you're Mitt Romney, how do you go to Obama smiling and congratulate him? If you're Al Gore, how do you step before the microphones and tell your followers to accept a ruling you abhor and to support a president you think will be a disaster? I have to say, I didn't expect much insight in this regard. I'm not a regular reader of political memoirs; I didn't even read Obama's wildly praised books. "What Happened" is my third political memoir ever, since these tend to be just expanded stump speeches. You'd have to lock me in a cell with "Hard Choices" to actually read that one. So why did I read "What Happened"? I didn't plan to initially. But the reviews it got were quite interesting. After a wave of "oh no, who wants to hear about Hillary's blame game?", there were many reviews by people I trust and respect who said it was actually, you know, good. I had to see for myself.

My big takeaway is that this book is very, very Hillary. A friend of mine immediately suspected that it was written by a ghostwriter, but I don't think so. The whole thing is just so her. It's not like the volume is fun to read, or well written. Both is said about Obama's books, or Churchill's, but I never read those. And "What Happened" isn't exactly poetry. It's working prose. It does the job without a hiccup, but nothing more than that. Frankly, any ghostwriter could have done a better job. What it does is to transport Clinton's voice onto the page, which like the whole person who wrote it is sometimes good and sometimes downright infuriating. Clinton tends to pepper her paragraphs with proofs that she's a human being - it has always been one of her greatest weaknesses to come off as cold and distant - and those work neither on the page nor in person. Her attempts at humor also fall largely flat; she simply cannot tell a joke, again neither on page nor in person. It's not who she is. Moments of false modesty also glare up, for example when she critizes herself for "not anticipating that her huge mistake with the emails would get so much coverage" (paraphrasing here), which is a total non-apology. There is also a shit-ton of inspirational quotes hamfisted into the text that remind me very much of debate performances and interviews, and not in a good way. But you don't read a Clinton book for its style, and we'll come back to the political consequences of this later.

The book starts with Trump's inauguration day, and from the very first pages I was surprised at how candid and assertive she is. I expected a white-washed account, full of "best for the country"-rhetoric and stalwart determination, but Clinton openly admits to being infuriated, yelling at the TV, all the things one would expect in such a situation. I liked this a lot about the book. She doesn't hold back. This is, by the way, also a strong indication that her political career is over. If she wanted to run again, she'd write another version of "Hard Choices". So don't fret, she won't be on the ballot in 2020.

What I found especially honest and enlighting about these first pages is how she fought with herself whether to go to the inauguration at all and later whether to speak at the Woman's March. In both cases, she made the right decision (yes and no), but she describes the temptation to her to do the exact opposite in great detail. It's something I can emphasize with. I was also absolutely surprised by how assertive she takes the mantle of a feminist, female candidate in the book and criticizes the sexism she was subjected to. Obama never made racism into a big topic, so her departure from this is striking and not something that squares very well with the cold, distant persona that she also has. The whole book is a whiplash experience in that. Hillary Clinton is a complicated person, another theme I will come back to again. Her sources of strength as well as her greatest weaknesses come from this well.

She then goes on to describe the decision to run in 2014 and the days until the beginning of the campaign on 2015. She's very brief here, which I find disappointing. This also seems like a more dishonest part of the book to me. Sure, there will have been some doubts and all, but my feeling is that Clinton was more like an undecided voter: deep down, she was always going to run; what she needed was the push over the edge by friends and family. As a political nerd, I'd also have relished some juicy insights from the invisible primary, but there wasn't a lot of it.

It gets more interesting when she describes the process that lead to her campaign planning. She describes the press' reactions to her anouncement speech and highlights a piece that pointed out that she placed a huge bet: that she was able to convince Americans that she could do more for them with a host of policies that would force Republicans to leave their "low taxes" comfort zone. Well, that bet didn't pay off, to say the least. Clinton doesn't outright state it, but it's a current theme throughout these passages: she simply didn't have a coherent message. The way she glowingly describes her team putting together detailled policy proposals shows, once again, that she still is the old Hillary. This giant weakness was exploited mercilessly by the Trump campaign; but we'll come back to this when we get to the blame list.

The topic takes a sharp turn when she talks about the specific challenges she faced and faces as a woman in politics, and here I was really surprised. Clinton doesn't hold back at all; she outright accuses the media, the system and society at large of sexism and describes how this has harmed her her entire career. She also tries to build a counter-narrative of her person, in which she's one of the leaders of second-wave feminism and immediately admits how it is almost impossible to tell a compelling story of her life. It's a conundrum she never solved. While it paints an intriguing what-if - in this case, what if Clinton had spun the narrative of the "feminist candidate" from the beginning - I highly doubt it would have been a workable idea, or even a good one. While Clinton's life-story told in the terms of the emancipation movement is compelling, it doesn't really match her public persona. This chapter, as much as I agree with the general thrust, reeks a lot like after-the-fact justification to me. That's not to say she's wrong that she had major disadvantages because of her gender; it's just that among other problems - including some of her own making - it isn't as important, and I can imagine feminists taking issue with Clinton suddenly taking the lead here to basically explain her defeat. A problematic chapter, to say the least.

The next one is as unproblematic as it is irrelevant: Clinton tells her lifestory and that of her mother at length and delves into a meandering story about her marriage to Bill and the personality of Chelsea. If you're a real Clinton-fan, this might be of some value to you, but honestly, I'm not, so this one bored me, mostly. It felt like filler in a book that should be about the election.

The next part tries to tie the stances developed in the chapter about feminism and her family into a political topic: gun control. She talks about mass shootings and loop holes, organizing mothers of murdered children into a force, but of all it lacks connective tissue. The chapter is most memorable for her tearing into Bernie's largely unpunished hipocricy on guns and the NRA, deserveredly so, but it's all boiler-plate rhetoric of liberal candidates and doesn't really advance the book. I don't want to seem like I'm saying gun control isn't important, but as with the previous chapter, the book seriously loses focus here and meanders way too much - which is, of course, also "What Happened" in 2016, but I doubt Clinton intended this as a subtle meta-critique of her campaign. Unfortunately, it stays like that. Clinton meanders from policy proposals to stories from the campaign ("the ongoing project to humanize Hillary Clinton", as one reviewer put it) to history lessons without much rhyme or reason. The maddening thing is that she says practically only things that are true, and that her proposals are very good in most cases, but nothing goes with anything. When she then despairingly intersperses a story like her trip to West Virginia, where she was greeted by pure hatred and the miners were lead by a CEO days before taking his prison sentence for being responsible for the death of miners due to ignoring the very safety regulations Obama and Clinton advocate, the contrast to Obama 2012 is most noticable. Obama would never have head the opportunity fly by to paint the smirking oligarch posing as the champion of the people he killed out of greed as exactly the piece of shit he is. But Clinton is unable, even a year later and with all the time and uninterruptedness of writing a book, to commit her existent lefty economics into anything resembling a narrative. It's maddening.

Other episodes really show in a nutshell all the strengths and weaknesses of Clinton. Much has been made in the progressive press of her toying with the idea to make a Universal Basic Income a campaign proposal, and rightly so. Clinton describes how they couldn't make the math work and ruefully asks whether it would have been better to "campaign with a bold idea and worry about the details later". It's a constant criticism I hurl at the left all over the world to make this exact mistake. Conservatives don't care a second about policy and details, they throw their shit out. Clinton had several (!) policy teams busy for weeks trying to basically enact policy in the middle of a campaign. What a waste of precious time and resources! At another point earlier in the book, Clinton mused that she would have won in a parliamentary system. She definitely would have. I mean, she actually did. Just look at Merkel. It's basically the same fucking thing.

The book snaps back into focus when Clinton finally remembers the title of the volume. Her critique of the resentment politics, the media biases and narrative obsession and Comey's role are all analytically sound and on point (although Clinton understandably and annoyingly bemoans the double standard about her scandals that she knows existed for 30 years a bit too much, given how eager she fed her own narrative at times). She spends quite some time with the email scandal, pointing out her own role in the clusterfuck (apologizing for it), but also aggressively asserting the double standard again: not only did no secretary of state ever use a .gov adress, but she turned over all work-related mails, whereas the Bush administration "lost" several million (!) of them. She then painstakenly analyzes the media's role in exaggerating the scandal. It's hard not to agree with her here; no matter how guilty she was, ultimately the scandal wasn't worth the time spent on it and contributed mightily to her defeat. She's very hard with the New York Times especially and the media generally in this chapter, and it's a bit ominous that exactly the institutions she calls out gave her book good reviews, but omitted this part. There's some serious soul-searching yet to be done for sure.

Clinton closes the email chapter with a venomenous attack on James Comey, pointing out his rabid partisanship and hypocricy, which gets even worse when the topic switches to Russian influence. Surprisingly, it's this topic and not the email bullshit and Comey letter in which she gets most passionate. She's absolutely incredulous at press and voters both that no one took the Russia issue seriously (again, with good reason) and details how damaging the interference was for her campaign, but always coming back to how breathtaking in effect the whole thing was, blasting the media for not taking it seriously. In a half-sentence, she mentions that the media liked to treat it as "her" conspiracy theory, so that they needn't only attack Trump for his nutty bullshit, and this critique of both-siderism in the campaign seems far too modest to me. It is one of the huge enabling factors, in truth.

The section pivots into a section seperating the Russian issue from her campaign, painting it as a national security issue that should alarm any American. Again, it's a bit weird that she seems to care more about that factor than the effect on her campaign itself (which is decidely not true about the other points), but this is her general area of expertise and passion, obviously. She also links the whole fake news debate to Russia in a coherent way, by pointing out that Republicans' war on truth provided the fertile ground on which Russian propaganda can now take hold. At the end of the chapter, Mitch McConnel gets his deserved blast for blocking any inquiry into the spy activities and threatening Obama to make it a partisan issue if Obama ever uttered a word in public. This man is the most evil person in America, really. The GOP gets off surprisingly light in the whole book anyway, which I regard as a shortcoming. They were the huge enablers of this whole mess in the first place, about which I've written extensively.

From here, Clinton launches into the final section of her book with another personal story, recounting the events of election day and election night. It's raw and honest; she admits to not being prepared to the idea of losing at all, remembers how the shock numbed everyone and describes how difficult it was to find the right tone in the concession speech, but also emphasized that it was important to her and Obama to quickly concede in a graceful manner for the sake of democracy's health, a measure Trump had already announced he'd not have taken if he'd lost. From there, she provides a crisp and clear analysis of "What happened" (and thankfully, it had become a real slog in the middle part), laying it out once again, from campaigning in the Rust Belt to the economic message (or supposed lack thereof), from emails to Fake News, from Russia to Comey. This section is, together with the other analytical parts, easily the best of the book. It shows the clear thinking that the campaign always attributed to her instead of the stilted emoting she's "famous" for.

The closing chapters, then, are again summing up everything that went wrong in the campaign for which Clinton was personally responsible, although she certainly didn't intend it that way. The ending resembles the one of "The Return of the King": not one, not two, not three, but a bazillon endings, each totally different in tone, each adressing another issue, and each good on its own. There's an ending with a call to action, there's one with advice for Democrats, there's one with a heartwarming family story, there's one with Clinton's personal history, one with a feminist touch, and finally one that closes the circle to the story of her graduation speech in the 1960s that she recounted earlier in the book. And none of it mixes well with the rest. Each of these stories could be powerful in their own right, but together, they lack focus, compete with each other and drown each other out until an incoherent mess remains. Which is exactly what happened to her campaign. In that way, it's a fitting end.

And in that spirit, let's not end the review here, but give a final conclusion. This is not a good book in a traditional sense; too bloated, too unfocused. But where Clinton trims the fat and gives an analysis, it's brillant. She's able to step next to herself and to analyze her own mistakes, lay bare root causes and be very constrained when it comes to recounting monstrous injustices (even if you think they're just perceived ones). The major point where she's not able to see her own weak spot is with her inability to construct a clear narrative, to decide which Hillary Clinton she wants to be. A lot of this inability is rooted in her long own history and the hostility she always encountered as a woman not fitting traditional stereotypes in the second half of the 20th century, but nonetheless, this is the genuine issue where she still doesn't get what exactly her problem is.

But she won't ever run for anything again, so it doesn't really matter anymore. Her defiant declarance not to go silently into the night but to try and help foster the next generation of Democrat leaders can therefore leave the reader with the knowledge that as an advisor, her shortcomings don't matter that much and that her undeniable qualities will have a place to shine. And that's something. So, let's give it to her: we're Stronger Together, and now the battle cry is Onward Together.      

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