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By Godfrey Hodgson
Book: What Happened
Author: Hillary Rodham Clinton
Publication: Simon & Schuster
Price: Rs 699
For many, in America and around the world, almost as astonishing as the fact that Donald Trump is now occupying the White House, is the fact that Hillary Clinton is not. Mrs Clinton herself does not quite understand that deplorable fact. Her memoirs are a thoughtful and candid attempt to understand what to her is still almost incomprehensible. Indeed her book might better have been called, not What happened, but What went wrong?
This is not mere egotism. Mrs Clinton is indeed highly qualified to be president. Her undergraduate career at Wellesley and at the Yale law school attest to her academic ability. Her experience is unusually broad and remarkably relevant for a president. As a practicing lawyer and wife of a rising politician in Arkansas, she had more experience than most national politicians of the poisonous brew of race, class and gender resentment that obsesses contemporary American politics.
Her experience as wife of the president not only vaccinated her, in often painful ways, against the dangers that lurk in the path of the mighty. She chose to specialise in the tangled problems that make it so hard to reform the American healthcare system, and indeed failed in that. She served in the Senate, and learned how the game of thrones is played on Capitol Hill. As secretary of state, she not only received an advanced education in international politics, she learned sharp lessons about what it is to live in the media storm.
None of this prepared her to lose the presidency, not once, but twice: she was only narrowly beaten by Barack Obama in 2008. Nor can she quite forget that there is a sense in which she did not lose the presidential race of 2016. She failed to win the necessary majority in that antiquated constitutional oddity, the electoral college, where Trump collected 57 per cent of the votes. But she did receive almost 3 million more votes from the American people than he did. She can say, because it is true, that “if just 40,000 people in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania had changed their minds, I would have won”. But Mrs Clinton knows that victories are made up of many fungible packets of 40,000 voters.
She is a savvy enough political wonk to dispose, fairly convincingly, of some of the more frequent “technical” reasons for her defeat that have been recited by the pundits. Did she not campaign enough in the Middle West? She lists how often she went there, how many staff she had working there, how much money she spent.
She even has the emotional intelligence to acknowledge that “when people are angry and looking for someone to blame they don’t want to hear your 10 point plan to create jobs and raise wages. They want you to be angry too.” She’s angry now.
Understandably, she makes much of two extraneous events that damaged her chances. She lays a good deal of blame on the unaccountable decision of James Comey, then director of the FBI, to announce, days before polling, that he had received a new batch of e-mails relevant to the Clinton campaign.
In fact they concerned not Hillary, but the behaviour of an errant congressman, the disgraced husband of Hillary’s closest aide. But they enabled Trump to resume his campaign about Hillary’s use of a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state, essentially a red herring. It enabled him to go on calling her “crooked Hillary” and for his crowds to chant “lock her up” (It must be excruciatingly for Mrs Clinton to learn now that six of the inner Trump circle were also using private e-mails in office).
Comey’s action is inexplicable and inexcusable. He is certainly no friend of Donald Trump. Possibly, he was trying to protect himself against some later charge that he had covered up facts potentially damaging to Hillary.
The second external event, still imperfectly understood, was the mysterious matter of Russian interference in the election. This will presumably be uncovered eventually by the various investigations now underway. Hillary Clinton is clear that Putin’s men were trying to influence the election in favour of Trump. She seems not to understand, or to admit, that Putin is no friend of hers because of her part in NATO expansion.
Why do I think she lost? I think she had very bad luck. But I also think that she was the victim of her own virtues, or what she sees as her own virtues. There is an almost smug sense of entitlement, a sense that she deserves to win because of her virtues, and because she represents in her person the Christian virtues and the exceptional virtue of the United States. It used to be only foreigners who were irritated by the American confidence in doing well by doing good. Things have gone badly enough for enough Americans now, that many of them too, find this insufferable.
She also suspects that she was unsuccessful because she is a woman. It does indeed seem that there is more political misogyny in America than in most other democracies. But there are approximately 130 million adult women in the United States. Hillary Clinton is certainly more qualified than most of them. But there are others. And many Americans, including many American women, have noticed that, for all her real merits and accomplishments, the irony of her passionate feminism is that she was only a senator in the first place, then a presidential candidate, and then Secretary of State, because she married a man who became president.