What Happened

By Hillary Rodham Clinton

Simon & Schuster

One year ago today, September 22 2016, was a very different world for Hillary Clinton.

She awoke to a new national opinion poll that had her six points up and the knowledge that her team was preparing for a hectic day on the trail – ten events were being held on her behalf across the country and around the world. Today, by contrast, she is probably taking part in events to publicise this book, rather than being hard at work behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

And there is little doubt that she would have been hard at work. Of the many nuggets and vignettes that adorn these pages, Hillary’s pride in “sweating the details” and being an “unashamed policy wonk” comes through loud and clear.

What Happened is no chronological account of the 2016 election. Instead, it begins with the inauguration of Donald Trump and Clinton’s feelings and emotions as she – as a former first lady – stoically showed up to take a ringside seat and watch him take the oath of office. Although this was not the first time a vanquished foe had had to watch their opponent being sworn in, her account is nonetheless riveting and funny in places too.

She then takes us through the trauma of her concession speech and then the days that followed in her home in Chappaqua, New York: “It wasn’t all yoga and breathing: I also drank my fair share of Chardonnay.” Walking in the woods with Bill often featured highly too.

The book is split into different thematic chapters, such as the one in which she talks about being a woman in politics – “I think there’s another explanation for the skepticism I’ve faced in public life. I think it’s partly because I’m a woman”; emails – “a maddening saga”; and the pervasive influence and impact of Russia on the election – “Putin doesn’t respect women and despises anyone who stands up to him, so I’m a double problem”.

The latter chapter, as you might expect, is particularly interesting. Clinton’s anger and frustration at what we know the Russians did, and what is suspected they did, seeps through every line. Similarly, her ire for former FBI director James Comey and Julian Assange of Wikileaks knows no bounds. Comey, in particular, draws her fire for what she believes to be his hypocrisy, election-tipping interference and much else besides.

Most readers will pick up this book wanting Clinton’s perspective on why she lost. Despite what her critics have said is her reluctance to take the blame, she nonetheless fronts up: “I go back over my own shortcomings and the mistakes we made. I take responsibility for all of them. You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want – but I was the candidate. It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.” Now that sounds like taking responsibility to me.

Nevertheless, she does go on to list the other factors – “the strong headwinds” – which turned her campaign poll lead into election day defeat. Among those not listed are her perceived failure to campaign sufficiently in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – she points out that she had more organisers on the ground than President Obama in both Michigan and Pennsylvania and spent far more on television ads. Only Wisconsin, she concedes, was a surprise.

Far more to blame, she says, was “The Comey Effect” (what she calls “an unprecedented intervention), as well as the Russian interference, excessive coverage of her emails, “the avalanche of fake news” and voter suppression – “In Wisconsin, where I lost by just 22,748 votes, a study from Priorities USA estimated that the new voter ID law helped reduce turnout by 200,000 votes, primarily from low-income and minority areas.”

Since this book came out, much has been made of Clinton’s return to the public spotlight, with many stateside observers decrying her refusal to go gentle into that good night. But why should she? As she points out, other defeated candidates have not shied away – Bernie Sanders, for example, has written two books about 2016.

Certainly, the rocketing sales of the book suggest that there remains a captive market for her perspective and rightly so, for this is an important book and Clinton’s remains an important voice. It’s also a voice, in this book at least, that comes across as knowledgeable, prepared, fun and caring. That this did not emerge more clearly in the weeks before election day must surely be something of a relief to the current occupant of the Oval Office.