Hillary Clinton, What Happened (Simon & Schuster 2017)
Susan Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton (The Text Publishing Company 2017)
So much has been said and written about how Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 U.S. Presidential election because she was a “flawed” candidate, and about her supposed inauthenticity.
In response to the question, ‘ Who is Hillary Clinton, really?’, large numbers of Americans have, in multiple ways, insisted she’s a liar, untrustworthy, a war-monger, an Establishment agent, a privileged white lady, a Lady Macbeth, unlikeable, avaricious, corrupt, criminal, vicious, and worse (enabler for a sexual predator, a murderer).
I’m not American. I’ve watched Hillary since 1992 (not before). I followed media and social media coverage of the 2016 campaign and election. I’ve read her autobiography Living History, and now I’ve read her memoir and analysis of the 2016 elections, titled What Happened, and I remain puzzled.
Not puzzled as to who Hillary is. Seems simple to me: she’s a Methodist. An over-achieving, hyper-capable, intellectually brilliant Methodist with a life-long dedication to public service.
My puzzlement continues over how it is that such large numbers of American citizens refuse to accept it can be so simple, and prefer to believe in Clinton as a bitch-witch Medusa.
These two recent publications – What Happened by Hillary Clinton, and The Destruction of Hillary Clinton by feminist academic Susan Bordo, a media critic and cultural historian – attempt to address public perceptions of who Hillary is, and other factors that contributed to her election loss, resulting in the triumph of President Donald Trump.
If you’re committed to the view that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she personally is “flawed”, or flawed as a candidate, I hope you will nonetheless continue reading. Most of this review focuses not on Hillary’s character and history, but on those other factors that combined to help undo her campaign.
In both Clinton’s and Bordo’s accounts, but most expansively in Clinton’s, other factors of vital public interest are identified:
- Cyber warfare, also known as “active measures” – “semicovert or covert intelligence operations to shape an adversary’s political decisions” (Thomas Rid, Professor of Security Studies at King’s College, London).
- The war on truth – the phenomenon of “false news” and a transition within established media from traditional news values to news as entertainment: news for ratings, news as click bait, news to fuel a 24-hours news cycle.
- Inappropriate interference by State agencies in the electoral process, in breach of established protocols.
- The breakdown of Democratic voter solidarity, with voters taking their cues from dissenter Democrat or third party leaders.
At more length:
Putin, Wikileaks, cyber warfare and the war on truth
In the section of her book titled ‘Frustration’, which examines in depth specific issues and missteps within Clinton’s campaign that caused its failure, Clinton has a chapter titled ‘Trolls, Bots, Fake News, and Real Russians’. Whatever your personal views on Clinton, I recommend this chapter as a serious essay by a former Secretary of State on cyber propaganda as proxy warfare.
“The January 2017 Intelligence Community report called the Russian influence campaign a ‘new normal,’ and predicted Moscow would continue attacking the United States and its allies. Given the success Putin has had, we should expect interference in future elections and even more aggressive cyber and propaganda efforts. […]
“We should also expect the right-wing war on truth to continue. As Trump faces growing political and legal challenges, he and his allies will likely intensify their efforts to delegitimize the mainstream press, the judiciary, and anyone else who threatens his preferred version of reality.”
Clinton suggests four steps:
- A Special Counsel investigation in tandem with an independent commission with subpoena power, to “provide a full public accounting of the attack against our country and make recommendations to improve security going forward”.
- State and private sector partnership to plan and invest in improvements to U.S. networks and national infrastructure security, alongside acceleration of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies’ own offensive cyber and information warfare capabilities.
- Publicly calling out cyber enemies – Putin and Wikileaks – and taking tough measures against them.
- “We need to beat back the assault on truth and reason here at home and rebuild trust in our institutions.” Social media and tech companies need to adjust algorithms, deactivate bot networks, partner with fact-checkers and generally clean up their platforms. Mainstream media need to reaffirm a commitment to rigorously uphold factual rather than speculative or unexamined reporting.
By implication (Clinton doesn’t spell this out), individuals need to educate themselves to better identify fake news and stop fuelling it: stop Sharing fake news, but also stop Liking and Commenting, as responses on fake news posts trigger the algorithms that spread these posts more widely.
In What Happened’s final section, titled ‘Resilience’, in a chapter titled ‘Onward Together’, Clinton does strongly urge individuals to participate in public political conversation:
“If you’ve been keeping your opinions to yourself, try speaking out – whether that’s on social media, in a letter to the editor, or in conversations with friends, family, and neighbors. Your views are every bit as valuable as everyone else’s. You’ll be surprised by how satisfying it can be to express yourself. And chances are, once you take a stand, you’ll find you’re not standing alone for long. If all else fails, make a sign and show up at a protest.”
Using the mantra “Resist, insist, persist, and enlist”, with the emphasis on “enlist”, Clinton recommends further civic engagement:
- “Register to vote.” Encourage friends, family and others to register too.
- “Get involved in a cause that matters to you.” Actively involved.
- Engage with our elected representatives.
- Run for office.
In that section titled ‘Frustration’, Clinton addresses at length avoidable mistakes she made. A chapter titled ‘Country Roads’ examines economic stagnation in rural areas previously dependent on the fossil fuel industries, states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and parts of Ohio. She examines the impact of her statement at a town hall meeting that “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”. This chapter is heartfelt and thoughtful, and I was astonished at her courage in subsequently fronting up to a public meeting in Mingo County in West Virginia, “arguably Ground Zero for the coal crisis”. Here the candidate ran a gauntlet of “several hundred angry protestors chanting ‘We want Trump!’ and ‘Go home Hillary’”. One woman had hands dripping red paint to symbolize blood and yelled accusations about Benghazi.
In this chapter Clinton does not make excuses. She presents a distressing picture of the plight of Appalachian communities and discusses the issues from multiple angles. She does provide the full context of that inflammatory, widely disseminated quote:
“Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around policies that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these under-served poor communities. So, for example, I’m the only candidate who has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into Coal Country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right Time? And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”
In a later chapter in that section, titled ‘Why’, Clinton provides the context for the inflammatory quote about Trump voters being a “basket of deplorables”. Many Trump supporters, she continued, as quoted by Susan Bordo, are
“People who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures. They are just desperate for change. Doesn’t even really matter where it comes from. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people who we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
Comey and “those damn emails”
There is a chapter titled ‘Those Damn Emails’. Although the issue of Hillary’s use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State dominated coverage of her presidential campaign, and ultimately, arguably, derailed it, the ‘issue’ was only ever a furphy. Federal Register regulations requiring that only government servers be used were brought in in 2013, after Clinton left office. She, like all previous Secretaries of State (Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, for example), did use a private server, and used it for both government and personal email correspondence; this was not in violation of any protocol or law. That she chose to delete her personal emails prior to providing all work-related emails for examination was found to be a legitimate choice. (Powell and Albright, by the way, did not provide any emails for examination, despite official State Department requests.)
Nor was Clinton guilty of improperly or carelessly disseminating classified emails. Even then-FBI director James Comey was obliged to retract his damning public verdict that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her email use. Under questioning on 7 July 2016 (prior to the election vote), Comey acknowledged only three of 110 emails he had claimed were classified, out of more than 30,000 work emails provided, “had any kind of markings on them at all which would have alerted the recipient to their classified status. Those three, moreover, were marked (mistakenly, as it later turned out) only ‘internally,’ with tiny letter symbols pertaining to specific sentences within the emails” (Bordo).
DEMOCRAT MATT CARTWRIGHT: You were asked about marking on a few documents, I have the manual here, marketing national classified security information. And I don’t think you were given a full chance to talk about those three documents with the little ‘c’s on them. Were they properly documented? Were they properly marked according to the manual?
JAMES COMEY: No.
CARTWRIGHT: According to the manual, and I ask unanimous consent to enter this into the record, Mr Chairman.
CHAIRMAN: Without objection so ordered.
CARTWRIGHT: According to the manual, if you’re going to classify something, there has to be a header to the document, right?
CARTWRIGHT: Was there a header on the three documents that we’ve discussed today that had the little ‘c’ in the text somewhere?
COMEY: No. There were three emails, the ‘c’ was in the body, in the text, but there was no header on the email or in the text.
CARTWRIGHT: So if Secretary Clinton really were an expert about what’s classified and what’s not classified and we’re following the manual, the absence of a header would tell her immediately that those three documents were not classified. Am I correct in that?
COMEY: That would be a reasonable inference.
Across the presidential campaign, it’s been quantified that there was three times more coverage of Hillary Clinton’s so-called “email scandal” than there was on all her policy statements combined. The real scandal, according to Clinton and Bordo, is the way Hillary Clinton’s email use as Secretary of State was used as a political weapon to scupper her presidential campaign. Eleven days before the election FBI director Comey publicly announced further investigation into Clinton’s emails, even though the emails in question were subject to a wholly unrelated inquiry (into former congressman Anthony Weiner’s misuse of emails) and in the event turned out to be emails already examined months earlier during the closed inquiry into Clinton’s email use.
It violates protocols for an FBI director to publicly comment on an investigation in process, much less speculate about the possible reopening of a completed investigation where, in Comey’s words, “the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant”.
But that’s what Comey did. Clinton makes a convincing case for Comey’s announcement on 28 October 2016 being the turning point and deciding factor in an election where, for all her “flaws”, she led as preferred candidate at and up until that moment. She believes that a small cabal of FBI agents in the FBI’s New York office pressured Comey into making public statements that amount to electoral interference. Bordo describes it as a “coup d’état”.
Sanders and the Bernie Bros
In What Happened, Hillary Clinton is relatively restrained in her criticisms of Democrat contender Bernie Sanders’ impact on her campaign’s outcome. At some points her anger shows through. At other points she acknowledges him positively. Her main objection to how Sanders managed his campaign and its aftermath is that he set up ‘stalking horse’ policy positions, positions that were so idealistic, so far towards the left, that there was no chance of being able to deliver them as legislation, but which served to discredit her credentials as a “progressive” and made her own policy positions, which Clinton considers to be on the same continuum but pitched more realistically, appear compromised. She objects to his unwillingness to rein in the online vitriol of his more extreme supporters and to correct mischaracterizations of her activist history and affiliations. She notes he was tardy in publicly supporting her campaign after she was confirmed as the Democrat presidential candidate. She points out that ultimately she lost the presidential vote by a slim margin of voters, and that had some Sanders voters not abstained or voted Green, history may have been different.
Susan Bordo is not at all restrained. Her chapter ‘Bernie Sanders and the “Millennials”’ is, at 30 pages, the longest chapter in her book The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. She makes many of the same points Hillary does, but much more angrily. Unlike Hillary, she expresses exasperation at younger feminist voters who say they saw Hillary Clinton as an Establishment candidate or that they didn’t see her feminist policies and politics as relevant. Bordo isn’t at her most convincing in this chapter. She comes across as patronizing younger voters, accusing them of ignorance or immaturity.
The candidate herself is very clear younger voters are the future. She concludes What Happened? with a section titled ‘Resilience’, where in chapters titled ‘Love and Kindness’ and ‘Onward Together’, where she argues the need fervently for common cause. In ‘Onward Together’, she chooses to conclude her book with an account of her May 2017 visit to her college alma mater, Wellesley, where she had been invited to deliver an address to the graduating class, 48 years after she had come to national attention as the first student to deliver an Ivy League college graduation address, an event covered by Life magazine.
What’s interesting to me, and frankly moving, given how clear it is from previous chapters how personally devastated Hillary Clinton was by her election failure, is that in these concluding pages Clinton chooses not to focus on the speech she delivered to the Wellesley graduating class, but on the speech delivered by the representative of that class, Tala Nashawati:
“… she compared her classmates to emeralds. ‘Like us, emeralds are valuable, rare, and pretty durable,’ she said. ‘But there’s something else emeralds are known for: their flaws. I know it’s hard to admit, especially as Wellesley students, but we all have a lot of flaws. We are incomplete, scratched up in some places, jagged around the edges.’
I leaned in, curious. This is not what I had expected to hear.
‘Flawed emeralds are sometimes even better than flawless ones’, Tala went on, ‘because the flaws show authenticity and character.’
There was that word again, authenticity. But she was using it as a balm instead of a bludgeon. Flawed. How often had I heard that word over the past two years. ‘Flawed Hillary.’ But here was Tala defiantly reclaiming the word, insisting on the beauty and strength of imperfection.
Now her classmates were leaning in, too. They snapped their fingers instead of clapping, as Tala smiled and built to her close.
‘In the words of Secretary Clinton, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance in the world to pursue your dreams,’ she told the class of 2017. ‘You are rare and unique. Let yourself be flawed. Go proudly and confidently into the world with your blinding hues to show everyone who’s boss and break every glass ceiling that still remains.’
Now the snaps gave way to cheers. I was among the loudest. I stood and applauded and felt hope and pride rising in my heart. If this was the future, then everything had been worth it.
Things are going to be hard for a long time. But we are going to be okay. All of us.
The rain was ending. It was my turn to speak.
‘What do we do now?’ I said. There was only one answer: ‘Keep going.’”