Hillary Rodham Clinton
494 pp: Simon & Schuster, 2017
Fire and Ashes
224 pp: Random House Canada, 2013
Reviewed by Tim Anderson
Few people get to write one memoir in life. Last month, Hillary Clinton gifted the earth with her third. What Happened is a detailed explanation of how and why her campaign managed to lose a presidential election against the least qualified major candidate in American history.
Unfortunately, anyone hoping for an honest answer will be disappointed. Most of the 494-page book reads as a settling of scores with Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and the American media. While written accessibly, the content is altogether contradictory and self-serving. On multiple occasions, Clinton takes responsibility for the loss: “I was the candidate, and the campaign’s decisions were mine.” But this is just window dressing. She says she was responsible for the losing campaign, but the election loss itself was everybody’s fault but hers.
Clinton is hardly the first person to lose an election and then stir the entrails in a book. Canadians may recall Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes – his effort to come to terms with his epic failure in the 2011 federal election, when he led the Liberals to a third place finish and their lowest seat count in history and was defeated in his own riding. Although the scale of Ignatieff’s flame-out was bigger, there are a number of parallels between the losers. Both suffered difficult defeats the first time they ran for their party’s leadership. Both won it on their second go-around with an air of entitlement. Both were criticized from the left-wing of their parties for being insufficiently progressive. Both lost elections to opponents that their party faithful considered beyond the pale. Both wrote memoirs describing their failures.
Yet their books differ sharply. Ignatieff waited two years after his defeat to publish a slim epistle totalling just 209 pages. Clinton’s door-stopper went to press ten months after election day, and is 60 percent longer. The extra time Ignatieff took was put to good use. It enabled him to write with some dispassionate distance – and honesty. He admits that “hubris” animated his entry into politics, and that one of his failures as leader was that he took too long to figure out a clear purpose for running. That allowed the Conservative attack machine to roar into the vacuum, portraying Ignatieff as a self-centred and opportunistic ex-pat who “didn’t come back for you”.
In contrast, Clinton says she had a clear reason for running, which can be summarized thus: ‘I thought I could continue the progressive path of Barack Obama’s presidency and inspire women.’ Except that’s not a reason to be president. It’s a manufactured talking point that was focus-grouped to death. As it dawned on the Clinton campaign that her raison d’etre wasn’t resonating, they went through three slogans: I’m With Her, Love Trumps Hate, and Stronger Together. But slogans are like quarterbacks; if you have more than one, you don’t have any.
In Fire and Ashes Ignatieff admits that initially “I had almost no sense of political vocation and I certainly didn’t have a good answer to the question of why I wanted to hold high office.” In What Happened Clinton never comes closer to deep interior criticism than this: “I have come to terms with the fact that a lot of people … decided they just didn’t like me.” One can see why she had trouble connecting with people as a politician – or even as a fellow human being.
The last third of the two books are the most instructive. Ignatieff recalls the various failures that big political thinkers have had in politics. Cicero, Edmund Burke, and John Stuart Mill were geniuses but lousy politicians. Although comparing oneself to those men is terribly arrogant, Ignatieff has a point about the difficulties of turning theory into practice. It indicates he understands that he was never meant to have a successful political career, and that he has internalized Cassius’ comment to Brutus; the fault lies in ourselves, not in our stars.
In contrast, Clinton wags an accusatory finger at the stars. She contends that main criticisms of her campaign are misplaced. She did campaign enough in the “rust belt” states that Trump won, but the data her team relied on was flawed. She did have a strong economic message, but the media wouldn’t cover it. She wasn’t fated to lose, since she won the popular vote. Instead, she believes she lost because of Russian internet skullduggery, amorphous forces of sexism and racism, a hostile media, and her campaign’s inability to overcome a populist “headwind”. (She does admit to stoking that wind with her dismissal of Trumpkins as “deplorables”.)
But Clinton has one more excuse. She contends that if the election had been held on October 27th instead of November 8, she would have won. She is referring, of course, to erstwhile-FBI director James Comey’s October 28 letter to Congress indicating that new evidence had come to light pertaining to the Clinton email scandal. By that logic, the election should have been held in July, right after Comey decided not to charge Clinton for her improper use of a private email server as Secretary of State.
Clinton argues that the re-opening of the email scandal so close to voting day stalled her electoral momentum, and drove many undecided voters towards Trump or not voting. Maybe so. But she omits that none of this would have happened if she hadn’t installed an illegal server so that she could avoid public scrutiny of whatever dubious matters she wished to conceal. That, and 25 years experience with Clintonian “truthiness”, gave voters every reason not to grant her the benefit of the doubt.
While Fire and Ashes is imperfect, for this reader Ignatieff’s book evoked a sense of pathos that Clinton’s didn’t. His evidently genuine intent wasn’t to settle personal scores but to give guidance to future students and politicians. What Happened is a transparent effort to claim titular responsibility while laying the actual blame elsewhere. At the end of Clinton’s book, she tries to inspire younger people to not give up on progressive politics. We can only hope that people inclined to that persuasion will not draw strength from her self-pity and defensiveness.