Hillary Clinton’s ‘What Happened’ says something revealing about America

If you’re looking for a takeaway beyond the soundbites from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election postmortem “What Happened,” you’ll have to read deep into the book. It doesn’t come until page 450, in a discussion of decorum and how it applies to losing candidates. “At first,” Clinton writes, “I had intended to keep relatively quiet. Former presidents and former nominees often try to keep a respectful distance from the front lines of politics, at least for a while. I have always admired how both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush avoided criticizing Bill and Barack, and how Bill ended up working with George H.W. on tsunami relief in Asia and Katrina recovery on the Gulf Coast. … That’s how it’s supposed to work. But these weren’t ordinary times, and Trump wasn’t an ordinary president.”

Yes, yes, and again (for emphasis): yes. Clinton is correct. This suggests why “What Happened” is a necessary — if at times clunky and unconvincing — retrospective. Not because the former secretary of State lowers her guard (she doesn’t, really), nor because she has the right (of course she does) to tell her story in any way that she sees fit. No, the issue is the 2016 election and its aftermath, which, not unlike the tsunami or Katrina, has left us to reckon with a catastrophe of unprecedented scale.

I don’t want to re-litigate the presidential contest; it is over and our only option is, as Clinton observes in her final line here, to “Keep going.” But I also agree with George Santayana that “[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We disregard history at our peril; demagogues such as President Trump and Vladimir Putin depend on that. In that sense, perhaps, the most useful way to read “What Happened” is as one last instance of Clinton doing what she calls her civic duty. That the book is marked by her flaws (namedropping, contrived inspirational anecdotes, a refusal, or at least an inability, to reckon with her own failings as a candidate) as much as by her strengths (an expert’s understanding of policy and process, as well as an unexpectedly authentic sense of empathy) is only as it should be. This is her story, after all, and the most useful measure of it is to say the portrait that emerges is very much in line with the person, public or otherwise, we’ve known all along.

Let me be honest: I voted for Clinton in both the primary (as a matter of strategy) and in the general (more enthusiastically). I’ve never cared all that much for her as a person, but her preparedness and level of achievement is beyond dispute. She should have been president, and she knows it; regret and loss is palpable throughout the book. And yet it’s also the case that she remains unable to reckon with just what happened in the 2016 election, looking for explanations, for reasons, while at the same time never quite uncovering her own complicity.

There are plenty of reasons for what happened in November, which also represented the manifestation of a seismic shift in presidential politics away from what is often derisively referred to as “business as usual” toward something more anarchic and unprepared. But at heart, I think, it’s a matter of our biases, racial and cultural and gender, all of which remain in force. “[W]hen a woman lands a political punch,” Clinton writes, “… it’s not read as the normal sparring that men do all the time in politics. It makes her a ‘nasty woman.’ ” Again, she is absolutely right. Read “What Happened,” then, not as score settling or revisionist history. Read it, rather, as what is it: self-serving in places but relatively honest, if not a knockout blow then something of a necessary punch.

Ulin is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles.” A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book editor and book critic of The Times.

What Happened

Hillary Rodham Clinton

Simon & Schuster: 512 pp., $30

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