“What Happened” by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Book Review)

This biography from the former First Lady and Democratic nominee for the 2016 Presidential Election is a fascinating yet ultimately unsatisfying account on what went wrong for her.


The last few years have brought up huge political surprises across the world. 2015 saw the UK vote to leave the EU and in the process inflict on themselves potentially huge economic self harm. Not to be out-done in the ranks of stupidity, in 2016 the US electorate voted en-mass for a racist, sexist bigot to be President of the United States. It sent shock waves around the world, and few were as shocked as the Democratic party nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton. A year on from the shock result in which Clinton won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, this book reflects on her journey and why she believes she lost.

Clinton discusses in detail many different reasons for the result, many of which were certainly contributory factors and yet never quite add up to fully explain the result. In a fascinating chapter Clinton discusses the role of Women in politics, in particular focusing on the differing standards to which men and women are held. She discusses in depth how the media appears reserve a higher level of scrutiny for women, and focuses more on their appearance, clothing and hair than their policies. She also discusses how countries with Prime Ministerial system are more conducive to female leaders, as the leader is chosen by colleagues who can see the candidates experience in the job. Conversely in Presidential systems, female candidates struggle to demonstrate their ability in a meaningful way. This chapter is an utterly compelling account of one woman’s failure to break through the final glass ceiling, while also offering hope to future leaders.

In the last few months in the US there has been an ongoing investigation into potential Russian interference in the election, and this is something which has recently made headlines in the UK with the Prime Minister warning of potential interference in the UK too. This is a story which has the potential to have huge consequences for democracy worldwide, and offers another potential explanation to the result. Clinton explains eloquently why Trump would be the preferable candidate in Putin’s eyes, and goes on to discuss the myriad ways in which she believes Russia may have interfered. From bot-farms and fake social media accounts to cyber attacks and hacking of email servers, Clinton clearly believes without this interference the result may have been very different. While the chapters on female representation are based on clear analysis of media coverage and gender representation in general, these chapters move more into the realm of conjecture and theory. While some may laugh and believe Clinton is now a tin-foil hat conspiracy theorist, recent revelations do support her beliefs, and only time will tell quite how far the Russian rabbit-hole goes.

No discussion about Hillary Clinton and the election could be complete without mention of her emails.  It was a topic that dominated the election more than any other – Clinton states that media coverage focused on her emails versus her policies at a ratio of 4:1. In her book Clinton launches a robust defense of her decision to use a private server while Secretary of State, explaining that other colleagues in the same position before and after her have done the same thing, that she had broken no rules and that even the FBI investigations came back with no concrete evidence of wrongdoing. Yet what Clinton fails to grasp in this book is that while the original act may not have been wrong, her handling of the issue during the election was problematic. By allowing the Republicans to control the narrative and paint her as untrustworthy, she is to some extent complicit in the outcome.

Similarly, while Clinton fails to recognize her inability to control her narrative in regards to the email saga, she also doesn’t quite grasp that her lack of compelling and aspirational personal narrative also allowed her to be painted as the continuity candidate, rather than a voice of change. Obama’s campaign was inspirational, and as the first African-American candidate and president, appealed to the aspirations of the American dream. Conversely, Clinton did not do enough to counter the suggestion that she was merely part of the “political establishment” –  a continuation of the dynasty of Obama and Bill Clinton, which many Republicans felt alienated by, and many Democrats felt left behind by. The 2016 Republican Presidential campaign was dirty, divisive and disgusting. Trump won by utilizing a combination of lies, hate filled rhetoric and by tapping in to the anti-establishment malaise prevalent across the country. It is a credit to Clinton that she did not sink to the depths of Trump, instead conducting herself with dignity and composure throughout. This book reveals the personal side to Clinton, and she is brutally honest in her opinions about many things. Sadly, as she concedes herself early on in the book, she is perhaps too close to the subject to be able to fully analyse objectively exactly “What Happened”.


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