Hillary Clinton in new book 'What Happened' shoulders blame, takes aim

The belief that Hillary Rodham Clinton should not have written “What Happened,” her account of the 2016 presidential election, is so patently absurd that I’m loath to even address it.

It’s also so widely held that I’m loath not to.

Journalist Kurt Eichenwald, echoing legions, tweeted last week, “I can’t think of any other losing candidate for president who wrote a book explaining the defeat. Bad move.”

“I voted for her, I gave money to her, I think it’s time for her to move on,” television producer David Mandel told The New York Times. “I want some room on the stage.”

Thankfully, Clinton doesn’t need anyone’s blessing to tell her story. All she needs is an audience, and she’ll find one. Her book, released Tuesday, has spent three weeks on Amazon’s best-sellers list.

Clinton is a two-term United States senator, former secretary of state and eight-year resident of the White House who sits at the center of an election that saw a hostile foreign power insert itself into our democratic process; reports of widespread voter suppression; the advent and acceptance of fake news to such a degree that a man would show up to a pizza joint with an assault rifle, a revolver and a knife to break up a fake child sex ring he read about on the internet; and the elevation of a reality TV star with zero governing experience to the highest office in our land.

Plenty of us want to know what happened — and not just to Hillary Clinton. We want to know what happened to America.

Clinton shoulders the blame early and often in her book. “At every step, I felt that I had let everyone down,” she writes. “Because I had.”

She reveals her regrets, calling her remark about putting “a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” during an Ohio town hall “the one I regret most.”

“And I regret handing Trump a political gift with my ‘deplorables’ comment,” she writes. “I know that a lot of well-intentioned people were insulted because they misunderstood me to be criticizing all Trump voters. I’m sorry about that.”

She regrets not pushing back harder during the Matt Lauer “Commander in Chief Forum,” during which the NBC host quickly pivoted from foreign policy questions to shopworn queries about her private email server.

“I should have said, ‘You know, Matt, I was the one in that Situation Room advising the president to go after Osama bin Laden. I was with Leon Panetta and David Petraeus urging stronger action sooner in Syria. I worked to rebuild Lower Manhattan after 9/11 and provide health care to our first responders,’” she writes. “‘I’m the one worried about Putin subverting our democracy. I started the negotiations with Iran to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. I’m the one national security experts trust with our country’s future.’ Here’s another example where I remained polite, albeit exasperated, and played the political game as it used to be, not as it had become. That was a mistake.”

But hindsight is 20/20. And Clinton’s book does more than look backward.

“The lessons we draw from 2016 could help determine whether we can heal our democracy and protect it in the future, and whether we as citizens can begin to bridge our divides,” she writes.

Much pre-emptive hay has been made about her using the book to blame her defeat on Bernie Sanders. (Who, by the way, also wrote a book about his run for the presidency, “Our Revolution.” I guess Eichenwald missed it.)

Clinton addresses their rivalry within the context of the divisions it caused — and continues to cause — in the Democratic Party. Those divisions, she points out, are not just detrimental to the party’s election odds, they’re ripe to be exploited by hostile foreign powers.

The final quarter of “What Happened” reads like a spy novel. It spells out Clinton’s version of Russia’s involvement in our election and her staff’s attempts to get the media to turn away from her emails long enough to give it some attention.

“The press treated our warnings about Russia like it was spin we’d cooked up to distract from embarrassing revelations — a view actively encouraged by the Trump campaign,” she writes. “As Matt Yglesias of the news site Vox described it later, most journalists thought the argument that Moscow was trying to help Trump was ‘outlandish and borderline absurd,’ and our attempt to raise the alarm ‘was just too aggressive, self-serving, and a little far-fetched.’”

It seems less so each day.

“Now that the Russians have infected us and seen how weak our defenses are, they’ll keep at it,” Clinton writes. “Maybe other foreign powers will join them. They’ll also continue targeting our friends and allies. Their ultimate goal is to undermine — perhaps even destroy — Western democracy itself."

“This should concern all Americans — Republicans, Democrats, Independents, everyone,” she writes. “We need to get to the bottom of it.”

You can call that blaming others for her defeat, but I read it as an invitation to do some soul searching about what sort of future we want and what we — the media, the electorate, the candidates — are willing to do to secure it.

“On Being a Woman in Politics” is a fascinating chapter examining the tightrope Clinton has walked during her life in public service. It’s a tightrope I suspect millions of women will recognize: Be ambitious but not too ambitious; tough but not too tough; motherly but not too motherly; devoted to your husband but not too devoted.

“I didn’t want people to see me as the ‘woman candidate,’ which I find limiting, but rather as the best candidate whose experience as a woman in a male-dominated culture made her sharper, tougher, and more competent,” she writes. “That’s a hard distinction to draw, and I wasn’t confident that I had the dexterity to pull it off.

“But the biggest reason I shied away from embracing this narrative is that storytelling requires a receptive audience, and I’ve never felt like the American electorate was receptive to this one,” she continues. “I wish so badly we were a country where a candidate who said, ‘My story is the story of a life shaped by and devoted to the movement for women’s liberation’ would be cheered, not jeered. But that’s not who we are. Not yet.”

She holds out hope that she’ll see a female president in her lifetime.

“I still believe that, as I’ve said many times, advancing the rights and opportunities of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st Century,” she writes. “That includes one day succeeding where I failed and electing a woman as president of the United States.”

Clinton critics and champions alike have wondered aloud why she wrote this book at this moment.

The answer, I think, lies in her decision to run for president again, after losing to Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries.

“When you clear away all the petty and not-so-petty reasons to run — all the headaches, all the obstacles — what was left was something too important to pass up. It was a chance to do the most good I would ever be able to do.”

It’s a variation on her Methodist upbringing, which, she writes, followed John Wesley’s credo to do “all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as you ever can.”

The folks who are rolling their eyes, hard, at the notion of Hillary Clinton doing all the good she can, for all the people she can, will likely not read “What Happened.” That’s a shame. It’s a first-person, front-row account of arguably one of the most pivotal elections in American history.

But plenty of others will. And I would urge the pundits and the platform-holders to think twice before adding another voice to the “Go away, Hillary” choir.

Tens of millions of people feel invested in Clinton’s narrative — the past, the present, the future. People see themselves reflected in her story, and they see her story reflected in their country. That is not universally true, but it is, nonetheless, true.

“If you can’t imagine,” Clinton writes, “why it would matter for many of us to see a woman elected president — and that it wouldn’t matter only to women, just like the election of Barack Obama made people of all races, not just African Americans, feel proud and inspired — I’d simply urge you to accept that it matters to many of your fellow Americans, even if it doesn’t to you.”

hstevens@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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