Was this book necessary? Hillary Clinton’s anguished, angry memoir of her presidential campaign, “What Happened,” will be unveiled this week, complete with television appearances and a 15-city lecture tour.
Other Democrats have been dreading this moment for months.
“I love Hillary,” Al Franken, the senator from Minnesota, said a few weeks ago. “I think she has a right to analyze what happened. But we do have to move on.”
A backward-looking slog through the disappointments of last year’s campaign is not what most Democratic politicians want to dominate the news this fall.
And that, judging from the many excerpts that have leaked, is exactly what Clinton’s book is: a long and dutiful post-mortem on how she lost to an unqualified blowhard who was even less popular than she was.
Clinton doesn’t spare herself from blame. She admits mistakes large and small. “It’s fair to say that I didn’t realize how quickly the ground was shifting under our feet,” she writes. She acknowledges that she never came up with a theme as compelling as Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”
But she doesn’t spare anyone else from blame, either. Her list of the guilty begins with James Comey, Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin, all justifiably. Less justifiably, she also blames Bernie Sanders, and even – in smaller ways – Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Her decision to relitigate her bitter primary battles with Sanders has especially distressed other Democrats because it rolls a grenade into their not-yet-successful efforts to reunify the party.
The independent senator’s attacks on her big-dollar fundraising made it easier for Trump to paint her as “Crooked Hillary,” Clinton complains. “I don’t know if that bothered Bernie or not.”
Sanders – who, as luck would have it, is on a book tour of his own – fired back. “Secretary Clinton ran against the most unpopular candidate in the history of this country and she lost, and she was upset about it and I understand that,” he said last week. “But our job is not to go backward. … I think it’s a little bit silly to keep talking about 2016.”
This, of course, is a gift to Trump and his conservative allies. They’d like nothing better than to make Clinton the public face of the Democratic Party again – especially since her approval rating in the polls, at 30 percent, is even lower than the president’s. Fox News Channel is giving the book launch lavish coverage, including segments re-examining the controversy over her emails.
Clinton’s excuse: “I had to get this off my chest!” she writes at one point, an explanation that pretty much covers all 512 pages.
But most losing presidential candidates don’t write books about the experience. And the ones who do normally wait a decade or so before ripping the bandages off their wounds.
Mitt Romney didn’t do it after 2012. John McCain didn’t do it after 2008. (As he noted last week, “You’ve got to move on.”) To find a loser who did memorialize his defeat, you have to go back to Richard M. Nixon in 1960 – not a model you might have expected Clinton to emulate. There’s a reason for that. Airing grievances, even when they’re justified, rarely shows anyone’s most appealing side. For losing candidates, even in arguably stolen elections, the tradition has been stoic silence.
It would be one thing if Clinton’s book delivered new insights about what went wrong. But it doesn’t. Every one of her explanations has been hashed out already.
Here’s the pity: She could have written a different book – a book that briskly summarized the lessons of her loss and suggested a path forward for the causes she loves. It wouldn’t have been a bestseller, but it might have been more useful. Needless to say, the relatively brief, forward-looking part of Clinton’s message has been swamped in media coverage by all the juicy score-settling.
Clinton appears to intend her book to be a vehicle for her re-emergence onto the public stage. “There were plenty of people hoping that I, too, would just disappear,” she writes. “But here I am.”
She has set up a new fundraising organization to support progressive causes and serve as her platform. (It’s called “Onward Together,” a name even less inspiring than her campaign slogan, “Stronger Together.”)
But after all her reflection, she still hasn’t quite figured out what went wrong.
“What makes me such a lightning rod for fury?” she writes. “I’m really asking. I’m at a loss.”
With that question unanswered, she might have been better off stowing “What Happened” in a desk drawer. The lesson she’s learning is a harsh one: After a disastrous election, even the supporters of a defeated candidate may not be eager to have her around.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.