She has a crucial story to tell, yet critics on both left and right are shouting her down. Is this the same America that holds political history sacred?
There has been much talk of late from professed fans of American history about how important it is to remember the major figures from the country’s political past. Sure, those statues are celebrating confederate generals who were willing to die for the right to enslave black people. But still – we mustn’t forget our political legends, fellow Americans! So it’s rather intriguing that there’s one part of American history that many people are desperate to forget – to silence, tear down, steamroller and push out on an ice floe: Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s memoir about the 2016 election, What Happened, was published this week and, boy, some people are not happy about it. It is too soon for her to be speaking, goes one complaint (reminder: Bernie Sanders published his book a week after the election and no one complained about that). She is riling up her base and dividing the Democrats, cry others, an idea that is almost sweet in the faith it puts in a book that the vast majority of Americans won’t read, written by a woman who couldn’t even rile up enough people on a campaign trail that all Americans endured for two years.
She is still not accepting blame and that is repulsive, tut other people – when, in fact, she accepts quite a lot of blame in the book. “I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes. There are plenty, as you’ll see, and they are mine and mine alone,” she writes. But because she points out that other factors played a part in her loss (guess what? They did!), and hasn’t nailed herself to a cross and thrown herself over Niagara Falls, she is a responsibility-shirking “neolibtard”.
The most overwhelming sentiment about Clinton and her book is that she just needs to go away. One poll this week had 61% of respondents saying Clinton needs “to retire”, but given that she pretty much has done, what they really mean is she needs to shut up. Meanwhile, Amazon is having to weed out vicious reviews from people it reckons have yet to even read the book and are engaged in a coordinated campaign to rubbish it.
Obviously some of this anger has come from the right, because there are a lot of people who see no contradiction in defending statues commemorating racism while condemning memoirs by presidential candidates. But it has also come at least as much from the left.
Last Sunday the New York Times asked “What’s to be done about Hillary Clinton, the woman who won’t go away?”. When Clinton appeared at an event back in May, one writer from New York’s liberal tabloid, the Daily News, implored, “Hey Hillary Clinton, shut the fuck up and go away.” The following month, Vanity Fair, a decidedly anti-Republican publication, ran an article headlined, “Can Hillary Clinton Please Go Quietly Into the Night?” It surely doesn’t need spelling out that no other failed presidential candidate – including the many who have written books about their disappointed hopes – has been on the receiving end of this kind of vitriol, this determined attempt to silence.
You don’t need to like Clinton to grasp that she is an important historical figure. As well as being at the centre of the weirdest and possibly most corrupted election in American history, she is the first female candidate from a major party in a US election, and the first candidate who was also a first lady. These factors alone mean she absolutely should write a book, and even if she spent 500 pages writing “Not my fault! Not my fault!” it would still be a fascinating document. Again and again, things she warned about on the campaign trail have proven correct, not least the dangers of putting the nuclear codes into the hands of a man “who you can bait with a tweet”.
And yet her book has been bracketed alongside Ivanka Trump’s overprivileged wafflings by one columnist who proudly declared she hadn’t bothered to read it, and dismissed as spiteful “score-settling” and “blame-shifting” by others who say they have. For the past eight months people have talked obsessively about the factors that gave Trump the election – Russia, James Comey, voter suppression, sexism, racism. But the one person who apparently shouldn’t contribute to the discussion is the one who was in the eye of the storm.
People have been telling Clinton to shut up for as long as she’s been in the public eye, then blaming her for their bad choices. When she said in 1992 that she chose to work instead of staying home to bake cookies, voters were incensed. “If I ever entertained the idea of voting for Bill Clinton, the smug bitchiness of his wife’s comment nipped that in the bud,” one reader wrote to Time magazine. When Clinton was made chair, by her husband, of the task force overseeing the 1993 plan to provide universal healthcare, she was derided as a meddling little woman and multiple news organisations insisted there wasn’t an healthcare crisis in the US anyway. When she was elected to the Senate, Trent Lott, the then Republican leader, said he hoped she’d be struck by lightning before arriving. She has made concessions to people’s fear of a smart woman: she submitted a cookie recipe to a women’s magazine in 1992 in penance for her earlier comment. In the Senate, she poured coffee with a smile for men who had openly said they loathed her.
A long-running justification for this loathing of Clinton, one that has been trotted out often since her election loss, and now again as an excuse to bash her book, is that she is uniquely unlikable. “She was a terrible candidate!” go the cries, ignoring the fact she was the most qualified candidate in a generation, who got more votes than any candidate ever, with the exception of Barack Obama in 2008.
What these people are really saying is: “Only white voters matter.” It is an inconvenient truth (to borrow a phrase from another losing candidate who won the popular vote, and yet was never told to clear off when he spoke afterwards), but the only voters who deemed Clinton insufficient were white ones, women included. On the other hand, 95% of black women and 70% of Hispanic women voted for her. Clinton, we have been told repeatedly by writers such as Mark Lilla, failed because she indulged in “identity politics”, which never wins elections, as if white people don’t have an “identity” and Trump didn’t win by explicitly playing to it, such as by taunting a Muslim Gold Star family and characterising Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug-dealers.
Of course people can argue with Clinton’s ideas. But to dismiss her book without even reading it, with the demand that she “shut the fuck up” is yet more evidence of the misogyny that has always, obviously, been behind the outsized vitriol she attracts. Worse, she is now an uncomfortable reminder for white liberals that the majority of white Americans would rather vote for a man with a long history of racism than a woman. For all the talk about how Clinton lost because she neglected the working class, 88% of African Americans, who have endured far worse and longer economic hardship than white Americans, voted for her.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power: “Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.” There is no justification for that, no matter how much others try to blame Clinton. But national self-awareness is painful. How much easier just to burn the witch, and her book.