Perhaps, you have asked yourself that exact same question. Perhaps, you have searched and formed your own answers since election day 2016. Or perhaps What Happened, that singularly perpetual omnipresent phrase, has now-and-again bounced like many Hillary Rodham Clinton voters (and non-Clinton voters alike) in-and-out of your mind, from fascinating disbelief of “what might have been.” Regardless, the question naturally haunted Clinton; and her new memoir aptly (and boldly) titled, What Happened, seeks not just to answer such a complex question, but also start a much-needed national conversation about race and gender in our society, especially in politics and America’s civil society.
Knowing this, Clinton does succeed in building a fascinating – and at times sarcastically brutal – look into the past three years of her life. In fact, and this might come as a surprise to some, Clinton succeeds in the rare sought-after feat of writing quite a revolutionary work; likely not in the ways Clinton hoped to be revolutionary (being elected president was, after all, a prime goal of hers), but revolutionary nonetheless. Clinton’s book, however, is not a perfect work – no piece of writing ever is. And yet, like the emeralds Tala Nashawati, a recent Wesleyan graduate, spoke of in a particularly poignant part of the memoir’s ending, it shines through and because of its flaws.
Conceivably, this is part of why What Happened feels like a reclamation process of Clinton’s public identity from the media and Trump’s terming of her as “Crooked Hillary.” And this is important because Clinton, while being one of America’s most important civil servants and policy-thought leaders, was constantly throughout the campaign berated by the media as being inauthentic, flawed, corrupt, and idealess – all while the media copied itself by endlessly repeating coverage of those “damn emails,” as Bernie Sander memorably put it.
Yet it is also important on a personal level. Clinton will never run for office again. No matter how much conservative media likes to claim otherwise, it is not happening. Thus, Clinton has moved beyond her active candidate years, and is now stretching into the persevering of a legacy, for as Bill Clinton points out in the memoir: “… at this point in our lives, we have more yesterdays than tomorrows.” Hence the determination to not just be a figure lost in the haze of the reality TV election, but to become a symbol of progress in American history, and of hope that one day a woman will be elected president.
However, What Happened is more than Clinton’s determination to solidify the truth of herself in history. It is, and this is where it is revolutionary, a perceptive look by a candidate into American society and the election that it helped form. I cannot think of a time before in American history where this happened. And honestly, I would argue that it should happen more, because every election shows the reality of America society at that point in history. And candidates, both the victorious and also-rans, have a unique perspective into the campaigns that shaped a good-part of their lives. In this vein, election 2016 society, regardless of your ideological preference, helped elect a man who is the most unfit person to hold the presidency, from his lack of policy or military experience to his racist, sexist, anti-Muslim, and anti-disability rhetoric. Whether you supported him or not, America will be remembered for this decision. The ink of history is permanent – and Clinton sees herself as part of that defining process.
As a result, never have I seen a politician write so bluntly about gender, race, and the necessity of feminism. Never have I read with such force and pain about an election, which she seemed destined to win. And never have I seen a politician able to understand her role in that election, while also being able to honestly and practically determine the impact of non-campaign forces like: the Russian government, Jim Comey and the email investigation, endemic sexism and racism towards her and former President Obama, the failure of the Democratic National Convention and the Obama administration to halt the mass voter-suppression in states like Wisconsin, the supreme court’s role in ending the Voting Right Act, the failure of the national media to keep itself out of “trump-fascination,” and America’s failure to demand better from its authority figures.
All of these features will continue to reverberate into future election cycles if nothing is done. It is important – as Clinton repeatedly points out – that we continue to investigate the Russian interference, stop voter suppression, and stand-up for our rights against those who would seek to remove them. It is that way, therefore, that Clinton, like Black Lives Matter and Mothers of the Movement, wishes to turn voters anger and morning into a movement, while also allowing America the opportunity (and arguably the necessity) of staring into the mirror of our society instead facing our back to reality.
There comes in the circumstances like these an often misunderstood and misquoted Nietzsche observation: “… if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you”. Well, America has stared into one part of that abyss by living through election 2016; it still, however, fails to understand it fully. For society to progress, it must understand “what lies beneath.” It must understand its country in all its bitter realities: the police and gun violence (and racism) that killed Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin; how women in politics are still treated with rampant misogyny by caring more about their voices and hairstyles than about their policies; and how the media’s use of false equivalences damages a purist for truth. Based on these reason, we must learn to understand What Happened, because time, as Robert Frost point’s out, “keeps going on.” Election 2018 and 2020 will be on our doorsteps before we realize it. If nothing is done before then, America may be destined to repeat past sins.
Clinton’s memoir is part of that path in understanding America’s puzzle. It succeeds in bringing the start of these important topics to a general audience, who desperately need to discuss topics of race and gender in their daily lives. But it is not, as she repeatedly insists, the full answer. It is her answer. It is her truth. And like the way America was built, the full truth will not happen until we all ask and seek to understand What Happened.