Loss Horizon

What Happened BY Hillary Rodham Clinton. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 512 pages. $30.

The cover of What Happened

The resolute, earnest, and somewhat wistful grandmother whose byline is attached to What Happened (Simon & Schuster, $30) comes across in its pages as someone you’d love to have over to binge-watch The Crown on Netflix, enjoy meeting up with to see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway, or trust with your small children for a long afternoon as you deal with an unexpected emergency. Only the most credulously stubborn, or stubbornly credulous, of readers could come away from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s loser’s-lounge testament believing her to be the malevolent dark angel of Far Right and extreme-Left fantasies.

Those folks likely bought What Happened hoping it was a full-bore confession of real and (mostly) imagined crimes committed against God and the republic by the former secretary of state and “unapologetic policy wonk.” She is not, as you might have heard, altogether unapologetic about things. Throughout this chronicle of her unsuccessful 2016 presidential run, she cops to what she sees as her miscalculations and lapses as a candidate. But What Happened also manages to be, all at once, a tenacious apologia, a painstaking autopsy, and a strenuous brief for her defense. All of which does constitute an extended confession or, more precisely, a rueful acknowledgment of thwarted desire, a bittersweet romance replete with tempered resentments and position papers. As such, it’s a more engrossing and, oddly, more winning book than the one that would have been written by a triumphant President Hillary Clinton. In the safer space provided by the printed page, she can unwind, unburden, and be more companionable than she seemed in the klieg lights and the white noise of intense media scrutiny. She likely wouldn’t have been able to come across quite so cozily as president, though (understating matters greatly) it would have been nice to see her try.

To better appreciate What Happened, it’s probably necessary to slide past most of the prepublication welter of dishy disclosures, puffy bluster, and zero-calorie instant analysis from pundits and provocateurs alike. The first few weeks of September found the airwaves and digiverse all het up over the way Clinton’s book stamps its foot whenever Bernie Sanders, James Comey, Vladimir Putin, and, of course, the forty-fifth president of the United States come in for scrutiny. Even Joe Biden doesn’t pass through without an impromptu elbow check for saying postelection that the Democratic Party “did not talk about what it always stood for—and that was how to maintain a burgeoning middle class.” This she found “fairly remarkable, considering that Joe himself campaigned for me all over the Midwest and talked plenty about the middle class.” Yet somehow that relatively pallid gibe now seems less consequential to one’s understanding of Clinton than the credit she gives Biden for saying something—“Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value”—that she presents as being perfectly aligned with her belief system.

She is neither a monster nor a liberator. She’s a pragmatist. And what gives What Happened its poignancy is the author’s bemused exasperation over how very little having the answers to people’s problems matters compared with, as her husband would have put it a quarter century ago, “feeling their pain.” “People didn’t really want to hear about plans and policies” in 2016, she writes. “They wanted a candidate to be as angry as they were, and they wanted someone to blame. . . . That didn’t come naturally to me. I get angry about injustice and inequality, abuse of power, lying, and bullying. But I’ve always thought it’s better for leaders to offer solutions instead of just more anger.” A little later, in one of the book’s more touching segments, she recalls a conversation with a retired coal miner in West Virginia who expresses his own frustration with his declining benefits. “People need to worry about one another,” he tells her. “We are our brother’s keeper, and we need to worry about other people.”

We need to worry about other people. It’s not clickbait and it may not be sexy enough for a sound bite. But bumping against that quote now, especially amid all the mea culpas, grievances, and grudges floating throughout this book, you wonder how hard it would have been for a candidate or a news organization or anybody else getting airtime during Campaign 2016 to get such a plainspoken sentiment into mass circulation, or perhaps even—can such things ever be?—a slogan. It makes one wonder—and not for the first time when it comes to Hillary Clinton—whether being able to explain everything is enough to win your argument, much less get what you’re ultimately after.

In the chapter properly titled “Those Damn Emails,” every detail—every argument and counterargument about the issue that stalked, swiped at, and, near the finish line, upended her campaign—is hashed over in exhaustive, and exhausting, fashion. The chapter’s essential argument in three parts: It was stupid to use a personal account; no, I didn’t kill or endanger anyone; others did it, too. It’s best to have it all on the record here. But viewed through a lens distorted by months of outrageous conflicts and egregious actions by the Trump administration, Clinton’s sincere, unflinching efforts to (once again) answer her critics now seem like weapons captured by an opposition disinclined to explain anything it says and does. Right up to the present day.

I’m not sure we all care about the “damn e-mails.” I am, however, more sure than ever that we need to care about one another. I’m sure Hillary is, too. And compared with the urgency of that essential imperative, does it really matter how Clinton should have answered Matt Lauer’s questions about national security a whole year and a half ago? I don’t think so either.

Gene Seymour has written about music, politics, and other diversions for The Baffler, The Nation, Chamber Music, and the New York Times.