February 7, 2018
What’s Happened Since, Part 4
by Susan Bordo
Last month, we were delighted to release Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton in paperback. Later, things on our Twitter feed got… a little crazy, when Clinton herself retweeted us about it. This month, we’re delighted to share “What’s Happened Since,” the brand-new Afterword to the paperback edition, a few parts at a time. If you missed Parts 1 and 2, check them out right here. Part 3 right here. Today, Part 4. Read ’em all, order the book here, and get ready for the final installment, Part 5, in a few days.
4. WHAT HAPPENED HAPPENS
Shortly before Clinton’s much-anticipated memoir, What Happened, was released, the book began to be “reviewed.” No, I don’t mean by journalists given advance review copies. I mean by members of the conservative press who hadn’t seen one page but believed they knew exactly what was coming. A small sampling: Damon Linker, in The Week: “There is not a chance in the world that Clinton’s memoir will frankly examine and reflect on the true causes of her catastrophic defeat.” Matt Vespa, in Townhall, predicted the book would be “an extended version of her alternative history in which Russia, the FBI, the media, the DNC, and Republicans all conspired to torpedo her presidential ambitions.” Stephen L. Miller, of Fox News, actually went so far as to state unequivocally that the book “definitely won’t tell you what really happened.” Twitter was flooded with proposed alternative titles: How I Blew It; How I Deleted My Emails; Why the Fuck Didn’t I Go to Michigan?
As the publication date for the book approached, excerpts began to appear which recalled Trump’s stalking her during the debates, and included some relatively mild criticism of Bernie Sanders’s limp support for her candidacy. The advice, by pundits as well as other Democrats: She should stop “re-litigating” the past, and recognize it’s time to “move on.” The Sunday before the book was published, Susan Chira in The New York Times called Hillary “the woman who won’t go away.” Interesting that no one criticized the author for “looking backward” when Bernie Sanders, who now suggests “it’s a little bit silly” to talk about the election, published his own diagnosis a week after the election.
From my own experience, I was familiar with the gambit of assigning books believed to have a pro-Clinton “bias” (read: refused to perform the obligatory genuflection to her “faults” and “imperfections”) to those who had made their antagonism toward Clinton clear. So I wasn’t surprised when Vanity Fair assigned it to T. A. Frank — of the aforementioned recommendation that Clinton “go quietly into the night.” Still, it was shocking when Frank admitted, in the very first paragraph of his “review,” that he hadn’t actually read the book, only skimmed it. That didn’t stop him from focusing the bulk of his comments on Clinton’s “blind spots” rather than the “much else to address” that he ap- parently had only skimmed, including “Vladimir Putin, the F.B.I., identity politics, neo-liberalism, Bernie Sanders and many other topics.”
Despite these warnings, the lines at the bookstores were long and winding, and What Happened turned out to be not at all the stream of “avoiding responsibility” and “blaming others” that we had been told it would be, but both a very candid personal account of Clinton’s experience and an astute, multi-faceted analysis of the “perfect storm” that resulted in the disaster of November 2016. Even Chris Hayes, who during the primary had made his preference for Bernie Sanders obvious, admitted—rather grudgingly—that it was “quite good.”
Other reviewers, however, were ready to strike — and described their dissatisfaction with a raw, tribal meanness (“wrong-headed,” “useless,” “self-contradictory and muddled,” “artless and inauthentic,” like the “shrunken, beaten Richard Nixon,” an “absence… that pollutes like slime mold,” even “a betrayal of feminism”!) that startled even me, familiar as I am with the ferocity of Clinton’s detractors. The “blames everyone but herself” theme, unsurprisingly, is common, and particularly ironic to see it headlined in Politico’s review by Shattered author Jonathan Allen, whose own book so strikingly minimizes everything except Clinton’s errors. (Why assign the review, we could ask, to someone who has already made his point of view so voluminously clear in his own book?)
After a while, I could pretty easily predict exactly what the negative reviews would say, raising questions not only about the insularity of the journalistic community (aren’t they a bit embarrassed to all be writing essentially the same thing?), but whether they care more about Clinton’s contrition than the facts of the matter. If Hillary’s analysis of the perfect storm that swamped her candidacy is accurate, what’s the problem?
The problem, it seems, is Hillary’s attitude; people want her to efface her own knowledge in the service of being properly humble, to beg forgiveness for her sins. At times, the tension between regard for fact and the need for Hillary to be someone else is right at the surface. Joanna Weiss, of The Boston Globe, admits that “nothing [Hillary] complains about is untrue” but goes on to berate her for having “no true sense of reflection.” But “true reflection” does suggest that a distribution of responsibility is the more accurate assessment than one long mea culpa from Hillary (who does, perhaps more than warranted, admit the mistakes she made). Haven’t these people been watching the news?
Beyond the familiar Hillary-blaming and the nasty digs at her hubris, there is an unmistakably gendered perspective to the reviews. It’s not just that those aimed at a female readership (such as People, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly) are the most appreciative. It’s the domestic, female-centered details that the harsh reviewers are most scornful of: the “endless takes of her encounters with wise old biddies in coffee bars,” (Craig Brown, Daily Mail) the “interminable” passages about friends and aides, “how much she hydrates” and tips for relaxation (Joanna Weiss, The Boston Globe) (the yoga technique of “alternative nostril breathing” is given far more attention in the reviews than in the book), the fact that “Clinton was surrounded by women” (David Weigel, The Washington Post) throughout her campaign and in defeat. The book is described as “gossipy” and “mean” (Sarah Leonard, The Guardian) (and, according to Kirkus Reviews in need of “supplementing” by “hard-edged” books like Shattered), but at the same time, Danielle Kurtzleben complained on NPR Now that Clinton leaves out juicy details like “what did [she] say (or scream) when she found out her husband had met with the attorney general on an airport tarmac?”
Several reviewers complain that Clinton spends a great deal of time (rarely have I seen the length of a memoir criticized as often) detailing the ways her comments, behavior, and policies were misunderstood. And it’s true that a chunk of the book is basically a detailed response to the caricatures and misrepresentations that plagued her campaign. For Clinton supporters, these portions of the book were a long-awaited corrective of the huge gaps that Clinton wasn’t permitted to fill during the campaign — balm for the fact that only thirty-two minutes of air time during the election was devoted to her policy speeches, while a naive but totally understandable decision to use a private email server (read her book and you’ll see just how understandable it was) became a constant refrain, a narrative to be returned to time and again. “But her emails…”! They were brought up every time Trump was caught in a lie, they were referred to in poll questions measuring the two candidates’ honesty, and, ultimately, they created the false impression that Clinton was as untrustworthy as Trump — if not more so.
The Destruction of Hillary Clinton is out now in paperback. Buy your copy here, or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.
Susan Bordo is a critic and cultural historian, and holds the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky, where she teaches in the department of Gender and Women’s Studies. She has written many books, including The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen. Her latest is The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, out now in paperback from Melville House.