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Book Review: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Memoir What Happened Is Raw, Angry — and Necessary

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When last we heard from Hillary Clinton, she was delivering a concession speech on the morning of November 9. In a dark pants suit trimmed in bipartisan purple (one she had planned to wear on her first trip to Washington as President-elect), she spoke to the nation, particularly to the “little girls,” who, she said, should “never doubt that you are valuable and powerful.” It was an attempt at a balm of words for those stung by the knowledge that they would not see a woman’s hand on the bible at a presidential swearing-in, but instead the hand of a man who had bragged about grabbing women’s genitals.

Too soon? Not for Sec. Clinton, who unsparingly details two surreal years of campaigning and the first disorienting months that came next in a new memoir, What Happened. (The title is unpunctuated, but there are occasions throughout its 464 pages when the book wants to be called What Happened? or more precisely: What the F Just Happened?!)

It’s a revealing look at a pivotal moment in history from Clinton’s singular perspective; the idea currently circulating that she should not have written this account is absurd. One supposes she could — as her primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders suggested to Stephen Colbert last week during an interview in support of his own new book — talk only about a hopeful bright future, never about their shared, messy past. But what journalist (or talk show host), speaking with her about her next act in or out of politics, would miss an opportunity to ask: That stuff with the Russians and the emails and Trump stalking you on the debate stage — what was that like? And when you left the concession speech podium, what happened then?

Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Here’s what: She and husband Bill Clinton took a car back to Chappaqua, about an hour outside of New York City, and once in their cul-de-sac home, she pulled on yoga pants and a fleece, and soon after took a nap. (With the help of two speech writers and a researcher, all named in her acknowledgements, Clinton is great on the details: from the calorie count of 55 Goldfish crackers — 150 “not bad!” she notes — to the title of the Nancy Drew book, The Clue of the Tapping Heels, in which the heroine exclaims, “I’m glad I wore pants!”) In the following weeks, she gave an “Irish wake” party for her campaign’s staff and volunteers (“surprisingly great,” under the circumstances, she writes), reorganized her closet, walked in the woods with Bill and their dogs, played with her grandchildren, drank Chardonnay with friends, caught up on HGTV, finished the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels, and practiced yoga and meditative breathing. She also yelled at the television (when the then-President-elect settled a $25 million fraud suit against Trump University) and, at times, wanted to scream into a pillow.

Well, really, who among us wouldn’t do those things? The greatest unintended consequence of this memoir is that it may make its author, at last, widely relatable. It’s been a challenge for a while now: Some Arkansas voters who hadn’t understood her not taking her husband’s surname may have been a factor when he lost reelection to the governor’s office. Her main opponent in the 2008 primary, Barack Obama, grudgingly called her “likeable enough” to her face. And, as she recounts here, on the 2016 day in New Hampshire when her eyes glistened as she admitted how tough campaigning can be, pundits noted that her near-tear had humanized her. She writes that she was “a little beleaguered at the reminder that, yet again, I — a human — required ‘humanizing.’ ” (I find those on-line “I am not a robot” Captcha check-boxes annoying; Clinton must see them as a constant affront.)

Here is Clinton at her most emotionally raw. Face it, she’s angry, and angry at herself. “I couldn’t get the job done and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life,” she writes at the start. There are “moments from the campaign that I wish I could go back and do again. If the Russians could hack my subconscious, they’d find a long list. … I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes. There are plenty, as you’ll see, and they are mine and mine alone.”

Among other things, she regrets her verbal “gifts” to Trump, such as declaring that half his supporters belonged in a “basket of deplorables.” (While she’s sorry it was misconstrued as a slam against everyone on the Trump train, she doubles down against the Tiki torch crowd: “Too many of Trump’s supporters do hold views that I find — there’s no other word for it — deplorable.”) She regrets that, in explaining a $30 billion plan to create renewable energy opportunities for miners whose jobs had long been disappearing, she said the following: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Beyond the obvious political damage — conservative media plucked her words out of context and played them on a loop — the idea that anyone believed she was “looking forward to hurting miners and their families” made her feel “absolutely sick.” This is one of many instances where the book reads less like a look back and more like a do-over: She takes the opportunity to, uninterrupted by debate moderators, hecklers, or Donald Trump, again lay out her vision for the country.

And still, she cannot stop delivering the potentially backfiring gifts. Think what Fox News or Breitbart.com, or Trump himself, will do with this admission, from a day when she was in the audience enjoying her granddaughter’s ballet recital: “I felt a twinge of something I couldn’t quite place. Then I realized what it was: relief. I had been ready to completely devote the next four or eight years to serving my country. But that would come with a cost. I would have missed a lot of dance recitals…” You can almost hear the gears readying to blast out something like: Grandma Clinton Relieved Not to be President. And when they do, it will be a warning shot for other women in politics against being too human — or humanized.

WATCH: Hillary Clinton Opens Up About Bill’s Affair

There’s something in What Happened for everyone. If you opposed Clinton, either from the Bernie left or anywhere on the right, you can look past her self-flagellation to find evidence supporting the claim that she is flinging blame like a toddler left unattended with a bowl of pea puree. Sanders’ attacks in the primary “caused lasting damage… paving the way for Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign.” In the general election, “I wasn’t just running against Donald Trump. I was up against the Russian intelligence apparatus, a misguided FBI director, and… the godforsaken Electoral College.” And, pointing to her popular vote win, she states unequivocally: “If not for the dramatic intervention of the FBI director in the final days, I believe that in spite of everything, we would have won the White House.”

If, on the other hand, you voted for Clinton and were decimated by her loss, What Happened will give you the same perverse satisfaction as picking a scab — try to get through her account of Trump’s lurching after her on the debate stage without groaning. She is still second-guessing her decision to calmly ignore his shenanigans. She also singles out NBC’s Matt Lauer for using what was to be a forum on national security to ask not one but five questions about the then-closed FBI private email investigation, burning away much of her 30 allotted minutes. “The network was treating this like an episode of The Apprentice,” charges Clinton. “Trump should have reported [Lauer’s] performance as an in-kind contribution.”

Those frustrated moments are recounted with the clarity of someone still mentally replaying them in the middle of the night. But Clinton takes pains to end on a positive note. She says she has no plans to run for office again — she is “ready for new leaders to emerge ” — and puts in a plug for her recently launched Democratic organization, Onward Together. As proof that she is moving on, she demonstrates that she can mine her situation for humor: “I doubt that many people reading this will ever lose a presidential election. (Although maybe some have: Hi Al! Hi John! Hi Mitt! Hope you’re well!)”

If those guys (Gore, McCain, Romney) can carry on, so can she. It’s a long, strange trip that ends with being the first woman in the almost-presidents club. With no female role models to emulate, she returns to a favorite First Lady with a big second act, Eleanor Roosevelt. “People criticized her voice and appearance, the money she made speaking and writing, and her advocacy for women’s rights,” notes Clinton. “One vituperative national columnist… said that ‘her withdrawal from public life at this time would be a fine public service.’ Sound familiar?”

Sure does. Because while What Happened records the perspective of a pioneer who beat an unprecedented path that stopped just shy of the White House, it also covers territory that many women will recognize.