“What Happened?” With new memoir, Hillary joins a select club
She had packed for victory. There had been a white suit for election night at the Javits Center beneath a glass ceiling; white was the color of the suffragists who, a century earlier, had at last won the franchise for women. But now, in the morning hours after Donald J. Trump’s White House upset, Hillary Clinton donned gray and purple for her concession to the country. The sartorial detail, which Clinton shares in her new memoir of the 2016 campaign, is a touch worthy of Plutarch, who observed that “a small thing … often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands die.” For there had been a different plan. The gray and purple, she writes, was the “one I had intended to wear on my first trip to Washington as President Elect.”
And so Clinton’s starkly titled “What Happened” now joins what we might call the Kempton Collection, after the New York columnist Murray Kempton, who always believed that the real story was to be found not amid the sprays of Champagne among winners but in the tragic bleakness of the losers’ locker rooms. (A classic piece captured the after-action reflections of Sal Maglie, the Dodgers pitcher who lost when Don Larsen pitched his perfect game for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series.) The literature of defeat in the canon of American political memoir is often overlooked, if it’s read and appreciated at all. That’s too bad, for the stories of battles lost tell us as much if not more about the mysteries of political character than do the accounts of battles won.
Clinton’s book, then, offers an occasion to see what those who suffered what she suffered — defeat at the polls after years of toil at once exhilarating and exhausting — have chosen to share with posterity in their own memoirs. Whatever historians and pundits may say about why these candidates lost — and the differing narratives are legion — we can learn a great deal from their own accounts of their ultimate trials. Intentionally and sometimes inadvertently revealing, books by Richard Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, George McGovern, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter are by turns self-serving and honest, defensive and brave — rather like the authors themselves.
Some defeated candidates have used wit to cope with loss. “Someone asked me, as I came in, down on the street, how I felt, and I was reminded of a story that a fellow-townsman of ours used to tell — Abraham Lincoln,” Adlai Stevenson told his supporters after losing to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. “They asked him how he felt once after an unsuccessful election. He said that he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.” After his defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1984, Walter Mondale asked McGovern, who had been crushed by Nixon in 1972, when it stopped hurting. “I’ll let you know,” McGovern replied. Others find the pain so enduring that they can’t bring themselves even to joke about it. On several occasions in the decades since he lost the White House in 1992, I asked George H. W. Bush about his defeat. “God, it was ghastly,” was about all the 41st president could muster up.
Read more at The New York Times.