Decently entertaining little thriller-horror, in which toothy blind creatures hunt by sound via their crazy sensitive ears, and the remaining survivors live muted lives with baited breath, trying not to drop anything or yell. A woman behind me in the cinema yelled twice, and a few other people dropped their phones: they’d be the first to go.
The main question that struck me when I heard about this book, and the main question I was left with after reading it, was “Why did you write this?”
Who is in fact served by hearing Clinton wonder, for nearly 500 pages, what might have been, how hard it all was and is, and who is to blame?
We get to hear Clinton wondering what might have been if Obama made a speech in 2016 warning Americans about the Russians; what might have been if she was making her first speech as President Elect, and how she worked on the speech and what the speech would say. We get to hear about the letters of condolence, advice and well-wishes “pouring in from people across the country,” including a “box of a thousand handmade origami cranes held together by strings.” In a sense, that’s a good symbol for Clinton’s campaign – thousands of flimsy paper things held together with string – and a symbol for the usefulness of the general reaction to Clinton’s defeat – incredible time and energy expended in pointless exercises of blame-shifting and self-pity.
As for blame, Clinton is not afraid to lay it firmly and squarely in a number of places: “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.”
Ultimately Clinton is probably right that Comey’s idiocy cost her vital points in the final stretch, yet why on earth was she in a position to lose by those vital points in the first place?
At other places in her book she prints examples of the leaked emails where she struggles with a fax machine and with attempting to call the White House – making herself look fully incompetent. One wonders what the reason for disclosing this stupidity is. Elsewhere she recounts coincidences and suspicious circumstances around deaths of various Russian agents and officers, in a manner that reads much like the kind of “Clinton death ring” claptrap that you hear about on, say, Infowars. It’s not a good look for Clinton.
If anything, “What Happened” is a grueling post-mortem revealing how rotten the body politic has become, where the career politician is unaware of how far removed she is from a connection with the average citizen she is courting. She truly seems oblivious to how much like corny advertising copy she sounds as she recalls how her campaign team “sought to set the right tone for our announcement video”:
It showed a series of Americans talking excitedly about new challenges they were taking on: two brothers starting a small business, a mom getting her daughter ready for her first day of kindergarten, a college student applying for her first job, a couple getting married. Then I appeared briefly to say that I was running for President to help Americans get ahead and stay ahead, and that I was going to work hard to earn every vote. This campaign wasn’t going to be about me and my ambitions. It would be about you and yours.
And yet in this book we get to read “what I ate, who did my hair and makeup, what my mornings were like” – sounds like it’s a lot about her, despite what she just told us the campaign would be about:
Isabelle and Barbara are always nearby, ready to touch me up before interviews or debates. Every time our plane lands, Isabelle rushes forward with hairspray, and Barbara spritzes my face with a vaporizer full of mineral water.
Perhaps this is Clinton’s attempt to humanize herself further, in light of the dehumanizing nature of much of her media coverage throughout the campaign, yet it all comes off a bit forced, a bit irrelevant.
One time, Liz brought something I hadn’t tried before: Flavor Blasted Goldfish. We passed around the bag and discussed whether it was better than the original. Some of my staff thought yes, which was incorrect.
We see Clinton plagiarizing a friend’s note as she plays clever with the draft of her speech to announce her candidacy:
I picked up my ballpoint pen and, playing off Jim’s language, wrote, ‘We Americans may differ, bicker, stumble, and fall; but we are at our best when we pick each other up, when we have each other’s back. Like any family, our American family is strongest when we cherish what we have in common and fight back against those who would drive us apart.’
She explains how her team “settled on Stronger Together as our theme for the general election after a lot of thought and discussion.”
The campaign ad, the announcement speech and the campaign theme are exactly the sort of shiny marketing baloney that simply hit the Trump iceberg of brutal and direct populism and sank straight to the bottom. The voting public just did not connect to that in the way they connected with the horrendous right-wing enabler who “tells is like it is.” In 2020, the Democrats are going to need to find something vastly more creative and real.
Lest you are unaware of it, Clinton is at pains to make sure you know just how selfless she is, recounting a litany of charitable work:
When I joined the [Clinton Global Initiative] foundation in 2013, I teamed up with Melinda Gates and the Gates Foundation to launch an initiative called No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project to advance rights and opportunities for women and girls around the world. I also created a program called Too Small to Fail to encourage reading, talking, and singing to infants and toddlers to help their brains develop and build vocabulary. And Chelsea and I started a network of leading wildlife conservation organizations to protect the endangered African elephants from poachers.
She’s also careful to proudly cite her gay rights’ advocacy credentials:
I marched in the 2016 New York City Pride Parade. Back in the day, in 2000, I was the first First Lady in history to march in a Pride parade.
And, to round out the image, she lets us know how great her friends think she is:
My friends [were] going around the table explaining in great detail how I have lovingly interfered in their lives over the years. ‘When I got sick, Hillary hounded me until I went to her doctor and called me immediately after for a full report,’ ‘That’s nothing! When my little girl cut her face, Hillary insisted I get a plastic surgeon and then called back ten minutes later with the best one in Washington on the phone.’
She tends to come off as if she is placing herself at the center of events down through the years:
In May 1970, just a few days after four unarmed college student protesters were shot and killed by National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio, I spoke to the fiftieth anniversary convention of the League of Women voters in Washington.
All of this, right or wrong, just reinforces the kind of sickly self-seeking self-promoting career-politician image that led so many to conclude they could not trust her, that she was not quite real enough for them. It’s a frustrating shame for anyone who needed to see her defeat her opponent in that 2016 election, particularly because, while she’s a touch too quick to rehash her own accomplishments, those accomplishments are, in fact, beyond reproach, and far beyond anything our current president has done with his life:
I was one of just 27 women out of 235 students in my class at Yale Law School. The first woman partner at the oldest law firm in Arkansas. The first woman to chair the national board of the Legal Services Corporation. The person who declared on the world stage that ‘human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.’ The first First Lady to be elected to public office. The first woman Senator from New York.
And in her book, as in her campaign and career, she has made many valid points and made infinitely more sense than any gibberish tweeting its asinine way out of the White House these days. For example, she has a balanced view of the media and how to handle them, treating them with a healthy respect and fear. This is an area where we are all culpable and responsible as consumers of media: the more we consume the garbage, the more they will feed us the garbage. If we push back and insist on journalistic integrity and refuse to consume the garbage, we can take control of the demand and therefore force, even on purely economic terms, a shift in the nature of the supply:
I tend to treat journalists with caution, and I often feel like they focus too much on the wrong things. I understand that political coverage has to be about the horse race, but it’s become almost entirely about that and not about the issues that matter most for our country and to people’s lives. That’s something that has gotten increasingly worse over the years. That’s not entirely the press’s fault: the way we consume news has changed, which makes getting clicks all important, which in turn encourages sensationalism.
Clinton, to my mind, is also right in her derision of those who “sit out elections, waste their votes” or believe “there’s no difference between the two parties or that electing a far-right Republican might somehow hasten ‘the revolution.’” In that regard, she demonstrates the pragmatism of a career politician. Again, however, this unwittingly gives us a close view of that career politician who, while pragmatic and experienced, while having been on the front lines and learned the ropes, has also become somewhat removed from the lives of everyday Americans. A veteran of the bureaucracy and the machinery of politics she may be, adept at public relations, mass media communications, fundraising, and campaigning, but for Clinton, running for office appears to be, what it probably is for most politicians, nothing but mastering these skillsets. It’s a matter of how well you can play the game. Yet, in some sense, you wish she’d rather kept the lid on that, because while it’s obvious to those who look that there is indeed a game to be played here in order for a politician to work the system and get into a position to lead, at which point one hopes they may do some good – that’s not quite the message that’s going to resonate with the man or woman in the street. And in fact, resonating with those in the street is precisely where Clinton failed in her campaign. How many American mothers are going to be able to afford that best plastic surgeon in Washington that Clinton so “lovingly” recommended to her friend? Clinton’s book, “What Happened,” is as good an explanation of her inability to connect as could be hoped for. Who could have hoped that Clinton herself, unaware she was doing it, would give us that candid view into the truth?
When it comes to policy and solutions to problems, Clinton is again the master gameplayer. Every issue in the campaign had an initiative, a plan, a policy position with a polished name, yet somewhat indecipherable in terms of what it would actually do.
Many kids asked what I would do about bullying, which made me want to become President even more. I had an initiative called Better than Bullying ready to go.
She gives us a couple of pages full of similar “big ideas” on the economy, jobs and taxes, and talks about how “transformative” her presidency couldhave been and how “different my first hundred days would have been.” It’s all as relevant as who spritzed her face with water upon landing.
In fact, perhaps she needed to drop the marketing terminology and the Big Ideas and be more controversial, take some extreme positions, throw off the safe veneer of policies and committees. At least she would have met her opponent in open battle and perhaps scored some vital points. At times she approaches that kind of territory in the narrative of her book, yet always seems almost apologetic to do so. For example, Trump talked a lot about coal in his election campaign, and Clinton ran afoul of some out-of-context comments she made about putting coalminers out of a job. But in reality, she has a point when she says “the hard truth is that coal isn’t coming back” and that “Americans have more than twice as many jobs producing solar energy as they do mining coal.” She points out that “since 2001, a half million jobs in department stores across the country have disappeared,” and anyone keeping an eye on the retail Armageddon and the increasing pressure from ecommerce giants like Amazon will know she is not far off the truth here.
She also challenges the idea that jobs must come to you, rather than you going to jobs. Migration for employment is a part of the American fabric, was the reason for much of the immigration upon which the nation was built, and continued to manifest in everything from the dust bowl migrations to the gradual movement from agrarian communities to cities down through the generations. Why suddenly are Americans sitting tight in crumbling cities and asking the federal government to bring jobs to their locations?
Previous generations of Americans actually moved around the country much more than we do today. Millions of black families migrated from the rural South to the urban North. Large numbers of poor whites left Appalachia to take jobs in Midwestern factories. […] Yet today, […] fewer Americans are moving than ever before.
She quotes one steelworker from Kentucky who was driving 120 miles to Ohio each week because he didn’t want to move to where he’d found a good job. ‘People from Kentucky, they want to be in Kentucky,’ he said. Sure. Even when there’s no job there, but there’s one 120 miles away.
Returning to Clinton’s point about those who felt Trump’s destruction of government and the collapse of both parties would somehow tear down the whole system, as if a new and better one would magically grow up in its place: this is where we face the sad reality that America’s rejection of the career politician on the grounds she could not connect or could not be trusted means a rejection of the only viable candidate in the race. On that I have zero doubt and will truck no objection or debate, as those indicating Trump has any business at the seat of power are abjectly wrong, were wrong in 2016, and will remain forever wrong. Yet the slim voting blocks that believed a third party candidate was a smart choice, or that abstaining because “they’re all the same” have, in a great sense, more responsibility to carry than those who wrongly chose the worst president ever. These third party voters felt, as Clinton points out, that they were playing some kind of clever long game that would forge a new America in the fire and ashes of the old. Yet typically, as history tells us, all too often what rises from the ashes is as bad as, if not worse than, what came before, particularly if those that gain power lack the political experience, pragmatism, and planning required to make some attempt at steering events. Cliton tells this illustrative anecdote:
When I was Secretary of State, I met in Cairo with a group of young Egyptian activists who had helped organize the demonstrations in Tahrir Square that shocked the world by toppling President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. They were intoxicated by the power of their protests but showed little interest in organizing political parties, drafting platforms, running candidates, or building coalitions. Politics wasn’t for them, they said. I feared what that would mean for their future. I believed they were essentially handing the country over to the two most organized forces in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. In the years ahead, both fears proved correct.
Electing Trump, as Bannon believed and Michael Wolff expresses in his “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” “had created the opening that would provide the true outsiders their opportunity. Trump was just the beginning.” And choosing, say, Jill Stein because it was time to “burn it all down” was just enabling that beginning, a particularly galling choice given Stein was clearly a Russia-phile.
“The new President’s speech was dark and dystopian,” Clinton writes towards the start of her book, “I heard it as a howl straight from the white nationalist gut.” And in that, we realize it’s less about “What Happened,” and more about “What happens next?”
2017’s “Lesser Man” lives up to the “intense, brooding, and very dancy” standard set by Boy Harsher’s 2016 debut. Matthews’ voice is stronger, the backing tracks are clearer and stronger, and the synth is wider and washes over you more deeply.
“Dark electronic duo” Boy Harsher opened for Soft Moon at Music Hall of Williamsburg last week and lit the place up. In some respects I wondered how Soft Moon could possibly follow the frenzied emotion that had whipped the crowd up into a surging mass, seething and boiling around a good old fashioned mosh pit that seemed to feed more energy back to Jae Matthews on stage.
You can see why Boy Harsher was a good fit as an opening act for Soft Moon – they operate in similar territory, exploring their inner torment to a backing track of synth-heavy beats that owe an ancestry to 80s goth and new wave and 90s industrial music.
2016’s “Yr Body Is Nothing” is intense, brooding, and very dancy. Matthews sings, shouts, screams, whispers, a gothy Nico.
There are no real surprises in this book for me – I already knew Trump was a raving moronic imbecile of the highest order, surrounded by a cadre of dangerous kooks, unqualified idiots, hangers-on, right-wing leaders and enablers, apologists and yes-people. Yet I recall how people kept insisting to me all through the primaries, the campaign, and right up until the final moments of election night when the truth moved beyond debate, that Trump would not be president. Apparently, that wrong-headed view, which I hoped was right but knew there was zero guarantee of it being so, was shared by everyone around Trump:
“Almost everybody in the campaign, still an extremely small outfit, thought of themselves as a clear-eyed team, as realistic about their prospects as perhaps any in politics. The unspoken agreement among them: not only would Donald Trump not be president, he should probably not be. Conveniently, the former conviction meant nobody had to deal with the latter issue.”
So with that in mind, I imagine perhaps this book will contain surprises for some people.
Clueless in their handling of the press, the Trump team allowed Wolff far too much access. Incapable of distinguishing on and off-record or of holding their bitter tongues, the Trump team gave Wolff far too much information. This is great for us because we get to confirm what we already knew about how pathetically incompetent this administration is, and how none of them have any business being anywhere near the seat of empire. Some of them have tried to justify their involvement in the Trump White House as some kind of necessary balance to the chaos that would ensue, or be worse, were they not there, yet none of them, beneath the thin and absurd veneer of loyalty, have any real pretense that Trump has the boggiest notion what he’s doing.
“Almost all the professionals who were now set to join him were coming face to face with the fact that it appeared he knew nothing. There was simply no subject, other than perhaps building construction, that he had substantially mastered. Everything with him was off the cuff. Whatever he knew he seemed to have learned an hour before – and that was mostly half-baked.”
This book probably deserves a place alongside that other crazily direct and harsh expose of the sordid underbelly of American presidential politics, Hunter Thompson’s 1972 tour-de-force “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.” Wolff does not mince words or waste time telling it like it, sadly, really is:
“Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate.”
If Wolff’s words are harsh, try these words, attributed to Gary Cohn:
“It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything – not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored. And his staff is no better. Kushner is an entitled baby who knows nothing. Bannon is an arrogant prick who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits. No one will survive the first year but his family. […] I am in a constant state of shock and horror.”
I imagine Wolff would have his work cut out for him revising the book to keep it current, as the fool on the hill continues to drive the empire into the ditch. This book only treats with the first year, which was eventful enough. Reading this book gave me quite a chuckle, while also making me groan and sigh in recollection of the unbelievable brainlessness with which the office of the presidency, and the reputation of America at home and abroad, is subjected to daily humiliations and denigrations: the revolving door of hirings and firings; the barrage of pathetic and self-centered infantile Tweets; the shooting-from-the-hip handling of tinder-box international issues; Spicy and the Mooch… and the shocking ineptitude and empty-headedness that went into the firing of Comey.
“In presidential annals, the firing of FBI director James Comey may be the most consequential move ever made by a modern president acting entirely on his own.”
As time rolled on, with virtually nothing to show for it (“In six months as president, failing to master almost any aspect of the bureaucratic process, he had, beyond placing his nominee on the Supreme Court, accomplished, practically speaking, nothing.”) the staff in the White House went from heroic fighting optimism to an entrenched siege mentality:
“The fundamental premise of nearly everybody who joined the Trump White House was, This can work. We can help make this work. Now, only three-quarters of the way through just the first year of Trump’s term, there was literally not one member of the senior staff who could any longer be confident of that premise. Arguably – and on many days indubitably – most members of the senior staff believed that the sole upside of being part of the Trump White House was to help prevent worse from happening.”
The emperor has no brain, and history will judge us extremely harshly if we do not void that fool of his power base in the November elections, as a first step towards gently guiding him out to pasture and into obscurity and obsolescence.
“Everyone, in his or her own way struggled to express the baldly obvious fact that the president did not know enough, did not know what he didn’t know, did not particularly care, and, to boot, was confident in not serene in his unquestioned certitudes.”
The fact remains, though, that Trump’s election, in parallel with Brexit and the rise of neo-ultra-nationalism across Europe, has galvanized and emboldened the right. Dealing with Trump will be just the beginning, but he must be dealt with definitively and powerfully, democratically, via the system, or else Bannon will indeed have the last laugh. Bannon 2020 anyone? No thanks. And if you smile and say “come on, that’ll never happen,” I’ll look carefully at you and ask myself “is this one of the folks who said those very same words about Trump in 2016?”
“Trump, in Bannon’s view, was a chapter, or even a detour, in the Trump revolution, which had always been about weaknesses in the two major parties. The Trump presidency – however long it lasted, had created the opening that would provide the true outsiders their opportunity. Trump was just the beginning.”