Hillary Clinton’s book about the 2016 campaign, “What Happened,” won’t be out for a few weeks, but this morning a few brief excerpts from the audiobook were played on “Morning Joe.” And as usual, a great deal of the focus is on whether Clinton is taking sufficient responsibility for her defeat.
So we need to ask ourselves: Why is it so important to so many people that Clinton perform a ritual of self-abasement?
If you don’t recall a chorus of angry calls for Mitt Romney or John McCain or John Kerry or Al Gore to get down on their knees and beg forgiveness for their failures every time they appeared in public after losing their presidential elections, that’s because it didn’t happen. Only Hillary Clinton is subject to this demand.
And when she takes responsibility, as she has before, her words are carefully scrutinized to see if she’s being self-critical enough. When she said in May that she took responsibility for her loss but also pointed out that she would have won had James B. Comey not made that dramatic email announcement 11 days before the election — which is almost certainly true — the comments were greeted by a round of scolding from reporters who obviously felt that she was not sufficiently humbled.
Well here’s what she says in the book:
“Every day that I was a candidate for president, I knew that millions of people were counting on me, and I couldn’t bear the idea of letting them down — but I did. I couldn’t get the job done, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
Is that abject enough for you?
We’re going to be talking about the 2016 election for a long time, because it was one of the most dramatic and consequential in American history, and it brought us President Trump. Which means that reporters are going to continue to receive criticism of their coverage, particularly the way they covered Clinton. Some of them react to that criticism by rattling off things Clinton did wrong, as a way of saying that it isn’t their fault she lost.
So let’s say this really slowly: It’s possible to simultaneously acknowledge that 1) Clinton made plenty of mistakes, and 2) there were egregious problems with the way the campaign was covered, problems that contributed to the outcome. Calling attention to the latter doesn’t negate the former.
And boy, were there ever problems with the coverage. Consider that the New York Times and The Washington Post struck a deal with Peter Schweitzer, the author of a book called “Clinton Cash,” for exclusive access to the material in the book, which alleged corrupt dealings at the Clinton Foundation. Even though Schweitzer’s particulars amounted to little more than a lot of nefarious insinuation without evidence of actual wrongdoing, the initial burst of front-page coverage the book received was enough to set off endless cable news chatter about the Clinton Foundation, all of it with the implication that Clinton was guilty of all manner of ethically questionable actions.
To be fair, there were subsequent debunkings of many of the charges. But the narrative of Clinton as hopelessly corrupt was in place, and it formed the basis of Trump’s characterization of her as “Crooked Hillary.” Over time, mainly via constant chatter on cable news, including from some mainstream journalists, “Clinton Cash” found the mainstream legitimization it needed to set this narrative in motion despite the fact that it was written under the aegis of the Government Accountability Institute, an organization run by a gentleman named Stephen K. Bannon. You may have heard of him.
That’s not even to get into the orgy of coverage of Clinton’s emails, which reporters treated as though it were the most important issue that the American public would confront in the entire 21st century. As multiple subsequent analyses have found, the email story was far and away the most prominent topic of news coverage during the campaign, a focus that from the vantage point of today seems somewhere between ridiculous and insane. The point is, it’s not exactly crazy for Clinton to have a complaint or two about the way she was covered, nor is it crazy for her to mention that the Russian government was apparently working to support her opponent, something unprecedented in American history.
Did she make mistakes? Of course she did. She was too complacent about states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that Democrats hadn’t lost in many presidential campaigns. Her criticisms of Trump were too focused on what a repugnant human being he is and not enough on his agenda to help the wealthy and powerful. She didn’t do enough to turn out black and Hispanic voters. You could make a long list.
But every candidate, even those who win, makes lots of mistakes. There are no perfect campaigns. If a hundred thousand votes spread across a few states had gone a different way, we would be talking about what a genius she was and how ludicrous the Trump campaign strategy was.
So again, why were other presidential losers never told to voluntarily submit themselves to a ritual humiliation? I can’t prove to you empirically that sexism is the reason that demand is only made of Clinton, but previous candidates didn’t find their occasional post-election comments greeted with headlines like “Dear Hillary Clinton, please stop talking about 2016” or “Can Hillary Clinton please go quietly into the night?,” or “Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be writing a book — she should be drafting a long apology to America” (that last op-ed began with the line, “Hey, Hillary Clinton, shut the f— up and go away already”). Only Clinton is supposed to beg for forgiveness, absolve everyone else of any sins they committed in 2016, and whip herself until we’re good and satisfied that she has been punished enough.
Like everyone else, I haven’t read “What Happened.” Maybe it’s a candid and insightful look behind the scenes of an extraordinary campaign. Or maybe it’s the kind of shallow and self-serving book most politicians write. But the last thing we should care about is whether Clinton apologizes sufficiently for losing.