She went to Venice for a famous art festival, and while she was at that art festival she performed in an installation, and for that installation she sat behind a re-creation of the Oval Office’s Resolute Desk, and while sitting at the desk, wearing a fancy caftan and symbolically acknowledging the dumbest whataboutism to emerge from the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton read her emails.
She has tweeted. She has clapped back. Rudy Giuliani claimed that Joe Biden hadn’t been properly vetted because he was protected by the Clintons. “Yes,” Clinton dryly replied. “I am famously underscrutinized.”
And she’s right, of course, my God, it’s hard to think of another human whom we so love to hate and so hate to love, and can’t get rid of, and then fiercely miss as soon as we do.
Most recently, on Friday night, she was in Washington to promote a new book — her second book and her third national tour since losing to Trump three years ago.
So there we were — again — buying an expensive ticket — again — to listen to Hillary Clinton — again — and think about what she meant to us. Or means. Or will mean, a decade from now when we’re still stuck in whatever codependent relationship this is.
“I am crying,” a young woman informed her seat mate as Clinton walked onstage to a standing ovation and sat in a cushioned chair at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. The young woman repeated, as if her wet face were not self-evident: “I am crying.”
Lissa Muscatine, the evening’s moderator, settled in next to Clinton and her daughter and co-author, Chelsea, also on the tour. Muscatine — a longtime Clinton speechwriter and co-owner of Politics and Prose bookstore, which helped organize the event — waited until the tearful applause died down, and then, facing the audience, revved it back up again: “Is there a gutsier woman than Hillary Rodham Clinton?”
"Gutsy Women." Yes! This is the title of the new book! A dutiful periwinkle brick. The pages are glossy, the chapters are short and the women inside are gutsy. This is the kind of book that seems perfect for very specific audiences, and those audiences are: stepmoms searching for books to help them bond with their spouse's daughters. Parents looking to supplement a favorite teacher's classroom library. Thirty-four-year-old women who are about to spend the holidays with their future mothers-in-law and still don't have a Christmas gift.
It is very easy to picture this book being unwrapped. It’s harder to picture this book being read, cover to cover, with a sense of delight. Mostly, it feels like a laborious collection of Wikipedia entries on women and girls you’ve already heard of — Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman, Anne Frank — plus a few you might not have, like Somali obstetrician Hawa Abdi or “Sesame Street” creator Joan Ganz Cooney.
There’s nothing particularly inspired about the idea or execution; there’s nothing wrong with it either. Hillary and Chelsea describe it as an “ongoing conversation” between the two of them, a manifestation of Sally Ride’s idea that sharing women’s stories is important because “you can’t be what you can’t see.” This book is a compendium of all the women you might like to see and be, organized into categories: inventors, healers, storytellers, etc.
Mother and daughter have done an admirable job of showcasing not only diverse professions but also diverse beliefs, backgrounds, races and sexual orientations. Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person to be elected and serve in a state legislature, gets an entry. So does Olympian Caster Semenya, whose biology has been the subject of prurient scrutiny. Their inclusion is important: quiet affirmations that “being a woman” can look all kinds of different ways.
I want to love this book.
And that, of course, is how millions of readers will know that Hillary Clinton wrote it. Because holding it in my hands, this book, which is well-researched, and historically significant, and which represents everything I hold dear, a book that seems thoughtful and prepared, a book that probably had a plan for campaign finance reform and climate change, and couldn’t help that its horndog husband abused his power with an intern more than 20 years ago (but should really stop complicitly brushing off the offense now) — holding this book in my hands, I cannot tell how much I actually love it, and how much I just desperately, desperately wish I did.
What more can we possibly want from this woman?
And by woman, I mean, book?
Here are some things Hillary and Chelsea told us onstage:
Hillary still writes everything longhand, which drove Chelsea crazy as a collaborating author: “I thought surely she would have to understand why track changes are important.”
Hillary admires teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg because she’s been criticized by “everyone from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin, so you know she’s doing something right.”
Chelsea, as a little girl, once wrote a letter to President Ronald Reagan begging him not to visit a Nazi cemetery because she’d learned via “The Sound of Music” that Nazis were bad. She was devastated not to get a response; later, as first lady, Hillary started an initiative to make sure children who wrote the White House would always get responses.
Hillary wanted to write this book partly because she wanted to make sure the country didn’t lose any ground it had gained for women: “We’re not giving up, we’re not going back, we’re not going to let ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ happen.”
An audience-submitted question from someone named Alex asked Hillary what she did whenever she was “not feeling her gutsiest.”
“P.S.” Muscatine said, reading Alex’s note aloud. “I love you.”
Hillary laughed. When she’s not feeling gutsy, “I think about you, Alex.” She was kidding. But, she explained, she did think about the gutsy women and men who inspired her.
Hillary believes that “Trump knows he’s an illegitimate president.” She also believes that “impeachment is the appropriate remedy. I am all in favor of what the House is doing. . . . This president has to be held to account.”
The audience gobbled it all up. The audience, more women than men, more young than old (it was a college campus), snorted it up, as one snorts the heady drug of the alternate reality you all thought would come to pass.
"I love Hillary," says Sarah Harig, an audience member I talked to after the event. She'd shown up four hours before the reading to ensure good seats.
“I love Hillary,” adds Harig’s friend Casey Archer.
“She loves Hillary,” says Kartic Padmanabhan, pointing to his 9-year-old, whom he had brought along for a father-daughter date.
“We love Hillary,” says Laura Hennessey, nodding to her companion Mary Thornton. “We love the relationship she has with her daughter.”
Thornton is quiet for a moment, and then confesses it’s because the question I’d asked her, Why are you here?, had made her choke up.
“She should be president,” Thornton says finally. “The hatred directed toward her is unimaginable, and she should be president.”
“I love Hillary,” says a woman named Rose who won’t give me her last name for reasons that soon become apparent. “I didn’t, but I do, but I was frustrated by her, but now . . .”
Rose, no last name, was so frustrated by Hillary that she didn’t vote for her. She wrote someone else in. It was meant to be a protest. She thought Hillary had the election in the bag. She feels terrible. She doesn’t quite remember, now, what quality seemed so bad about Hillary, at least not compared with Donald Trump, that she felt the need to protest it.
Here is what I think many people want from Hillary.
I think they want to live in a world in which they are allowed to love Hillary but be exasperated by her comments on Joe Biden. Allowed to protest her. Allowed to become justifiably incensed by her positions — too liberal? too conservative? — because, in this alternate reality, they are weighty policies made by the president of the United States, rather than inconsequential comments made by a retired politician who is hawking another book.
I think they want to be able to say that Hillary wasn’t perfect. I think they want to be able to talk about her in the complicated way she deserves to be talked about, rather than defensively pretend she’s a saint merely because the people attacking her are so rabidly crazy and sexist.
It would be lovely, just lovely, if instead of being a gutsy woman, Hillary was just a boring president.
It would be lovely if we could look at her as a human instead of a reminder of messy marriages and messy times and the limits of our own forgiveness and the repercussions of letting the perfect be the enemy of the sane.
Every time Hillary Clinton makes another public appearance, she is giving us a gift. The gift is not her mediocre book. The gift is not magnetic wit. The gift is all her complications. The gift is being able to tell her to go away while simultaneously wishing she would never leave.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.