I once wrote a column in praise of competence. The object of my admiration was Walter Mondale, then running for president against Ronald Reagan. The president’s message was that it was “morning again in America.” Mondale’s message was that he was competent. He lost 49 states. He was Hillary Clinton even before she was.
The comparison is apt — and sad. It came jumping out at me as I read “Shattered,” Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s new account of how Clinton managed to lose to Donald Trump, a man for whom the word “competent” is about as fitting as “humble.” She did it, the two tell us, by assembling a huge and unwieldy campaign apparatus, by fixating on data and not, unfortunately, on retail politics, and by not being able to adequately explain her use of a private email server, a historically trivial matter that came to symbolize her failings as a politician. She seemed inaccessible.
But Clinton’s great failing, the book — not to mention the election itself — makes clear, was her inability to fashion a message. She knew why she was running for president: It was her turn. But she could not say that. She could not merely say that she was prepared, a walking briefing book. Policies coursed through her body like blood cells. She knew everything. She was, in the famous formulation of Isaiah Berlin, a fox. Trump was a hedgehog. He knew just one thing: why he wanted to be president.
“Shattered” is a cliche-clogged slog in itself. The authors made a deal with sources within Clinton’s campaign not to write anything until after the election and to treat what they learned as “on background” — meaning the sources would not be named. This leads to a heavy drizzle of the words “source” and “sources” and, after a while, a certain resistance on the part of the reader: Who are these people? Even banalities are privileged: “It was a very hard 10 days,” a source says about some very hard days.
The other word that keeps coming at you is “message.” Clinton did not have one, and the search for a message preoccupied her staff. Oddly, and fatally, Clinton left it up to them to articulate why she was running. As a mental exercise, I tried to come up with a message myself: “Hillary Clinton — because she’s not Trump” is the best I could do. As it turned out, she could do no better.
Bernie Sanders, in contrast, knew why he was running, and his supporters knew it, too. He was something of a biblical figure. He wanted to smite the big banks and put some Wall Street heads on the end of a pike. It was, in his own way, a position paper.
As for Trump, he was going to make America great again — never mind that he did not have a clue as to how. He had the unassailable confidence of the ignorant, unburdened by knowledge and complexity. He was successful, but let’s not make too much of it. He drew three inside straights in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania and won them all by margin-of-error numbers. As he was at birth, he was lucky.
When I wrote about Mondale, I felt sorry for the guy. I liked him. He’s smart and has a refreshing sense of humor. Whatever my feelings for him were, the camera did not agree. It showed a cold and somewhat distant Midwestern archetype. The same with Clinton. I’ve had a few private moments with her and found her to be — as her aides will always tell you — fresh, irreverent and funny. She gets the joke. Alas, on TV none of that came through, as if she was hiding from the camera lest it reveal too much.
Clinton’s search for a message occupies much of “Shattered.” It is a sad trek because she was an oxymoron: a familiar figure who was seeking to appear fresh and, as she herself acknowledged, a politician with no gift for politics. “I know that I engender bad reactions from people, and I always have,” Allen and Parnes quote her as telling an aide. “There are some people in whom I bring out the worst. I know that about myself, and I don’t know why that is. But it is.”
In the end, Clinton had it right. She was stuck with herself. It was good enough for most voters, but not for enough of them in those three key states. She lost, and a fool won. That, to us, ought to be the message.
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