Hillary Clinton made the first stop of the Q&A section of her book tour last night at Washington D.C.’s Warner Theater, at an event sponsored by DC’s Politics & Prose Bookstore. The Q&A, which I was on-hand to witness, was a moving event where thousands of supporters watched the recipient of the most votes of any presidential candidate in history speak candidly about her new book, What Happened, and offer advice to those who have been inspired to get involved in politics since her devastating loss to Donald Trump last November.
Acting as moderator and questioner was Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of Politics & Prose with her husband Brad (who provided the introduction.) There was also an ASL interpreter on hand for those in the audience who were hard of hearing.
When Hillary took the stage, the entire audience leapt to its feet, giving her an ovation usually reserved for rock stars. Throughout the night, the audience expressed its approval through prolonged ovations a’la a State of the Union address, and jeered the mention of those who obstructed her campaign – none more so than Matt Lauer, whose disastrous interview with her last September was criticized for its unfairness. The theater, which seats nearly 2,000 people, had sold out within minutes of tickets going on sale, and I felt incredibly lucky to be a part of it.
When asked why she wrote her book, the former First Lady and Secretary of State said that she “needed to know what happened, and doing it in a book would provide the discipline to think it through.” Although she admitted to censoring some of the original language she used, doing so was a therapeutic exercise for her, as it helped her get to larger truths about what was happening to the country during her campaign, which, in the thick of it, she couldn’t always see so clearly. She didn’t think, when she began to write it, that she could have a broad view of what happened – and neither did Lissa Muscatine, who told her at the outset that she shouldn’t write it. Muscatine, of course, is grateful that Hillary didn’t listen to her, as are all of us currently reading the book now (it’s excellent, btw.)
Much of it focuses on the role sexism played in the campaign, and as an example of that, Muscatine told her how gratifying it was to hear that Hillary, expecting Trump to creep up on her during the second debate, considered snapping at him on national television. Many of us wish that she had, but Hillary, cautious from years of biased press coverage, knew that whatever they thought she had done wrong, she would be judged for it doubly as harsh as a man would. The memory of Al Gore’s infamous sighing in the first 2000 debate weighed on her, and she ultimately decided against making such a move. She also admitted that having it happen to her in real time was incredibly disorienting – a feeling that anyone confronted by their worst fear in real time knows all too well.
But she always knew from the beginning that she would be up against the terrifying force of sexism in this country. Before she ran, she talked to Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, who told her that women are always viewed more favorably when they are in service to someone else – hence Hillary’s 69% approval rating when she left Obama’s State Department in 2013. By the time she was running for President, however, it had gotten to a point where people didn’t know what they thought of her anymore, since women, as Sandberg also pointed out, are always viewed less favorably the more successful they become.
Sadly, they are viewed this way not just by men but by women as well. White women, who, based on identity alone, should have been in Hillary’s corner, voted for Donald Trump. But Hillary did not harbor resentment towards them for doing so. From all her years of going door-to-door for Democratic candidates, she knew that white women were always the hardest voters to reach, since, in her words, they are worried that they will make mistakes: “Women are trying to do what they think of as the right thing for them and their family, and are under pressure for people around them,” she said.
The Comey Letter, which she has stated was the deciding factor that cost her the election, probably made the difference with this demographic, since it played into their chief concern. That said, she still did better with white women overall than Obama did in 2012, so winning this demographic back will be a problem all Democratic candidates, male or female, will have to contend with.
All this said, she emphatically stated that she did not write this book to deter young women from entering public service. If anything, she hopes that more of them are galvanized to do so, especially given the contrast of the Inaugural on a Friday and the Women’s March that following Saturday. “If you are willing to enter politics,” she said, “you just have to be prepared to have the confidence without being walled-off or defensive, and I have been all those things at various points in my public career.”
Above all, she hopes that young people, regardless of their gender or color, get involved in politics now, since no one has more of a stake in taking back this country than they. “I’m going to spend a lot of my time supporting young people,” she said, “talking with them, encouraging them to understand the power of their votes…and to be the ruble to those who want to divide and undermine us.”
“I’m optimistic,” she concluded, “because I believe that we always summon up the energy [to] keep moving towards that more perfect union, and I’ve done everything I can to help us get there.” She’s not giving up, and neither should we.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.