One of the best and one of the worst bits of news last week were the same: Hillary Clinton is deep into the writing of another book.
It’s due to appear much sooner than I’d realized – in September, to be precise – and it’s billed as a reflection on her 2016 campaign and her stunning, grueling defeat by Donald Trump. In an interview that Clinton gave to Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday, she mentioned the memoir repeatedly and excitedly, casting it as “my confession and my request for absolution.”
If it follows the example of her last literary outing, it'll put the priest to sleep. “Hard Choices,” technically about her time as secretary of state, was actually a change-of-address form. She wasn’t asking to be understood. She was asking to have her mail forwarded to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Could this time be different? There are reasons to hope so and to root for that. With the White House finally off the table (isn’t it?) and nothing left to lose, Clinton can do something that she failed to in “Hard Choices,” in its predecessor, “Living History,” and in decades of public life defined as much by guardedness as by ambition. She can lose her caution, ditch her calculation and go out in a blaze of candor. Imagine the catharsis, not just for her but for all of us.
Obviously, I’m talking about more than her book. I’m talking about this whole next phase – Hillary: The Coda – and her last chance to fix our understanding of who she really is. The truth is that we still don’t know, because while she has been constantly in our faces, she has also been a million miles away, one of the best known and least known people on the planet.
And one of the most repressed, by both external forces and herself. Surely she’s weary of that. Many of the rest of us are.
With Amanpour there were glimmers of something rawer. Did Clinton believe that James Comey cost her the election? Hell, yes. Did misogyny come into play? You bet. She promised plenty more on that in the memoir.
Putting aside the merits of those complaints and whether they diverted too much blame from Clinton herself, they at least weren’t woven from the threads of some campaign whiz’s data, filtered through a committee of jittery advisers and read from some pasteurized script. There was some spark in them – some hurt and anger and humanity. More, please.
Trump’s victory held only a fraction of the lessons that it was said to, but it did reveal a hunger among many Americans for a kind of political discourse that wasn’t so tightly circumscribed and numbingly polite. There’s still space and need for a prominent Democrat to feed people some of that. Wouldn’t it be a kick if that Democrat were Clinton, so long associated with the opposite kind of talk? I’m not making a prediction. I’m indulging a wish.
She lost on Nov. 8 but in many ways faces the same post-presidency questions that someone fresh out of the Oval Office does, because she has a prominence that rivals former presidents’ and a soapbox nearly as tall as theirs. Her words travel far. Her actions have weight.
Etiquette and precedent suggest that someone in her vanquished position show some restraint and respect, but you may have noticed that etiquette and precedent have lost much of their currency in the Age of Trump. I’m not suggesting that she or Barack Obama descend to Trump’s level, but they do have greater leeway to pipe up than they would with another president. Greater cause, too. She should indeed pipe up, and not only in an occasional barbed tweet.
She has reportedly been putting together a political action committee to raise money for groups that oppose Trump’s agenda – it could be announced as soon as this coming week – and will do her part to help Democratic congressional candidates in 2018. Terrific.
She is apparently poised to hit the paid lecture circuit anew. Inevitable.
But instead of just speaking for dollars, how about speaking her mind, in a lexicon purged of the usual platitudes and clichés? I’m keenly curious for her thoughts on sexism, just not the way she rendered them with Amanpour, swerving quickly to a boilerplate discussion of equal pay.
I want to know about the private moments of insult and fury that were part of her extraordinary journey, and my interest isn’t chiefly voyeuristic. That kind of honesty from her would do more to move the discussion about gender roles and double standards forward than the statistics she recites with so little prompting and such ease.
Will some people call her whiny? Of course, and at times they'll be right. But there are complaints no matter what she or anyone at her altitude, with her history, says or does. She made a perfectly valid observation to Amanpour about spotty cellphone coverage in rural areas and was accused of snootiness. The only sane strategy is not to care too much.
Besides, that’s the only path to freedom, which she must crave and which would bring out the best in her. Every so often there’s a glimpse of a less censored Clinton, as when she pushed back at some Black Lives Matter activists who accused her of victim blaming. Take a fresh look at the video. She’s irritated. She’s blunt. And she’s more likable and compelling than at almost any moment after that encounter in August 2015, toward the start of her campaign.
I remember well my own extended one-on-one interactions with her for a 2001 magazine story and the gleam in her eye when we decided on red wine after a long day. She wasn’t fashioning an image: Merlot Hillary. She was just hankering for a drink, and her laughter and looseness as she had it were real.
She let politics beat that laughter and looseness out of her. That was the greatest of her many mistakes, captured somewhat by a remark to Amanpour that attracted much less attention and analysis than other segments of the interview. Referring to one of the differences between her candidacy’s and Trump’s, she said, “I wasn’t going to appeal to people’s emotions in the same way that my opponent did.”
Well, Secretary Clinton, it’s never too late, and this next book is as good a place as any to start. Open the wine. Open your soul. Instead of “Hard Choices,” give us “Wrong Turns.” Instead of “Living History,” maybe “Livid With History.” You’re due for self-recrimination, but you’re also entitled to rage, and I suspect that absolution lies on the far side of both.