Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Why Hillary Clinton’s Book Is Actually Worth Reading

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James Fallows has a very interesting column on Hillary Clinton and her book. It begins:

Most books by politicians are bad. They’re bad because they are cautious, or pious, or boring, or some even-worse combination of all three.

They’re cautious because over the years politicians learn they have more to lose than gain by taking “interesting” or edgy stands. (Something I learned when working as a campaign and White House speechwriter: In “normal” writing, your goal is to make your meaning as clear as possible, ideally in a memorable way. For a politician, the goal is to make the meaning just clear enough that most people will still agree with you. Clearer than that, and you’re in trouble.)

They’re pious because in one way or another the “revealing” stories about the authors are really campaign ads—for future elections by politicians with a big race still ahead of them, or for history’s esteem by senior figures looking back. Thus  politicians’ biographies fall into the general categories of humble-brag (most of them) or braggy-brag (Trump’s).

And they’re boring because they’re necessarily often about policy. That’s hard enough to make interesting in the hands of very skillful writers, from Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs to John Hersey and Michael Lewis. If politicians turning out books on “Our Schools: A New Blueprint!” were comparably skilled as writers, they’d be making their livings without having to bother with PACs and polls.

Of course there are exceptions. Some autobiographical books manage to be interesting because they’re written early enough not to be swathed in campaign caution (Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father), or come from a quirky-enough sensibility to avoid normal constraints (Jimmy Carter’s Why Not the Best?), or are from performers talented enough to work subversively within the constraints (Al Franken’s Giant of the Senate, which is the kind of book Will Rogers might have written if he had made it into the Senate). And of course some all-out manifestos with an edge can shape the evolution of politics. Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative didn’t get him into the White House, but it competed with the works of Ayn Rand on many conservatives’ bookshelves and lastingly shaped a movement.

I don’t know whether Hillary Clinton’s previous books were good or bad. I didn’t read them, because I assumed they were normal politician-books. But What Happened is not a standard work in this oeuvre. It’s interesting; it’s worth reading; and it sets out questions that the press, in particular, has not done enough to face.

* * *

On the overall interesting-ness of the book, I refer you to Megan Garber’s extensive analysis of the different personas Hillary Clinton has presented through her now very-long public career, and the much less-guarded one that comes through in What Happened. By the previously mentioned depressing standards of most political books, this one isn’t cautious (because the author  convincingly claims she’s not running for anything any more), it’s not (very) pious (because she favors an acid-humor tone), and most of it is not boring (because most of it is not directly about policy).

As an example of why it’s interesting, consider the opening scene, about how Clinton dealt with the inauguration ceremony in which she might have expected to be sworn in herself, but instead sat there watching Donald Trump take the oath. She’d wondered whether she had to show up at all, and talked with former presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, each of whom had called her right after the news of her loss sank in: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 September 2017 at 10:09 am

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