I'm embarrassed to admit I cried over the election. It seems so dramatic to say now. Watching the returns that night, I clicked off the TV in frustration around 10 and shuffled upstairs to sleep, hoping that when I woke, some semblance of order would have been restored. When I stirred some time after midnight, I fought the urge to check my phone, but the pull was too strong. Within seconds, I was upright in my bed.
I’m sure plenty of other people cried that night, and for many of the reasons I did. My angst was of the standard issue East Coast liberal variety. The election was like waking up in your bed, reaching for the floor, and realizing you were perched on top of a cliff; you no longer lived where you thought you lived.
For days, I wandered around like a puppy, seeking solace wherever I could find it. Two days after the election I stopped in the doorway of an older colleague’s office. We had spent the previous few months trading barbs about the ridiculous campaign, but our mood that day was dark. “Tell me it’s not that bad,” I said. Ten minutes in, his face was red in frustration. Then his voice started cracking.
“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this anymore,” I said.
We were all reeling: my family, most of my friends, people at work. But for me, the timing was especially curious: I was weeks away from having a book published on the merits of losing, and here I was, not losing well at all.
In the aftermath of Election Night, friends suggested that I should send my book to Hillary Clinton, or that I should try to track Hillary down for an interview. “It’s perfect timing,” they’d say. I mostly just nodded. I would have loved to talk to Clinton about her loss--the sting, the humiliation, the inevitable post-mortem regrets. But to me, it was a loss that extended well beyond one person. There’s nothing in my book that addresses what to do when your candidate for president is defeated by an impulsive narcissist, but it does discuss navigating a reality different than the one that you want. For a while, I assumed that loss -- our loss -- was the most relevant discussion point.
In recent weeks, though, as Clinton has returned to the public sphere in promotion of her new book, I've given greater thought to her defeat, how she's digested it, and what larger lessons we might draw from her ordeal. It is rich terrain given was at stake, and how we feel the reverberations of that loss every day. One could argue there's never been a bigger loss than Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. You can’t blame her for at least squeezing a book deal out of it.
Still, that book, and much of the surrounding analysis, has been about why she lost, or to quote the title, What Happened? This starts as a political question, with the added elements of economics, technology, the state of modern journalism, sex and religion sprinkled in to ruin polite dinner conversations for the foreseeable future.
But the other part, and the part I’m really interested in, is how Clinton lost. Meaning how does a 69-year-old woman who had eyed the presidency for at least a decade reconcile losing that job to quite possibly the most unelectable candidate in history? What toll does that loss take on someone’s self worth? And how much energy does it require to not let that loss define you?
The only person who can answer these questions truthfully is Clinton, and even in her book and subsequent interviews, she might be only delivering a version carefully packaged for public consumption. She tells stories of riding in a car with Bill after delivering her concession speech, struggling to breathe, then retreating home to slip on a fleece and yoga pants. All authentic enough details. But maybe she and Bill snapped at each other in the car. Maybe she dry heaved in the woods outside her the Chappaqua home. I wouldn't think any less of her in either scenario. There’s an important difference between losing gracefully and losing well. Clinton, in this moment least, had earned the right to be a flailing mess.
The closest parallel to Clinton in my book is Michael Dukakis, who described to me the aftermath of his loss to George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. Like Clinton, Dukakis was a Democrat seemingly well positioned in the polls during the summer, but eventually overtaken by a Republican opponent who sharpened his elbows over the final months of the campaign. But that’s probably where the comparisons end. Bush was on a different ideological plane than Dukakis, but temperamentally they weren’t far apart. The new president had decades of public service to draw on. When Dukakis and the rest of the country went to bed that night, there was at least a general acceptance that the world wasn’t going to implode. The next morning, Dukakis, still governor of Massachusetts, slipped out of the house and rode the T to work.
It’s the severity of Clinton’s loss that makes the aftermath so worthy of analysis, because it wasn't just what she lost, but the world that loss spawned. In the beginning of What Happened, Clinton references writing the book at her kitchen table, only to be interrupted by the occasional news alert on her phone. I get those news alerts, too -- Russia! North Korea! Charlottesville! -- and they’re bad enough for me. But at least I don't have to consider how much could have been avoided if I just had my shit together.
In a recent profile in The New Yorker, David Remnick relays a conversation with a Democrat operative who was aghast that Clinton, in writing a book, would attempt to profit from what others might consider a national nightmare. “Ask her why she blew the biggest slam dunk in the history of American fucking politics!” he said to Remnick. The operative went on to wonder if Clinton would “donate the millions of dollars she’s gonna make from this disaster.”
In her book, Clinton describes the weight of guilt, the burden of not just losing for herself and her closest supporters, but everyone else too. Said one former campaign adviser to Remnick: “There is in her a depth of anguish about the outcome there is no parallel for in modern memory.”
I feel for her for these reasons, because it makes all the other losses I’ve described seem benign by comparison. Other presidential elections, football games, fledgling businesses — painful as they may be, they come with a comparatively limited reach. And yet this is also the reason I find myself wanting more out of Clinton. Perhaps unfairly, she needs to recognize this loss can’t be about her; when the misfortune is not yours alone, you are afforded less time to wallow in it.
As much time as Clinton spends talking about Putin, or Comey, or the fundamental sexism that stands between a woman and the presidency, that’s time that isn’t spent considering the formidable challenges ahead. Curiously she stands at the exact crossroads of what I discuss in Win at Losing, where one needs to balance between the painful unpacking of a loss and the decision to compartmentalize it in an effort to push forward. There are indeed ample lessons to be extracted from Clinton’s loss that will serve other candidates, particularly in this troubling era of manipulated truth. But I’d argue Clinton isn’t the one to be leading that discussion. For the sake of the rest of us upright in our beds, she needs to move on, move forward, and to some extent, move aside.