Gasps of delight rose from the crowd at the Javits Center on Thursday night when it was announced that Cheryl Strayed, author of the best-selling memoir Wild, would be interviewing Hillary Clinton, the star guest at this year’s Book Expo America. Clinton was there to talk about two forthcoming books—a children’s adaptation of 1996’s It Takes a Village and what appears to be a campaign memoir—and she could not have asked for a friendlier audience or interlocutor. (Strayed appeared at a fundraiser with Clinton in 2016.) It was a soft landing for what had been a high-wire week for Clinton, in which she re-entered the spotlight only to find herself caught between two competing impulses: the desire to move forward and the need to look back.
Her dilemma was epitomized by the venue itself. The Javits Center, encased in panels of glass, was where the Clinton campaign held what was supposed to be its victory party on Election Night, a hulking metaphor for the historic glass ceiling she was about to shatter. It turned into the scene from a nightmare, with supporters breaking down in bewildered tears as the unthinkable happened. Clinton never made it to Javits that night, but she seemed unfazed by her presence at the site of so much trauma, which dovetailed with a theme she has returned to time and again since stepping back into political life: resilience. In fact, the talk was being held in the spacious basement of the Javits Center, a metaphor so depressing, or perhaps so obvious, that no one mentioned it.
“I really have this determination, as somebody said about me the other day, a stubbornness,” Clinton told Strayed. “You just get up and do the best you can. It’s literally one foot in front of the other. When you’re fighting for something larger than yourself that keeps you going when you’re down and out personally.” This is precisely the kind of sentiment that Clinton’s many supporters can get behind. It would appear to be her most broadly endearing quality, for Clinton’s popularity tends to rise when she is, as she put it, down and out. But for her detractors, it is evidence of a less attractive trait: an inability to see her own flaws and mistakes clearly.
This is, of course, a debate liberals have had hundreds of times before. It blazed back to life last Friday, when New York magazine published a sympathetic profile of Clinton’s post-election life, provocatively titled, “She’s okay. How about you?” Clinton opened up about the frustrations and indignities she experienced on the campaign trail, and suggested she was ready to reenter public life as a card-carrying member of the resistance. It was a moving and compelling portrait of a woman coming to terms with a harrowing and bizarre election, one that turned out to be a catastrophe for the country, for women’s rights, and for Clinton herself.
It also stirred the hornets’ nest that appears to follow Clinton wherever she goes. Was Clinton the victim of sexism? Or was Clinton cynically using claims of sexism as a cudgel to silence her critics? Did Clinton take sufficient responsibility for losing to the least popular candidate in recent memory? Or did she pass the buck, blaming a constellation of factors that included the Russians, former FBI Director James Comey, and the mainstream media?
Clinton threw a brick at that nest during an event in California on Wednesday with Recode’s Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, lashing out at a whole host of enemies and haters. She blamed James Comey for twice interfering in the election, the Democratic National Committee for having shitty data, The New York Times for its breathless coverage of her private email server, the Electoral College for being silly, the expectation that she was going to win for making voters complacent, and Russia for sabotaging the election. Yes, she also blamed herself, but it felt more like a footnote. “I take responsibility for every decision I made,” she said, “but that’s not why I lost.” Russia was why she lost. Also the other stuff.
Clinton sounded those same themes at the Javits Center, but passions were notably cooler. “I’m particularly concerned about the role that Russia played, and the very serious interference that we know they were responsible for in our most fundamental democratic act,” she said. It became clear that Russia’s meddling in the election would be a major part of her book, which remains shrouded in some mystery. When it was first announced in February, it was pitched as a collection of personal essays centered around meaningful quotes that Clinton has collected over the years. But her talk at Javits suggested something closer to a campaign memoir.
Whatever the book is, writing it has clearly been a cathartic experience. She described the book as a window into what it was like to be Hillary Clinton in 2016. “I’m going to tell you how I saw it, how I felt—because you cannot make up what happened,” she told Strayed. “This is my truth,” Clinton added, perhaps subtweeting the critics of her interview with Swisher and Mossberg. “People can disagree and—guess what?—they will, I’m sure. But this is how I experienced being the first woman to break that barrier, get nominated, stand on the stage during the debates, and deal with the incredibly odd, bizarre happenings that were around. ... I’m going to tell you how I saw it and what I thought and felt.”
The insights into her writing process were revelatory. She writes in her attic and shares her pages with Bill, whom she described as her best and toughest editor. She said that it has been a deeply “emotional experience,” and that after writing for a couple of hours she literally has “to get up and go for a walk or go to bed.” The most persistent (and pernicious) cliches about Clinton is that we never get to see the “real Hillary Clinton,” but it sure sounded like the real Clinton is going to make an appearance in this book.
Which brings us back to the problem of Hillary Clinton. The event at the Javits Center was a reminder that she has a large, sincere, devoted following. When Strayed asked Clinton what she read as a child, she went straight to the Nancy Drew mysteries. “She just seemed like such a go-getter and really smart and brave,” Clinton said. “She was a model for me and my friends.” The implicit comparison might have come off as forced on the campaign trail, but at Javits she was simply talking about a character that meant something to her—and it registered.
Asked about what she plans to do next, Clinton said she will “do everything [she can] to support the resistance. ... I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be as active as I can. That’s who I am. That’s in my DNA.”
In the world of liberal politics, the question of what Clinton does next has been at the forefront of people’s minds this week. It is a testament to her clout that she can manage to stir up so much controversy even as President Donald Trump is literally setting the world on fire. Clinton can’t help but drive people to extremes and her week-long publicity blitz unsurprisingly did exactly that. On the one hand, you have people who argue that Clinton should stay in the woods, leaving the future of the Democratic Party and progressive politics to others. On the other, you have those who suggest that Clinton has earned the right to do whatever she damn well pleases.
There are degrees of truth to both positions, however starkly opposed they may be. The question of who is responsible for Clinton’s 2016 loss will never be satisfactorily answered, but it’s hard to get around the fact that a Democratic firewall crumbled under her watch. Furthermore, Hillary and Bill are representative, fairly or not, of an older Third Way of Democratic politics. Clinton’s supporters can bang on about the most progressive platform in party history, but she still carries 30 years of political baggage that Democrats need to jettison, including a blasé attitude toward accepting enormous amounts of cash from Wall Street. Then there is all the other baggage—the constant psychodrama between her supporters and her critics—which was on full display this week and will continue to divide the party.
Still, no one has dealt with more shit—and more unfair shit—than Hillary Clinton. And as the packed and ecstatic room in the Javits Center will testify, she speaks to and inspires millions of people, particularly women, around the country. That is an important resource for the Democratic Party as it heads into 2018 and beyond.
At Javits, Clinton showed a path forward. She can be someone who is broadly symbolic of the kind of resilience—and, yes, stubbornness—that we will all need if we are to survive the Trump era. It may just require some more self-searching on her part. In politics, as in memoir-writing, you can’t make much progress without first going back.