When the long line of Hillary Clinton superfans was finally allowed into the Barnes & Noble in New York City’s Union Square at 8 AM on Tuesday, after waiting outside for as long as twelve hours, they handed over $30 for Clinton’s new book What Happened, which they would receive once they reached the front of the line some four to six hours later. They were also given a wristband, and handed a slip of paper telling them exactly what they could and could not expect from their brief interaction with the 2016 Democratic nominee for president. It resembled something a crazy person might shove in your hand on the subway.
The slip of paper confirmed that wristbands for entry would be distributed “on a first-come, first-served basis” along with the purchase of her book. It specified that Clinton would sign copies of What Happened and her illustrated kids book It Takes a Village, “no exceptions or personalizing.” It insisted on “no other books or memorabilia,” and stressed that “posed photos or selfies will not be taking place.”
There was then a long, confusing passage about the wristbands:
Wristbands will be distributed in four separate colors to denote your place in line once you purchased your book(s). Each color will correspond to a specific place in the store to which you will be led prior to the event. If you wish to leave the store after purchasing your book(s) you may do so, as your admittance will still be guaranteed upon returning to the store with your wristband. However, if your wristband color group has already moved up to the event space you will be asked to join the following wristband color group (at the end of that line.) Book purchase and wristbands are both required to meet the author, no exceptions. Customers without wristbands are not allowed to participate in any capacity (children 12 and under are not required to purchase an additional book or obtain a wristband when accompanied by an adult with a valid wristband).
Security was tight and touchy, in other words—and everyone wanted this to move along quickly. You could, however, make eye contact with Clinton, if you were so inclined. But no one at Union Square seemed to mind about waiting twelve hours to spend roughly twelve seconds with their idol, all while being treated like cattle.
It was a fitting juxtaposition for a figure who has provoked such sharply different responses. What Happened has been marketed as an unvarnished glimpse of the real Hillary Clinton, the one who is surrounded not only by layers and layers of security, but also layers and layers of Hillary Clinton the public persona. But to her fans, the real Hillary Clinton has always been in plain sight.
What Happened is a tell-all about the 2016 campaign, and true to form it has received mixed reviews. It has been criticized for blaming everyone but herself for her failure to defeat Donald Trump; for being too focused on the past; for not being introspective enough; and, in some cases, for even existing at all. But most of the people I spoke to at Barnes & Noble rolled their eyes at the book’s early reviews.
“I don’t see it as the blame game,” Cat Guido, a 28-year-old from Jersey City, told me. “I see it as an opportunity to tell people what happened off of the political stage. That’s what we’re all eager to hear. Of course when someone comes out with a book and has a story that’s raw and visceral and someone calls it just a bunch of complaining, I’d say that Bernie did the same thing. I’d say that it’s not fair that men are allowed to do that and women are not.”
After getting two books signed by Clinton, a young woman who had been at Barnes & Noble since 11 PM the previous night raved about the experience. “It was awesome,” she said. “I’ve been in love with her since I was a little girl. She’s a female role model that I’ve respected since she was very young. I know she’s an imperfect person but she is is somebody who is definitely a strong female role model. She’s inspired a lot of women to pursue things that they might not have before.”
The line moved at a brisk pace, but Clinton’s attention was entirely on whoever was in front of her. She signed books and shook hands and smiled. Her supporters beamed back at her. (One woman even handed her a resume, hoping to work with Onward Together, Clinton’s new super PAC.) Without fail, everyone hoped she would run again—only Senator Kamala Harris of California was mentioned as a possible alternative.
As for those of us in the media, who were penned up at the front of the event, Clinton had no time. She was an hour late. When she entered the building, she triumphantly held up a copy of What Happened, sat down, and immediately began signing books. There were no public remarks.
No one else seemed to care. What Happened is a book for true believers, the people who are still very much with her ten months later. The people who don’t want her to self-flagellate. The people who want her to run again in 2020. Many were still perplexed and disturbed and traumatized by the 2016 election. The event at Union Square, like the book, was for those people.
There were other people, too. Outside the supernova of Clinton’s presence, the usual small planets orbited. The journalists in the press pen grumbled that she was late, that she had nothing to say to them, that they had limited access to attendees and therefore limited access to the quotes they needed for their stories. When we were told that our ten minutes up close were coming to an end, one reporter asked if Clinton would be making any comment. “This is all you’re getting,” the event organizer growled.
It was the experience of covering Clinton in a nutshell. In What Happened, Clinton writes about reporters rolling oranges with questions written on them to the front of her campaign plane as if they were friendly jokes, and not goofy representations of the difficulty of gaining access to Clinton.
Outside Barnes & Noble there were the usual right-wing loonies that have attached themselves like barnacles to Clinton for the past three decades. There were three people in the protest pen, most of whom were still incensed by the debunked story that Clinton had given large quantities of U.S. uranium to a Russian company in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation.
When I was interviewing two young women, a man wearing white pants mumbled “Hillary for Prison” before running away. An older man who looked like he was cosplaying Steve Bannon tried to bond with a reporter from Columbia University by introducing himself as “Cornell ‘78.” A young man with radio equipment attached himself to a group of reporters interviewing a college student and asked, “Why do you think she lost? We live in a democratic republic.” When the young woman didn’t respond, he preened like a baby peacock, “Just like Hillary—dodging the question.”
It was a brief detour into Hillaryland, a place that has become very familiar to many of us over the last two decades. It might be the last detour for a while.