Even before Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened had been released, there was a flurry of angry columns about how she had failed – or, the writer intuited, would fail – to apologise for losing the US election. On 13 September, the day after publication, the BBC ran a piece offering “The long list of who Hillary Clinton blames”. Yes, she was on the list – but right at the bottom, below Obama, white resentment, the media and sexism.
The really strange thing about this demand for an apology was its universalism. I can remember politicians being asked to say sorry to their own parties, even their own voters – but here was an American politician who many Britons felt owed them a personal apology. It was completely baffling. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times and still sees fit to lecture Hillary Clinton on being a loser. “The war is over for you. Move on,” he tweeted, in between speculating that the whole of London was shut down due to a terror attack (it wasn’t) and retweeting 1930s German military enthusiast Sebastian Gorka.
The level of vitriol aimed at Clinton feels unusual, in my lifetime. I don’t remember Al Gore – who lost in similar circumstances, to a Republican who was then equally hated by the Anglophone left – being berated for his inadequate contrition. When he lost to George W Bush, everyone felt strongly that Gore had been robbed – we were angry with the Supreme Court, and whatever a “hanging chad” turned out to be. Not with him. So Gore took a few years off, relaxed his diet and reinvented himself as Mr Melting Iceberg.
Anyway, I had hoped that the publication of Clinton’s book might put a stop to this strange meme. Why? Because the book returns again and again to the question of why she lost, as I wrote in my review:
One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself? Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.
In fact, Quartz tallied up the number of times Hillary Clinton blames herself in her memoir – 35 times. “I regret handing Trump a political gift with my ‘deplorables’ comments,” she writes. Later: “I blamed myself. My worst fears about my limitations as a candidate had come true.” Again: “I go back over my shortcomings and the mistakes we made. I take responsibility for all of them. You can blame the data, blame the message, blame anything you want – but I was the candidate. It was my campaign. Those were my decisions.” Bored yet? “I have tried to learn from my own mistakes. There are plenty, as you’ll see in this book, and they are mine and mine alone.”
It wasn’t even the first time she has apologised for losing the election. Hillary Clinton is the first presidential candidate to say “sorry” in her concession speech – something none of her (male) predecessors have done. (Mr Melting Iceberg did not say sorry.) “I’m sorry that we did not win this election for the values we share and the vision we hold for our country,” she told her audience on 9 November. She phoned Barack Obama that night to say the S-word too.
Now, Clinton is not the only politician to be ordered to apologise – the start of Conservative party conference was dominated by the question of whether Theresa May would do the same for the election result in June. But Clinton is perhaps the only one whose apologies seem never to connect with the male-dominated political media. My working theory is that something about the pitch of her voice is audible only to dogs and women. Or perhaps a certain type of commentator really struggles with the font she used in her book? Please give generously to those suffering from Times New Roman Blindness.
The other possibility that there is no level of apology Clinton can give which will ever be enough. Any attempt to discuss the other factors leading to her loss – and I think white resentment and sexism might be two obvious contenders – is taken as a stubborn refusal to ring her bell and wander through the streets in sackcloth, as a bad woman should. The effect of this repeated criticism is that her lack of contrition is now a meme, and confirmation bias is in full swing. Every time Clinton now opens her mouth to say something other than sorry – perhaps, “thanks, I’ll have a glass of the Malbec” – someone will overhear and shout, “SEE! SEE! SHE STILL WON’T ACCEPT HER FAILINGS AS A CANDIDATE”.
Take this morning’s Times Red Box email, which reflected on Clinton’s appearance at the Cheltenham Literature Festival: “But on the big question – why did she lose the election – it’s not clear she quite knows, or certainly has yet to entertain the possibility that after decades at the top of American politics, voters didn’t like her,” writes Matt Chorley. “Not because she was a woman, Bill Clinton’s wife or a Democrat. But because she was Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Now look again at that quote from her book: “A lot of people – millions and millions of people – decided they just didn’t like me”.
And just in case you think I’m hallucinating, here’s her interview with the New Yorker: “A lot of people said they just didn’t like me. I write that matter-of-factly, but believe me, it’s devastating. Some of this is a direct result of my actions: I’ve made mistakes, been defensive about them, stubbornly resisted apologizing. But so have most men in politics. (In fact, one of them just became President with a strategy of ‘never apologize when you’re wrong, just attack harder.’)”
I mean, I think at this point we should concede it’s a possibility that Hillary Clinton knows that some voters don’t like her. What appears to be driving people crazy is her refusal to accept it as the only, or even the primary, reason why she lost to Donald Trump.
By the way, there’s a sad paragaph at the end of the BBC piece: “Any attempt by Mrs Clinton to explain ‘what happened’ in 2016 was going to be ripe for criticism. Is she talking out too much? Or not enough?”
This is exactly right. In the same world where Clinton is berated for her lack of apology, women are told by business gurus to remove the word “sorry” from their vocabulary as it is making them sound weak. In language, a woman’s place is in the wrong.