There was no sign of the promise she’d ‘let her guard down’, and flashes of Sarcastic Wine Mom aside, Hillary Clinton offered little more than platitudes at Spark Arena, writes Charlotte Graham-McLay.
The song ‘Roar’ by Katy Perry blared from the loudspeakers, a universal indicator that we, the audience at An Evening with Hillary Clinton, were about to see a famous woman speak. I am not sure if you are allowed to be a woman in public any more without playing ‘Roar’ by Katy Perry as a preamble to your entrance; a shorthand that you, a confirmed feminist, will not be doing with anyone’s bullshit.
“But Donald Trump won!” I wanted to howl at the ceiling of the Spark Arena, and again at the start of the event, when the same hope-filled video played that was broadcast at Clinton’s nominating convention. A highlights reel of her achievements and accomplishments was inadvertently depressing. We all knew how that one ended.
Didn’t we? I’m still not sure if she does.
Tickets for the seat I was sitting in cost $495, but I hadn’t paid for it. As a freelance journalist, I did what I always do when I when I fly to Auckland for work and brought my lunch with me from Wellington in a Tupperware. $495? I can’t even afford Auckland food. One of the journalists sitting near me, also from Wellington, had brought her own Cup-a-Soups.
This was, perhaps, a sign that despite the fact that I too am a woman just trying to work out what the fuck is going on in this life, the event was not really for me. I am firmly opposed to people reviewing things that aren’t for them, especially when it is male reviewers performatively hating books written by young women, for young women. You shouldn’t review anything that you are obviously going to loathe. But, and this is a very uncool opinion among journalists, I actually quite enjoyed Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened. It is a cautionary tale about how far even the most accomplished women have to go before they can be considered equal with men.
But, better than that, is a rare account of female failure told not from the other side of redemption or comeback, but from a woman whose story, at the time she was telling it, ended with that failure. TED Talks about failing are usually delivered from a place of success and make you feel even worse about your own inability to spin your personal shit into gold. Hillary Clinton, a woman who once, early in Bill’s political career, delivered a concession speech for him because he was literally too upset to get off the floor, was still mired in shit when she wrote that book. She was believed to be unsinkable and she sank. The end.
On that count, I devoured What Happened greedily – not out of enjoyment at Clinton’s loss, but of a successful woman’s articulation of what the early stages of failure felt like, before the spin kicked in and she put a brave face on it.
That’s what I expected An Evening with Hillary Clinton, ostensibly a book tour about What Happened, would explore. The Clinton who emerged last night felt disappointingly timid, as though she was still figuring out what she wanted to say. Of course, it is her life and if people want to pay $495 (tickets upstairs cost $195 and $295) to watch her work it out, then that’s absolutely wild, but good for her, I guess.
What was missing, mostly, was the roar. Clinton spoke from a podium before fielding fairly softball questions from former New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley. No questions from the floor were permitted, though the occasional furious rustling from RNZ broadcasters Kim Hill and Susie Ferguson, who were sitting next to me, suggested they were thinking about vaulting 10 rows of seats and giving it a go.
Shipley was the weakest link of the whole affair, though it’s not fair to blame her entirely because you’d better believe that every aspect of the night was stage managed by the Clinton juggernaut. If she’d wanted to be interviewed by a journalist, Clinton would have been.
Frustratingly, former current events interviewer Linda Clark had been selected to give an introduction – sort of an introduction to the introductions – but did not interact with Clinton directly, which was like putting a bunch of top-shelf booze in a locked display case a party and then only serving orange juice. Clark returned at the end of the event to offer some summarizing remarks, although it was difficult to focus on them over the sound of people behind us thunderously leaving up the noisy Spark Arena stairs.
Shipley’s questions were intelligent but longwinded and, worse, were clearly pre-prepared, which meant that Clinton was not pressed about her answers and was allowed to say the things with which she was most comfortable, without follow-up. It might as well have been a lecture. The frustrating thing is that Hillary Clinton – no matter what you think about her politics – is indisputably clever and could have handled a top journalistic interviewer.
Other than boringly diplomatic – especially to some real clangers of questions about her grandchildren and online anonymity, which felt a good five years behind where discussions of the internet have actually got to – Clinton was at her best in two distinct modes. One was Clinton the policy wonk and former secretary of state – a persona she admits in her book to be most comfortable inhabiting. She echoed University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady’s comments about the risk China poses to western democracies, and urged greater international collaboration on domestic policy.
A speech to a youthful, engaged crowd on a uni campus, where questions were actually permitted, might have been a great format to hear more of that Clinton.
The other interesting Clinton was the Sarcastic Wine Mom, a personality that has emerged in her post-election events and which feels like, perhaps, the realest of Clinton we’ve seen. When she snarked about Trump’s inauguration crowds or the way she loves reading mystery novels because that’s one place where “the bad guy gets it,” the crowd lapped it up. But the jokes still felt awkward. “Does anyone remember that Donald Trump won?” I wanted to ask.
The much-touted “letting my guard down” that the publicity materials for the event promised? Not even close. I asked people who had paid for their ticket (ie not any of the journalists) whether they felt they got what they’d come for; most felt inspired and empowered by the event. But it felt to me as though platitudes like “dare to compete” and “get back up when you’re knocked down” were Clinton short-changing both herself and the leaders and CEOs who had spent hundreds to see her speak.
Wealthy white people who can afford to drop $495 on a gig ticket don’t need to be told to “dare to compete”; our reality, and their own part in it, is much more challenging and urgent than that. It was perhaps the most baffling thing about Clinton: her strength of belief, still, in the old paradigms that screwed her so badly. When she spoke, repeatedly, about empowering female candidates – a project to which she’s now devoting her efforts – she was light on detail, especially about how a system that refused to allow the most qualified female candidate (her!) to win out against the least-qualified man ever to hold the job, was magically going to embrace women candidates if there were simply more of them.
While Clinton did champion electoral reform, it largely felt as though she was happy to feed coins into the same old fruit machine and expect that she might still hit the jackpot, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
Similarly, when Clinton called for “maximum disclosure” around who was producing information on the internet, in order to combat fake news, her comments seemed astonishing in their naivety. It was as though she believed that the electoral system had let her down only her and only this one time, rather than facing the fact that the political sphere to which she had devoted 40 years of her life and service had experienced a radical change in landscape from which there is likely to be no return – only the chance to adapt.
In that sense, Clinton still shows no sense that she has fully confronted her electoral loss. She made jokes about Trump, and some dark premonitions that Russia may have had more of a hand in the election than is even known about. But Clinton either does not believe, or does not want to believe, that there was anything in her own efforts, or in the American psyche, that contributed to her loss.
On that count, An Evening with Hillary Clinton was pretty demoralising. This morning I talked about it to a stranger in a café, who confirmed my feeling that she might have been among the few people of colour there. The woman said that she attended the event wanting to know how change could actually happen if Hillary Clinton couldn’t be the one to affect it, a topic that – shockingly – was never really addressed.
The issue of race arose literally once – when Clinton mentioned that voter disenfranchisement targeted African-Americans and Latinos, as well as the young and the elderly – and despite Jenny Shipley using the word “diversity” in both her introduction to, and her thanks for Clinton, the challenge of how women who aren’t wealthy and white – in other words, the women mostly not in the room – are supposed to win out on the same challenges she couldn’t was never discussed.
Other than a plug for pay equity, Clinton did not demand much of her audience and judging by the feedback, they were pretty happy with her. What a waste.
About a chapter into my reading of What Happened, my husband asked me what was the matter. I think my neck must have been doing that thing that it does when I’m angry.
In a strangled sort of hiss, I said, “She had to tell Bill Clinton to put on a coat for the Trump inauguration in Washington in January. And then when it was cold, she paused for a moment to feel pleased that he had put on a coat. This is why a woman cannot be the president.”
“I think Bill Clinton has a heart condition,” said my husband, quite fairly.
“Then he should learn,” I choked, “to do the mental labour it takes to figure out that at an outdoor event in the middle of winter, he has to wear a fucking coat.”
Imagine what Hillary Clinton could have done if she hadn’t spent 43 years deciding for Bill Clinton, a former fucking President of the United States, if he needed to wear a coat when he left the house!
I guess I wanted something from Hillary Clinton after all: the woman who wrote that passage and then wanted to set fire to a building, rather than one dispensing vaguely inspiring platitudes. But that would require acknowledging the scale of the problem and your own part in it, and apparently the price on that is higher than $495.
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