This time last year, we could still hope for the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton as president. Committed supporters like myself were looking forward to her time in office.
I went to my boyfriend’s house to watch the results. I didn’t want to go out with a bar or election party to watch it; whether I was to be relieved or troubled by the result, it was something I wanted to be able to take in with him alone, rather than with a mixed and lively crowd. On the way there, I listened to Glenn Thrush, then of Politico, present clips of his interviews over the past year. Just as I got to the house, Glenn happened to get to his interview with Clinton. They began by talking about how well she sleeps on planes, even rough rides. As she put it,
When you’re facing a difficult issue that you absolutely can do nothing about – in this case – I can’t fly the plane; I can’t change the weather – falling asleep, you’ll either wake up and things will be fine or you won’t.
An apt metaphor for election night. And those who slept through the night of 8 November 2016 were wise, rather than to watch each crucial state fail to deliver.
As I walked to work the next morning, struggling to deal with the result, I turned to another podcast. One a friend had posted a day or two before the vote, not about the election itself at all, but fitting nonetheless. And planes were to feature once more.
It told the tale of Harriet Quimby, born in 1875, a journalist when few women wrote professionally, and inspired by seeing to Wright Brothers to become an early aviator herself:
And she went home to file her story. And then she learned to fly. The next year, Harriet Quimby rose 150 feet in the air, circled five times and landed within an acceptable distance from a designated point in the grass and became the first American woman to get her pilot’s license. Let’s remember that it’s 1910, and women can’t even vote. But here is Harriet Quimby flying, rising above. …
Let’s remember the life she led thereafter as a traveling daredevil, the first woman to fly at night, the first woman to fly across the English Channel. And let’s note her death just two years later in 1912, a crash, Squantum, Mass. She was flung from the cockpit simply because they hadn’t thought to put seatbelts in planes yet. Let’s note the fall and note the fear. But let’s remember her flying. Let’s remember her flying.
As I listened to this, Hillary Rodham Clinton was taking in the consequences of her defeat. Perhaps sleeping, but not resting, as she knew she had to address to her supporters and those who had depended on her across the world. Before she spoke, and she was to speak well to the circumstances.
Every campaign, winning or losing, makes mistakes, missed opportunities. But for 77,744 votes in three crucial states, the focus after the election would instead have been on those Trump made. Or would it? So much of the criticism of Clinton’s campaign has been based on the premise that she lost to a self-evidently bad candidate. A bad man he might be, ignorant in the sense of wilfully ignoring facts and perspectives that do not suit him. But Trump was a canny political campaigner. He talked of contesting as early as the 1980s (it was any correspondents’ dinner that planted the seed), so that that Spy magazine in 1988 to John Oliver in 2013 jokingly encouraged him to run. And he ran at just about the right time for him to win. Not only the narrow victory last November, but beating several governors and senators in the Republican field. Sixteen others in all there. Essays in The Atlantic this summer made me wonder whether in 2016 there was the right mix of neuroses and racial tension for a candidate like Trump to capitalise on it.
Over the past year, I’ve read more than I had before on the history of classical Rome, touching on different time points there. It gives a certain perspective to large changes in the fortunes of a superpower. When the history of this election is told, I can’t help but think there will be more attention spent to the context of collusion between the Trump campaign and agents of the Russian government, which we will surely learn the truth of. Or how social media ads manipulated the public perception of news and politics. Or the effect of systematic voter suppression laws, that might have interfered with up to 200,000 voters in Wisconsin, for example.
It was very easy for Sanders supporters to assert that he would have beaten Trump. We know with 100% certainty that Clinton didn’t beat Trump, and there’s at least a chance Sanders might have. It’s an analysis that focuses too heavily on the white working-class male voters Trump won that Sanders might have been more competitive with, while assuming all of the other voters Clinton won from the Republicans would have voted for Sanders. Wisconsin also saw the more identifiably populist Russ Feingold run behind Clinton in the Senate election held on the same day. And it considers only the Republican campaign we saw, against Clinton, rather than the one they might have run against Sanders. But in the end, we don’t know. The Russians would certainly have been less interested in defeating Sanders.
I’ve just finished Clinton’s campaign memoir, What Happened. Despite some reports, this was not a bitter text. She is owns her defeat, throughout the book she is clear that she feels she let her supporters down. Of course she considers the emails, after they’d received such a disproportionate coverage during the campaign, and the pivotal role they probably played in the outcome, she deserves this chance to explain it. But the strongest sense I got from it was one of resilience and perseverance. She cites Robert Frost in her epigram to election night: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on”. She writes with perhaps a greater sense of realism than before about the difficulties women face in the public sphere, but with a determination that these can be overcome. She dearly wants to be alive to see the first woman elected as president.
Her spirit in the book was one of determination that her defeat last year could not mark any end to the fight needed, and that she would be there to help in whatever way she could. It was in this spirit that she celebrated the Democratic victories last night.
Finally, her book reminded me why I’ve always liked her among politicians, that she is unashamedly interested in practical policies, but based on a lifetime of campaigning. From her time as a young lawyer who went undercover to investigate persistent school segregation, and then set about changing their practices, she understood the need to stir up public opinion and put pressure on political leaders, need to change hearts and change laws. Though as a coda to her final presidential run, she knew the book might well mark her end of direct involvement in politics, she could not help herself even here in detailing policies she believed would improve lives.
So I know I’ll remember her flying.