As Hillary Clinton has reemerged in the national spotlight to promote her new book, some critics have groaned and wondered why she won’t just go away. They were not among the crowd at the Warner Theatre on Monday night.
In fact, the veneration for the first female U.S. presidential nominee of a major political party was palpable among attendees, who paid upwards of $82 for a ticket to the event.
The topic of discussion was her new book “What Happened” — a self-examination of the 2016 presidential campaign and actions that led to her loss and the election of President Trump to the White House — and Clinton had many explanations for that outcome and the way forward.
Clinton laid out a balanced approach to explain her loss, attributing the outcome not just to her missteps, but also outside forces that tipped the election in Trump’s favor.
“I just decided I was going to write it, and it was painful,” Clinton said. “I say in the book that I’d write about something, and I’d have to go lie down because it was just so hard to think about the mistakes I made and missed opportunities, but then also to come to grips with these other big forces at work that I think had a determinative impact on the outcome.”
Clinton recalled after the election before she started writing the book in February being “so devastated,” trying to feel better by cleaning out closets and taking walks in the park. The process of the writing the book, Clinton said, was “cathartic,” but also important for her view of democracy.
“It really hit me there were these very important issues that needed to be discussed, debated even, that our democracy and country relied upon that kind of self-examination,” Clinton said.
A key factor Clinton identified in her loss was not realizing the game had changed since her runs with her husband President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and her earlier campaign in 2008 — even during the 1960s and 1970s — when clear policy proposals were crucial for presidential candidates.
“You realize that the press is not putting out the policy that you’re putting out everyday, they’re covering an empty podium,” Clinton said. “And I kept thinking, ‘Well, we’re still going to break through because we really care do about what kind of jobs and infrastructure and health care and other things you want to do for them and their families and their incomes, but there’s a disconnect.”
Although Clinton said she “stayed too focused on a path” and “was not as adept” at changing to the new environment, she cautioned a less detailed approach might not be the path in the future and speculated “people will want details” again in 2020.
Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of Politics & Prose and Clinton’s chief speechwriter in the State Department and the White House, moderated the forum and queried Clinton on factors attributed to her loss, from Russian interference to fake news and misogyny.
Clinton recalled feeling compelled to exercise constraint as a woman and not respond during the second presidential debate when Trump could be seen on camera lurching close behind her as she spoke.
“As you might think back — funny gestures, facial expressions, heavy sighs — these really do affect viewers,” Clinton said. “And I just ended up believing that in addition to the gender-linked aspect of this, there was a history of people in presidential debates who had deviated in a way to show frustration, anger, dismissiveness, whatever their feelings were, and paid a heavy price for it, and I thought whatever price they paid, I would pay double or triple.”
Clinton recalled with indignation the Russians hacking the emails of her campaign chair John Podesta, which she described as being “stolen,” and given to Wikileaks — a website Clinton called “nothing more than a tool of Putin and the Kremlin.” Clinton said Trump’s associates “certainly” knew about it, citing a tweet from Roger Stone that Podesta’s time in a barrel would soon come.
Although Clinton said the emails were “anodyne,” she said they were later weaponized as fake news — in one case to potentially violent consequences as a result of the Pizzagate scandal in which Clinton was accused of running a child trafficking ring out of the basement of D.C. pizzeria. (The restaurant doesn’t even have a basement).
“Even I have to say I don’t believe it was meant to be believed to influence somebody to pick up an AR-15 and drive from North Carolina to Washington to liberate the imaginary children from the imaginary basement of the pizza parlor,” Clinton said. “But in came this young man believing that he was on a mission because he saw it on Facebook, he saw it in other places online, he saw it in quote, news outlets. And so, he was there on a mission of rescue. People could have gotten killed; he [fired] his automatic weapon inside this pizza parlor.”
Citing her loss to Trump by 53 percent among white women, Clinton said a major factor was former FBI Director James Comey reopening the email investigation — only for him to close it again one day before the election .
“All of sudden, people are told being told something’s going on, they’re going to investigate her again, or whatever,” Clinton said. “We could see that a lot of women in particular turned away. They were discouraged. I don’t blame them. They didn’t know what to believe. I mean, it was outrageous.”
When Muscatine mentioned Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whom Clinton heavily criticizes in her book for raising doubts about her connections to Wall Street, the audience at the Warner Theatre audibly booed and hissed.
But there were also moments of levity at the event. Muscatine at one point engaged Clinton in a game of having to choose one of a pair of words. Asked about “tea” or “coffee,” Clinton replied “coffee.” Asked about “beach” or “mountains,” Clinton replied “beach.” Asked about “Trump” or “Putin,” Clinton replied she’d have to “take that under advisement” because she “ran against both of them.”
Attendees at the event — who consisted mostly of middle-class women but also members of D.C.’s LGBT community — came to the Warner Theater adorned in Clinton campaign T-shirts leftover from the 2016 election. One vendor outside sold campaign buttons with slogans reading “Hillary 2016” and “Hil Yes!”
Blake Smith, 20, a gay student at George Washington University, worked for Clinton’s presidential campaign and came to the event wearing a T-shirt comprised of a collage of images of Clinton.
“I just think she gets a bad rap,” Smith said. “And I think that people treat her really unfairly, and I think that she’s really, genuinely a good person and she cares about this country.”