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A Wonk on the Wild Side

Hillary Clinton’s book is a technocrat’s lament

Consider the wonk. The term is omnipresent in today’s political discourse—particularly when it comes to describing a certain breed of knowledge-class policy specialist in and around the centers of power in Washington. But it’s of surprisingly recent vintage—it passed into common usage with the ascension of Bill Clinton and his cohort of New Democrat technocrats in 1993. During that heady time, wonk’s vogue fulfilled a clear ideological mission. It said, in essence, that the executive-ready, smart, and detail-driven Democratic Party was no longer an obliging plaything of “special interests”—the African American and urban ethnic voting blocs, the student protesters, the environmentalists, and (perhaps most of all) organized labor, with their imperious demands, retrograde policy prescriptions, and tone-deaf sloganeering.

The whole point of being New Democrats, after all, was to signal that you were grown-up students of pragmatic politics in the real world. You were poised to put away the childish things of interest-group politicking—the messy workplace organizing, the faintly embarrassing strikes and protests, the boycotts and sit-ins— and get down to business. You were problem-solvers, not panderers. You were well-educated and ambitious. You were smart, crisply direct, and managerial. In time, the electorate would gratefully frolic in the targeted tax credits you would lavish on them, as the Information Economy chimed in pleasing unison with the dictates of New Democratic governance. Better yet, the country at large would come to emulate and resemble you, as U.S. citizens, too, became better educated, more impressively credentialed, more wired and suburban, footloose and knowledge-based.

It’s hard to do justice to how deeply ill-suited this stolid technocratic ethos is to the conduct of democratic politics.

Commentators and political players are now greeting Hillary Clinton’s post-election memoir, What Happened, as an extended epilogue to the great, deranging debates of the 2016 election cycle. We are all being urged once more into the breach, as the former Democratic presidential nominee revisits the familiar chronologies of James Comey’s (objectively bizarre) handling of the FBI’s inquiry into the candidate’s usage of a private email server while she served as Barack Obama’s secretary of state—together with a host of other election-branded, mind-bending developments. As she once more ponders the enormity of Russia’s alleged hacking of the election, the tsunami of Facebook-fueled fake news that overtook the general election season, the many bigoted outrages of Donald Trump and his fan base, the systemic sexism and misogyny of our political establishment and elite media, we can feel the onrush of the bad old days of late 2016 overtake us in a familiar, and almost perversely welcoming, glow of bafflement and indignation.

At bottom, though, What Happened is less a campaign postmortem than a wonk’s lament. The search for single-bullet explanations of the catastrophe of 2016 will long outlast Clinton’s book, and the assortment of takes, counterspins, and rebukes, continuing to multiply even as I type, will only prolong that likely futile quest. But the most revealing admissions in What Happened don’t concern the trench warfare of our money-drenched, tech-addled, message-tested presidential campaigns. No, the places where Clinton’s memoir serves as a robust and persuasive diagnosis of our political ills all concern the candidate’s own confessed, still unresolved disorientation at the specter of an angry, populist electorate. The impatience of a body politic still struggling to piece together some semblance of a decent, debt-free living amid the jobless squalor of the anemic recovery from the 2008 economic meltdown clearly doesn’t register on Clinton’s normal wonkish neural paths. She speaks with manifest scorn about the “outrage primary” stoked by the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, which had her struggling to play catch up, and to voice a measure of populist organizing fire that’s anathema to her temperament and worldview. As she ponders her limitations in framing some sort of persuasive appeal, not merely to a Platonic sense of policy fitness, but to a raw and mounting sense of complete institutional collapse and corruption, Clinton frets about how she got into this awkward spot:

Usually when I meet people who are frustrated and angry, my instinctive response is to talk about how we can fix things. That’s why I spent so much time and energy coming up with new policies to create jobs and raise wages. But in 2016 a lot of people didn’t really want to hear about plans and policies. They wanted a candidate to be as angry as they were, and they wanted someone to blame. For too many, it was primarily a resentment election. That didn’t come naturally to me. I get angry about injustice and inequality, abuse of power, lying, and bullying. But I’ve always thought it’s better for leaders to offer solutions instead of just more anger.

It’s hard to do justice to how deeply ill-suited this stolid technocratic ethos is to the conduct of democratic politics—but Clinton goes on to demonstrate just that point, in abundant and painful detail. She describes how her campaign planned a stopover in rural Mingo County, in the heart of West Virginia coal country, after the right-wing media leapt upon an out-of-context aside Clinton had delivered in an Ohio townhall meeting about how the transition to a low-carbon economy was going to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Emblazoned across the chyrons of Fox News and the homepage of Breitbart News, that admission was made to seem heartless, even predatory. Shunning her senior staff’s counsel to contain the fallout with a visit to a more Democratic-friendly urban center like Charleston, she insisted on delivering her apology in Williamson, deep in the heart of Hillary-hating Trump country.

Here is the great wonk catechism: the country’s demographics are shifting, in profound tectonic fashion, into a grand Democratic mosaic.

She was stunned by the rancor that greeted her there—protesters demanding her imprisonment, hurling obscenities, and parroting Hannity-esque talking points about her sinister designs on America’s working-class interior. What’s more instructive here, though, is how Clinton records her own efforts to grapple with Mingo County’s deindustrialized plight. Noting that spotty wifi coverage in rural West Virginia “drove [my] traveling team nuts,” she moved on to “the bigger problem” of deficient connectivity for rural America’s infrastructure. “Nearly 40 percent of people in rural America don’t have access to broadband, and research shows those communities have lower incomes and higher unemployment, and one I was eager to take on.”

It’s not clear what research Clinton is citing here, since there are no endnotes in What Happened. But as the deflated enthusiasms of Richard Florida and other prophets of hyper-wired abundance have already shown, there’s precious little causal evidence that connectivity, by itself, is an engine of more equally distributed prosperity. Indeed, the larger pattern of monopoly concentration atop the tech economy suggests very much the opposite trend—and in any event, the biggest outlays for connectivity come in already-affluent communities, as a raft of other research shows. Here Clinton appears to be approaching the digital divide from the wrong end of the telescope, and musing about policies that will do almost nothing to alleviate structural economic inequality in rustbelt and rural America.

It gets worse. Continuing to speculate on what can be done to fix the anger of these unhinged rural populists, Clinton briskly dismisses the notion of embracing a battery of redistributionist economic positions, in the Bernie Sanders vein. After all, the coal boss Don Blankenship, recently convicted on charges of conspiracy to evade safety regulations that resulted in the deaths of twenty-nine miners working for his company, Massey Energy, had been among the Hillary-bating protesters in Williamson. So it naturally follows that “it’s hard to believe that voters who embrace Don Blankenship are looking for progressive economics”—it’s a steadfast principle of public life that people automatically assume the worldview of the richest person they happen to be standing next to, after all.

To nail down the case against populist left economics, she cites the impressionistic maunderings of right-wing hillbilly laureate J.D. Vance to summon the stubborn cultural grievances of economically humiliated Appalachian men. She then runs through the familiar litany of empty Trump promises to revive coal-mining, and American manufacturing generally—together with Trump’s many bigoted appeals to the racist fears and resentments of economically displaced mineworkers. And bizarrely, she pivots to a vision of the broader arc of wonkish demographic determinism. The neoliberal wonk class has the future on its side—and together with it, the priceless political commodity of American optimism:

One of the most important but least recognized facts in American politics is that Republicans tend to win in places where more people are pessimistic or uncertain about the future, while Democrats tend to win where people are more optimistic. Those sentiments don’t track neatly with the overhyped dichotomy between the coasts and the heartland. There are plenty of thriving communities in both blue and red states that have figured out how to educate their workforces, harness their talents, and participate in the twenty-first century economy. And some of the most doom-and-gloom Americans are relatively affluent middle-aged and retired whites—the very viewers Fox News prizes—while many poor immigrants, people of color, and young people are burning with energy, ambition, and optimism.

You can almost hear the faint strains of “Don’t Stop” rise cloyingly in the background. Here, in all its exuberant soaring glory, is the great wonk catechism: the country’s demographics are shifting, in profound tectonic fashion, into a grand Democratic mosaic; workers are getting smarter, richer, and nimbler, while Fox News diehards are retiring or dropping dead in their dens.

An enormous irony of this vision is that, as a blueprint for aspiring policy wonks, it makes zero mention of the most relevant policy shift hollowing out the manufacturing interior—NAFTA, the WTO, and the other free trade accords signed into law by Clinton’s husband under the grand modernizing dispensation of New Democrat dogma in the mid 1990s. Trump played on the worst misogynist and racist strains of right-wing populist tradition—as have, of course, his many enablers in the alt-right media. But he also whaled away on the material harm wrought by free trade, and this was the first time in a political generation that displaced manufacturing workers had heard any political leader on the national stage acknowledge the pain of seeing the entire economic basis of company towns and unionized working life blithely shipped abroad, and written off as an inevitable sacrificial offering to the gods of the market.

Trump’s assault on the orthodoxies of free trade were steeped in self-serving lies, of course, as is virtually every word out of the president’s mouth. But the larger political point here is that he identified an actual set of economic grievances and minted them into readily mobilized bigotries and gender resentments. In the face of such a threat, it is all the more incumbent on liberal politicians offering a rival vision of economic equity to deliver a viable set of populist remedies that don’t trade on white nationalism, patriarchal resentment, or other billionaire thuggeries.

Instead, Hillary Clinton dreams of more reliable rural broadband, and mythic communities of the future “where people are more optimistic.” She also, after ruminating a bit more on the plight of the economically abandoned working class, winds up suggesting that the smart wonkish solution is to prepare them to turn their economic displacement into the geographic kind: “After we do everything we can to help create new jobs in distressed small towns and rural areas, we also have to give people the skills and tools they need to seek opportunities beyond their hometowns—and provide a strong safety net both for those who leave and those who stay.”

This is another sort of wonkish confession: that a lifelong member of the caring class like Hillary Clinton no longer can abide the idea that people can opt out of her own plan to improve their lives. Coming hard on her manifestly sincere effort to identify with the economically redundant white working class, the proposal to have them depopulate their homeland in order to realize their optimistic economic destiny is more than a little breathtaking. It is also, not incidentally, simply adding to the asocial dynamics of information age capitalism that has already hollowed out the creaky institutional life of the working-class interior. Urging its inhabitants to stop loitering around the economic moonscapes of heartland America and move to somewhere optimistic and better capitalized already will only work, over the long haul, to further drain working-class communities of their own autonomous political leadership and self-determined life chances. It is to abet, in other words, their further collapse as communities.

This, to address another hulking irony here, was the impossible-to-miss moral of The Rise of the Meritocracy, Michael Young’s 1958 dystopian novel that introduced the notion of meritocracy into common parlance. Young saw the consolidation of a duly tested-and-credentialed civil service in England as a body blow to working-class politics, and working-class solidarity. By quickly identifying and recruiting the most talented and intelligent members of the lower orders, the lords of the meritocracy robbed the working class of its natural leaders. This same act of talent-poaching meanwhile reconfigured the British ruling class into a knowledge elite, one that lived off the sweated labor of deskilled service workers until the whole works came crumbing down in a violent proletarian uprising.

It’s more than a little shocking to see the class apocalypse prophesied by Young presented as a straight-faced solution to rural economic decline.

It’s more than a little shocking to see the class apocalypse prophesied by Young presented as a straight-faced solution to rural economic decline by an American major-party presidential candidate. But then again, Americans misapprehended the prophetic intent of the meritocracy’s coinage from the word go—no doubt, in part, because of all the preternaturally optimistic communities that make up the backbone of our republic. In larger part, though, the American gloss on meritocracy has become the fallback creed of our own knowledge elite—of which Hillary Clinton is, indeed, a prime specimen. Again and again in What Happened, she goes out of her way to impress on her readers how she’s indefatigably, perennially on the hunt for the best information, the most crisply targeted policies, and the most ambitious, numbers-crunching experts to implement them.

The upshot of all this fervid wonkery is to dramatically circumscribe the range of the politically possible. The Sanders uprising among left-leaning Democrats, for instance, was objectionable chiefly because Bernie Sanders refused to recognize the legitimacy of the wonk playbook: “He didn’t seem to mind if his math didn’t add up or if his plans had no prayer of passing Congress and becoming law. . . . I’ve always believed that it’s dangerous to make big promises if you have no idea how you’re going to keep them. When you don’t deliver it will make people even more cynical about government.”

True to her credo, Clinton does briefly entertain a couple of quasi-redistributive policy proposals as it dawns on her that the Sanders and Trump rebellions won’t be dispelled by their own defective math. But tellingly, it’s math—albeit of a very specific kind—that prevents her from moving forward with any of these proposals. One such proposal was modeled on Alaska’s Permanent Fund, which redistributes oil-industry revenues to Alaskans who meet certain residency requirements. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t make the numbers work,” Clinton ruefully reports:

To provide a meaningful dividend each year to every citizen, you’d have to raise enormous sums, you’d have to raise enormous sums of money, and that would either mean a lot of new taxes or cannibalizing other important programs. We decided it was exciting but not realistic, and left it on the shelf.

Likewise, a GOP-branded plan to redistribute energy revenues under a carbon-trading plan ran afoul of the Clinton numbers-crunchers: “We looked at this for the campaign as well, but couldn’t make the math work without imposing new costs on upper-middle class families, which I had pledged not to do.”

In other words, once Clinton began looking into the direct redress of wealth and income inequality, she realized that it involved the actual appropriation of wealth and income—something that a good neoliberal wonk must always rule out on principle.

But this isn’t “math” as a neutral arbiter of policy outcomes at all—it’s a foundational question of our politics to adopt a model of revenue distribution (which is always happening in one direction or another) that always benefits the already privileged. What Clinton and her coterie of advisers see as immutable laws of policy divination are in fact political choices that benefit the material interests of one body (or class, if you prefer) of citizens against those of another. Yes, the redirection of resources under a scheme roughly akin to a Universal Basic Income would entail the loss of tax benefits to those in the upper-middle class and above—but it would also entail direct material gains for a far larger, and less privileged group of Americans.

The wonk’s game is an all-purpose rationalization of Democratic political failure over the past twenty-five years to deliver any approximation of economic fairness.

None of this gets sustained mention in What Happened for the same reason that no acknowledgment of NAFTA, the Glass-Steagall repeal, and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act ever appears: To discuss any of these historical developments, and the political-business alliances underwriting them, would be to expose the wonk’s game for what it is—the technocratic ideology of a privileged class, and an all-purpose rationalization of Democratic political failure over the past twenty-five years to deliver any meaningful approximation of economic fairness.

For all his math-averse sloganeering, Bernie Sanders understood this. It was why he insisted, at every available opportunity, that the reforms he proposed mandated a political revolution. His candidacy was intended as an opening salvo in that revolution—but by no means, it’s true, an expert-massaged white paper on piecemeal measures to manipulate the tax code to marginally reduce wealth inequality.

Clinton, in turn, rightly understands this brand of economic populism as a direct threat to her preferred model of Democratic power, and What Happened teems with puerile taunts at Sanders’s political immaturity and core disloyalty to the Democratic cause. Early coverage of this leitmotif in the book has been exhaustive, and there’s no need to revisit it here—save to note that the low point of it all is Clinton’s reverent reproduction of a lame Facebook joke about Sanders promising America a pony, and Clinton being repelled by demented Sanders supporters claiming that Hillary hates ponies, and a reckless media complex egging them on. Hardy fucking har.

Likewise, Clinton’s concern that Sandersism leads to public cynicism points up another distressing feature of the wonk faith: its distrust in the capacity of ordinary people to decide their own political fates. This strain of patrician liberalism harks at least as far back as Walter Lippmann’s reactionary 1920 tract, Public Opinion, which sought to demonstrate that the democratic ideal of the “omnicompetent citizen” was an untenable myth in an age of rapidly specialized knowledge and management by experts. At times, Clinton’s vision of neoliberal governance seems ripped straight from the pages of Public Opinion:

I try to learn as much as I can about the challenges that people face and then work with the smartest experts I can find to come up with solutions that are achievable, affordable, and will actually make a measurable difference. For the campaign, I hired a policy team with deep experience in government and relied on an extensive network of outside advisors drawn from academia, think tanks and the private sector. The crew in Brooklyn proudly hung a sign above their desks that read “Wonks for the Win.” They produced reams of position papers. Many included budget scores, substantive footnotes—the whole nine yards. It felt like a White-House-in-Waiting, which is exactly what I had in mind.

Amid this serene roll call of credentials and smartly conceived policy modulations, it’s easy to forget that Clinton is describing a political campaign. A “White-House-in-Waiting” is many things (few of them good, one must stipulate), but it is not a vision of the common good that invites mass democratic participation. It’s true that a platform of policy initiatives depicted as “achievable, affordable and will actually make a measurable difference” is not a heavy-breathing Bernie-style populist insurgency—but it’s also not a model of public deliberation that gives ordinary Americans anything to do. Likewise, Clinton is clearly proud-to-bursting that she enlisted expert aid from “academia, think tanks, and the private sector”—but this, too, is high Lippmannism in its worst guise; there are, you’ll note, no unions, community organizers, or any other brand of “special interest” activist in this hallowed litany of expertise. And, given the deeply corrupt state of academia, think tanks, and the private sector, it’s also a de facto prescription to sustain status-quo power relations throughout our ailing political economy. When Clinton bemoans that the unhinged conduct of the 2016 campaign had left voters with “the false perception that I was a defender of the status quo,” one can only marvel at the epically un-self-aware professional vanity on display here—either that, or wonder just what planet she wrote her book on.

As for “Wonks for the Win,” the less said the better—except that it’s impossible to plough through What Happened and come away with the conviction that Hillary Clinton and her allies should be allowed to name anything, ever. The aforementioned revenue-distribution plan modeled on the Alaska Permanent Fund was known around the campaign as “Alaska for America,” which any non-wonk would instantly greet as a plan to freeze the country to death in a long dark winter. And the campaign’s premier slogan, “Stronger Together” was symptomatic of the Clinton team’s chronic, wonkish irresolution: It stated a vague truism, but again exuded political inertia. Is there a direction in which a newly strengthened and unified country should move? Or should our collective strength be carefully husbanded until a team of think-tank analysts return to tell us just what is achievable and affordable? (To make matters worse, Clinton proudly reports that after extensive in-house deliberation over an array of potential general election slogans, “Stronger Together” was the consensus choice of three separate messaging teams on the campaign—again: Yay, expertise!)

“Make America Great Again” was a shameful display of white nationalist dog-whistling—and it was lifted from the first Reagan campaign, to boot—but it at least conveyed motion, and a larger purpose for Trump adherents to pledge their allegiance to. Pressed to come up with a rejoinder to the Trump slogan, Clinton again made just about the worst possible call: “America Is Already Great,” which effectively told anyone leaning Trumpward, in another magisterial flourish of Lippmannism, “You’re Too Stupid to Know How Good You Have It.”

Clinton’s campaign was shot through with an instinctive distrust of the rites of civic persuasion that all national campaigns impose on candidates.

If the Clinton team had simply been careless or inattentive to the electorate’s mood, the candidate’s reminiscences would be less painful to read. But Clinton makes it clear that throughout the 2016 cycle, her campaign was shot through, from the top down, with an instinctive distrust of the rites of civic persuasion that all national campaigns impose on candidates. As she ran up the Democratic delegate count in the primaries and her nomination became (phew!) a mathematical certainty, Clinton relates that she was at a loss to characterize the history-making moment at hand for public consumption:

For a long time, the campaign had been trying to figure out the best way to talk about the historic nature of my candidacy. There were brainstorming sessions in Brooklyn, as well as polls and focus groups. Many of our core supporters were very excited by the idea of finally breaking the glass ceiling. Celebrating that could help keep people energized and motivated in the general election. But some younger women didn’t see what the big deal was. And many undecided women in battleground states didn’t want to hear about it at all.

Clinton for her part, recurs once more to the wonk-Yuppie standard of career performance: “I wanted to be judged by what I did, not on what I represented or what people projected onto me.” But her very dedication to the rigors of wonkish excellence appears to have bred a kind of tunnel vision when it came to sizing up the historical breakthrough of being the first woman to earn a major-party presidential nomination: “I had worked so hard to get to this moment, and now that it had arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself.”

There is real pathos here. It is absurdly difficult for women to gain the authority that men take for granted in our deeply patriarchal political culture—and women are indeed forced to work harder and smarter simply to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, sexist cultural norms perennially push them to downplay their achievements in the public sphere in favor of the sanctioned role of deferential helpmeet and domestic peacemaker.

Still, Clinton’s bewilderment at the brink of history-making seems to bespeak something deeper. As she sat down with speechwriters and campaign aides to draft her never-delivered general election victory speech, the same destabilizing wish for a golden-mean measure of the moment kicks in sharply: “There was also history to consider. If everything went as we hoped, I would be giving this speech as the first woman elected President. We had to find a way to mark the significance of this moment without letting it overwhelm everything else.”

Come again? When Barack Obama was elected the first African American president, there was not much manifest worry about letting that historic moment overwhelm everything else. And when you win a bruising two-year presidential campaign, it’s proper and healthy to revel in the moment—and especially so if you’re the first woman to cross the threshold of national executive power.

But it’s the historic nature of wonkishness to obsessively calibrate and second-guess your own efforts to win popular acclaim—even, evidently, after you have decisively succeeded in doing so. This, too, points at the gnawing self-doubt lurking just beneath the self-regard of the crisp political manager. Yuppies have been long reputed to suffer from “imposter syndrome”—the well-documented crippling inner suspicion among meritocrats that the baubles of success piled up over the course of their heroically striving careers are not well and truly deserved. But it’s an eloquent indictment of how passionless and managerial liberal politics has grown that Clinton’s impression-shaping anxieties are here projected onto a truly historic and landmark social movement for gender justice.

Hillary Clinton has emerged from the bruising trials of 2016 with her meritocrat faith intact.

Far from chafing at the specter of “what people projected on to me,” Clinton was poised to professionalize and personalize the broader feminist struggle in her own image. It was right there in the symbolism of the “glass ceiling,” which overconfident election-night event planners had arranged to be shattered in paper form over the soaring atrium of Manhattan’s Javits Center; this was a testament to a singularly accomplished Yuppie striver winning the ultimate promotion, not the effort to confront patriarchy as it distorts the life chances of poor and working-class women, rural women, and women of color. (Not to dwell on the Clinton campaign’s tone-deaf sloganeering, but this was also the glaring flaw in the “I’m With Her” campaign refrain—Clinton needed, more than anything, to demonstrate that she was with us.)

And what was the “everything else” that Clinton was so keen to rescue from the snares of invidious feminist gloating? It was, evidently, a wonk’s-eye-view of rhetorical American unity, of the sort that launched Barack Obama into the national spotlight when he urged the melding of red and blue America into “one America” before the 2004 Democratic National Convention:

The election, I would say, showed that ‘we will not be defined only by our differences. We will not be an ‘us versus them’ country. The American dream is big enough for everyone.’ . . . I’d talk about how much I had learned over the course of the campaign by listening to people share their frustrations. I would be candid about how hard it had been to respond to the anger many felt and how painful it was to see our country so divided. But, I’d say, the outcome showed that ‘if you dig deep enough, through all the mud of politics, eventually you hit something hard and true: a foundation of fundamental values that unite us as Americans.”

As we now know all too well, the outcome of the 2016 presidential balloting showed nothing of this kind. A racist corporate insurgency has captured the leadership ranks of the Republican Party, and the wonk’s credo has yet to conjure into being the placid, managerial dream of America as a giant Googleplex or Microsoft campus. And with the country’s lead political institutions more divided than ever on key issues of collective self-definition, and economic fairness, the Democratic Party now is courting political irrelevance, with an anemic presence in state legislatures, governorships, Congress, and the executive branch unparalleled since the party’s long pre-FDR tour in the political wilderness. The longer-term origins of this crisis have much more to do with the Clintonite direction of Democratic strategy than with the infuriating conduct of James Comey, Russian hackers, or wayward Facebook news algorithms. Here there’s another painful, glaring irony to register: Opinion polling shows, over and over, that populist economic reforms, truly universal government-funded health care and higher education, and environmental responsibility are political winners, by striking margins—but the wonkish neoliberals guiding the Democratic Party have been endlessly resourceful in waving away direct and popular appeals to such sentiments.

But Hillary Clinton has emerged from the bruising trials of 2016 with her meritocrat faith intact. She reports that, after a long bout of self-care in the Clinton home in Chappaqua, she was inspired to resume her public career in no small part by an invitation to deliver the 2017 commencement at her alma mater, Wellesley.[*] It was the third such invitation, dating back to her own matriculation in 1969. She signs a photo of her at that occasion that the 2017 student speaker at commencement—the daughter of a Syrian immigrant family from Ohio named Tala Nashawati—has unearthed for the occasion. “Like so many Wellesley students,” Clinton recalls, “Tala was ridiculously accomplished and well rounded: a Middle Eastern Studies major, sought-after kickboxing instructor, and soon-to-be medical student.” Nashawa then pays Clinton the ultimate meritocratic compliment of quoting her from the commencement podium:

In the words of Secretary Clinton, “never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance in the world to pursue your dreams.” . . . You are rare and unique. Let yourself be flawed. Go proudly into the world with your blinding hues to show everyone who’s boss and break every glass ceiling that still remains.

So yes: as you sink into debt, precarity, and fear before the specter of homegrown American fascism, take heart. What Happened is ultimately an epic of renewal: Hillary Clinton has returned home.


[*] Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Hillary delivered the 2016 Wellesley commencement speech. She gave the speech in 2017.