Skip to main content

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the Eighth Annual Women in the World Summit at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, on April 6, 2017.ANGELA WEISS/AFP / Getty Images

Hardly anyone on either side of the 49th parallel today remembers John W. Davis, Alf Landon or Wendell Willkie, estimable figures all, the doomed losers in the American presidential elections of 1924, 1936 and 1940, respectively.

But the name Hillary Rodham Clinton will not soon fade from memory on either side of the border.

Perhaps because of her singular role as a first lady who became a presidential nominee, maybe because of her signature role in the American women's movement and almost certainly because she will be remembered as the White House contender whose 2016 loss put Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Clinton will not be consigned to obscurity.

Not to obscurity but maybe to obloquy. If so, then Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes may be credited with banging the first hot-tipped galvanized spiral-shank nail into her historical coffin. A mere six months after the election night that changed American politics, they're out with Shattered, an unfavourable – no, an unforgiving – look inside the Clinton presidential campaign of 2016.

Relying perhaps too much on anonymous sources – there is no shortage of people willing to knock the stuffing out of Clinton and her campaign on the record – the two reporters relentlessly demonstrate how a can't-miss candidate running against a can't-imagine opponent missed no opportunity to miss an opportunity, making the inconceivable seem inevitable.

There will be readers, both Canadian and American, who will not be able to bear viewing a rerun of this drama. This book is not for them. But Shattered provides a sharp behind-the-news and behind-the-scenes palette of details of a campaign that, in retrospect, seems preordained to fail, and fail miserably. Hampered by a candidate who looked terrific on paper but performed terribly on the campaign stump, the Clinton effort was a textbook example of incoherence married with incompetence and internecine tribal warfare. "Inside the campaign," the authors write, "a bonfire of the vanities raged."

Lacking an overarching theme and, worse yet, suffering a surfeit of subplots and subthemes, the Clinton campaign was a portrait in dysfunction. But books like this – it is a mini-genre, with new volumes sprouting forth every fourth year – often miss the overarching narrative plots and political themes of the campaign itself, which in this case is that Trump, and not Clinton, had an intuitive sense of the mood perhaps not of the country but surely of an Electoral College majority.

It's that simple. Clinton's determination, set out in this book's early pages, to ascertain whether to build her own national organization or to rely on the Democratic National Committee, for example, is beside the point. So, too, are the myriad Byzantine debates inside the campaign, set out with meticulous care in this volume. Nobody remembers the innards of Franklin Roosevelt's 1932 triumph. What matters is that the 32nd president spoke to the country in a way that moved them in their despondency and despair and that Herbert Hoover did not. Same here.

The authors portray Clinton as isolated from her own staff – maybe she couldn't figure out who was in charge either – but the greater truth is that she was isolated from the mainstreams of American thought and life. "It was ironic," the authors write, "that a woman who had been on the national stage for a quarter of a century, who had lived the triumphs of victory and the tragedies of defeat and humiliation in public, could still seem inaccessible to so many Americans – even to her supporters."

In my home city of Pittsburgh, for example, Clinton repeatedly received comfort from university visits, the crowds full of adoring non-voters. Her rival was comforted on election night by a flood of votes from outside the city, people she ignored and who felt ignored enough to vote for Trump.

The most important two sentences in this book may well be a quote from Clinton herself: "I don't understand what's happening with the country. I can't get my arms around it." Runner-up is also a Clinton quote, from the middle of the primary season, a remark directed to the blue-collar voters whom Democratic rival Bernie Sanders was wooing and whom Trump would capture: "Why aren't they with me?"

Like an NBA team on the skids, Clinton's campaign was riddled by unforced errors. To that she added a stunning inability to explain herself. One telling example: "The main reason that it took her so long to go on camera to discuss the metastasizing e-mail story … was that she could provide no good answers." Nor could she supply the excitement and showmanship that had been so much a part of American politics since the John F. Kennedy campaign of 1960 and that Trump mastered with such ease. "She didn't like taking issues she'd been working on for years and boiling them down into little sound bites," the authors wrote. "She lived for the complexity."

Readers of insider-campaign books like these live for the little tidbits – "nuts on the fruitcake," editors of Time and Newsweek used to call them when they urged their weary correspondents to collect such details. So here are some of them: Clinton opened her concession conversation with her rival by saying, "Congratulations, Donald." She opened her conversation with Barack Obama that night by saying, "Mr. President, I'm sorry." And the outfit she planned on wearing when she claimed victory? Satin blouse, grey jacket, wide purple lapels. She would have looked great.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a former campaign reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe