Near the end of Thursday night’s Academy of Music appearance by Hillary Rodham Clinton, things turned ugly. A room united behind Clinton all evening darkened with malevolent energy, heckles, shouts of “Shut up!,” an instant angry wave.
That one moment compressed the shock and dismay, the political battle convulsing the United States since well before Clinton’s defeat at the hands of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
From the roaring standing ovation that greeted her entrance, to her ready zingers, jokes about husband Bill’s bad cooking (cinnamon in scrambled eggs?), and impassioned calls for political action (“We have a lot of work to do” was a refrain throughout), most of Clinton’s talk, and her banter with moderator and former Inquirer writer Jennifer Weiner, had been bright, relaxed, chatty. Clinton is on a book tour, to plump for What Happened (Simon & Schuster, $30), released in September. The title is both explanation and exclamation. What Happened has gotten generally good reviews, less for its analysis (FBI blunders, sexism, voter suppression, Russian interference) than for the author’s voice, which does come through, candid, firm, and hurt, far more personably than in her famously leaden speeches.
The night started late thanks to vigilant security, and a sold-out house of more than 2,700 had not yet all sat down when the show kicked off. There wasn’t time for questions. So when Weiner joked at the end, “We have time for one more question,” a man began to shout.
The topic just before had been: Why do women so often fail to stand up for themselves? Why can’t women learn to say, “I wasn’t finished talking” or “Please don’t interrupt me,” or “That’s my idea”? The heckler gave Clinton a chance to show how.
The topic was the craziest, ugliest folk rumor of the 2016 campaign: that Clinton and company were running a child sex-trafficking ring in the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C. She told the roiling crowd, “You’re just going to have to be quiet if you want me to respond.” And, in a controlled fury, respond she did, reminding the crowd of the man who charged into the innocent establishment with a loaded assault rifle, only to find “there was no basement.” “These are the horrible consequences from the lies and fraudulent stories we’ve had to fight against,” she concluded, bringing on a rhythmic, pep-style “Hillary” from many in the audience.
This moment reflected much of the evening’s discussion points. As in the book, Clinton tore at then-FBI director James Comey’s disastrously late decision to reopen an investigation of her private email server. After that announcement, she said, her lead in the Philadelphia suburbs went from more than 20 percent to about 12 percent: “It was the proximate cause of why I ended up losing in Pennsylvania.” Saying that “so much of this campaign was won or lost on the Internet,” she added: “This was the first reality-TV campaign, my opponent was the first reality-TV candidate, and I was … just the candidate of reality.”
This Clinton was the woman who comes through in What Happened, often enough to make it worth reading. There was plenty of humor. Weiner asked her: “It’s the end of the event. Do you most enjoy taking off your makeup or your Spandex?” (Clinton: “As much as I can.”) On the continued focus of Fox News on her and her supposed misdeeds, Clinton said, “I resign from being Fox News’ president. I lost!,” and Weiner responded, “I don’t think your resignation was accepted.” While not exactly self-deprecating, Clinton clearly has done some soul-searching. She regretted not being tougher with Matt Lauer in the infamous NBC News Commander-in-Chief Forum in September 2016. At the very mention of Lauer, a groan rose from the audience. Clinton: “Every day I believe more in karma.”
She twitted the U.S. left for being so naïvely purist: “ ‘Is she 100 percent pure or 94.6 percent pure?’ Get over yourselves: We have to win elections.” Asked what everyone in the audience could do, she had a simple answer: “Vote in every election.”
Many women had brought their daughters to the event. Many lugged in their arms multiple copies of What Happened. For them, Hillary Rodham Clinton maintains her stellar status, and her loss remains a terrible misfortune. At times, the atmosphere in the Academy of Music recalled that of the Democratic National Convention here in late July 2016, only looser, chastened, more accessible. On the other side of catastrophe, Clinton is speaking up for herself.