“The margin between staying and leaving was so thin; really, it could have gone either way.”— Hillary Rodham
A staunch, self-proclaimed Democrat, author Curtis Sittenfeld attributes the conceptualisation of her book Rodham, in part, to wishful thinking in the aftermath of the 2016 election. It is a longing for an alternate, more utopian political universe.
The great ‘what if’
Admittedly, much ink has been spilled over speculative literature concerning both Trump and Clinton. The Democratic vote dipped by a million compared to the previous election, benefiting Republican and third-party candidates. What if blue voter turnout had remained the same? What if the 80,000 voters that cost Hillary the presidency had been more evenly distributed? What if she hadn’t used a private server?
Curtis Sittenfeld’s speculation, however, is singular. Rather famously, Hillary had refused Bill’s marriage proposals twice, and had acquiesced the third time. In Rodham’s America, Hillary, fraught with the news of Bill’s infidelity, chooses definitively to walk away from their relationship.
This is Sittenfeld’s “what if”.
Rodham is a thought experiment that attributes the successes of Bill Clinton’s political career and the erosion of Hillary’s to their marriage. She argues that although a Hillary Clinton was unable to snag the White House, a Hillary Rodham would have been more than capable.
Capturing Hillary’s voice
Rodham is equal parts fact and fiction. An element that lends Rodham an air of realism is how uncannily Sittenfeld captures Hillary’s voice. She does so in two senses of the phrase. She writes in the first-person, and the prose is in many places stilted, awkward, and exceedingly formal. This was a conscious choice. In an interview, Sittenfeld recalls a quip made by Hillary’s staffers. If Hillary had seen the public safety slogan, “If You See Something, Say Something”, she in her “literal-minded way” would have changed it to, “If You See Something, Alert the Proper Authorities.”
Second, the author captures Hillary’s palpable, all-consuming political appetite. In 1993, Carole Moseley Braun was elected Senator of Illinois, making history as the first black woman elected to the Senate. In Rodham, Hillary perceives her to be tardy and disorganised, albeit politically capable, and considers running against her.
Gwen Greenberger, Hillary’s mentor and a stand-in for black activist Marian Wright Edelman alongside whom the real-life Hillary worked, advises her against this. “To compete against her,” Gwen writes, “Is a betrayal of your principles and undermines your commitment to both racial advancement and feminism.” That Hillary Rodham primaries and defeats Braun in spite of a rather direct word of caution from her advisor is emblematic of the ambition and hunger of real-life Hillary Clinton.
In doing so, Sittenfeld also attempts to open a conversation about the troubled relationship between American politics and female ambition. In Rodham, men routinely and openly remark to Hillary that she is “awfully opinionated” or overly ambitious “for a girl”. This friction between politics and womanhood is a refrain to which Sittenfeld (and Hillary, both Rodham and one would assume Clinton) continually return.
Balancing fact and fiction
In a crude oversimplification, Sittenfeld argues that if Hillary had not married Bill, she would have achieved grander political successes, potentially even resulting in a Rodham presidency. In proving this argument, Sittenfeld manipulates reality by borrowing from it in some places and altering it in others.
Sittenfeld’s fabricated America is most believable in the first segment of her book. Here, she writes of key developments in Hillary’s actual life – her education at Yale Law, her relationship with Bill Clinton, and her work with the Children’s Defence Fund. She exploits her creative licence only to write between these checkpoints. She only seeks to enliven or enhance them by adding details about Hillary’s family, her steady relationship with Bill, or her interactions with colleagues.
The plot stutters when Sittenfeld departs from canon and shifts to hypotheticals. Upon his defeat in the election of 1992, Bill departs politics, vesting his interests instead in Silicon Valley, where he is soon transformed into a tech billionaire. Donald Trump bizarrely makes a cameo as a Rodham supporter (his clever nickname for her drops the “crooked” prefix; she is instead “Hardball Hillary”).
Jeb Bush is running on the Republic ticket. Moreover, several sections of Rodham, especially those that explore Bill and Hillary’s intellectual and sexual relationship, are questionably graphic and uncomfortably invasive. Although through them Sittenfeld hopes to humanise the austere and restrained seeming Hillary, one cannot help but liken them to political fanfiction. Sittenfeld’s writing is strongest when it attempts to fill in the gaps, rather than when it rewrites reality itself.
A naïve political utopia
In a number of places, the author seems to have rewritten Hillary entirely. She is no longer a stiff and uncharismatic orator – she is confident, delivering off-the-cuff one-liners that encourage the internet to lovingly christen her “IDGAF Hillary”. This caricature of Hillary runs more Warren or even Klobuchar in how consistently and overtly progressive she is.
In half a paragraph on the penultimate page, the author breezes through the Hillary administration’s legislative successes. It is able to enforce background checks on the sale of guns (without Republican support). It has created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and its exceeds the country’s climate-change commitments in the Paris Agreement. The book, however, shies away from detailing the nitty-gritties of Hillary Rodham’s policies, or the stances that delivered to her these victories.
By expunging Bill from Hillary’s narrative, Sittenfeld rather innocently argues that all that was standing between this progressive utopia and the United States was the fact of her marriage to him. Rather dangerously, she ignores a number of other variables that may have (and did) confound a Hillary presidency.
Trump’s victory was in part a consequence of the surge in nationalistic and xenophobic sentiment among millions of American voters. Could a progressive Democrat, as Hillary Rodham is made out to be, have overcome that wave? In Rodham, after Hillary blocks Carol Braun’s path to the Senate, it is only in the year 2015 that a black woman – Kamala Harris – is elected Senator. What impact does this have on race and political representation? Voters conceive of political ambition as a virtue in men and a vice in women. Would the American public be ready to embrace Hillary’s unabashed ambition?
Exaggerating the butterfly effect
Rodham’s failing is its over-reliance on the butterfly effect. After Hillary leaves Bill, his presidential bid is unsuccessful and he drops out of politics entirely. 9/11 does not happen. Hillary is not Secretary of State and she neither votes in support of the Iraq War, nor is involved in Benghazi. She is absolved of every misstep that cost real-life Hillary the presidency. It frequently feels as though the question Sittenfeld asks is not, “What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?” but, “What if Hillary weren’t Hillary?”
Demanding realism of writing that is intended to be “alternative history” is challenging and, perhaps, irrelevant to the larger, overarching idea of the argument. Rodham ultimately makes for interesting literature. According to the author, Rodham refuses to present Hillary as the archetype that America has forced her into. It seeks to show America through Hillary’s eyes. The writing draws out fiction from reality, and enlivens reality with fictitious elements. And in doing so, it most importantly provides a searching and uniquely intimate character study of a largely vilified and misunderstood public political figure.
Rodham: A Novel, Curtis Sittenfeld, Doubleday
Kshirin Rao Eshwara is a third-year student at Ashoka University majoring in Political Science with a minor in English.