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Hillary Clinton’s Craziest Pop Culture References in ‘What Happened’: ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Veep,’ and More

The 2016 presidential candidate also found a way to compare debating Bernie Sanders to "There's Something About Mary."

Hillary Clinton Stephen Colbert


You can tell a lot about a person by the television they watch and the books they read — even while they reveal their theories as to why they lost a Presidential election.

Clinton’s new memoir, “What Happened,” chronicling her experiences surrounding the 2016 election, is surprisingly candid on a number of levels. For example, regarding her coping mechanisms following the loss of the election, “It wasn’t all yoga and breathing: I also drank my share of chardonnay.”

But even more fascinating are the ways in which she invokes current pop culture. Some of the references feel more forced than others. Some of them are truly bonkers.

This is not a complete list of every reference made, as we omitted some of the religious, spiritual, and historical texts upon which she drew to make her points. Instead, here is all the evidence you need that the Clintons know their way around a TV remote, at the very least.

To Begin, Some Pop Music

Kelly Clarkson performs on NBC's "Today" show at Rockefeller Plaza, in New York Kelly Clarkson Performs on NBC's Today Show, New York, USA - 08 Sep 2017

Context: An epigraph at the beginning of the “Perseverance” chapter.

Clinton’s quote“That which does not kill us makes us stronger – Friedrich Nietzsche (and Kelly Clarkson)”

Never forget: Hillary Clinton is hip and with it.


"House Hunters"

“House Hunters”


Context: Clinton’s comfort viewing following the loss of the election.

Clinton’s quote: “I surrounded myself with friends and caught up on some of the shows that people have been telling me about for years, as well as a lot of HGTV.”

This is pretty relatable for millions of Americans, despite the potential dangers, as described in this intriguing Vulture piece by Caitlin Flanagan. Comments Clinton: “I believe this is what some call ‘self-care.’ It turns out, it’s pretty great.”


Context: More “self-care.”

Clinton’s quote: “I went to Broadway shows. There’s nothing like a play to make you forget your troubles for a few hours. In my experience, even a mediocre play can transport you. And showtunes are the best soundtrack for tough times. You think you’re sad? Let’s hear what Fantine from ‘Les Miserables’ has to say about that!”

In case you were wondering, don’t worry — a “Hamilton” reference is also coming.

CBS Hour-Long Dramas

Téa Leoni as Elizabeth McCord Photo: Jeff Neumann/CBS ©2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Context: More of Clinton’s comfort viewing following the loss of the election.

Clinton’s quote: “Back at home, I caught up on TV shows Bill had been saving. We raced through old episodes of ‘The Good Wife,’ ‘Madam Secretary,’ ‘Blue Bloods,’ and ‘NCIS: Los Angeles,’ which Bill insists is the best of the franchise.”

If there was any doubt that the Clintons are grandparents through-and-through, that should end it. There’s a lot to process from this reveal, though. Perhaps easiest to grasp is that Bill has a) strong opinions about the “NCIS” franchise and b) is therefore an LL Cool J fan. That’s not nearly as surreal as thinking about the Clintons sitting down to watch “Madam Secretary” (a show about a fictional tough blond Secretary of State) and “The Good Wife” (a show which begins with a politician’s wife having to find a way to rebuild her life after her husband’s sex scandal).

Actually Great TV

Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler in "Friday Night Lights."

Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler in “Friday Night Lights.”


Context: Other people write Clinton with additional self-care suggestions.

Clinton’s quote: “A third-year law student named Rauvin suggested as a salve ‘The first season of “Friday Night Lights,” the new season of ‘Gilmore Girls,” the “Hamilton” cast album, Martha Stewart’s mac and cheese, a good book, a glass of red wine.’ Good advice!”

“Good advice!” is Clinton’s commentary on Rauvin’s suggestions, presumably meaning that she’s already seen the first season of “Friday Night Lights,” at least. One can only hope.

“Downton Abbey”

"Downton Abbey"

“Downton Abbey”


Context: Some binge-viewing that Bill presumably wasn’t around for.

Clinton’s quote: “I also finally saw the last season of ‘Downton Abbey.’ That show always reminds me of the night I spent in Buckingham Palace in 2011 during President Obama’s state visit, in a room just down the hall from the balcony where the queen waves to the crowds. It was like stepping into a fairy tale.”

While we’ve all had the experience of catching up with a series a year or two after it officially ended, this mention otherwise might be slightly less relatable than other references on this list.

Charles Dickens

Gillian Anderson Great Expectations

Context: Clinton realizes that she can’t just watch TV all the time, post-election.

Clinton’s quote: “I prayed for help…to find a new purpose and start a new chapter, so that the rest of my life wouldn’t be spent like Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations,’ rattling around my house obsessing over what might have been.”

Miss Havisham got jilted at the altar, not by the electoral college. But it’s still a solid reference.


Scooby Doo with Mystery Machine 'Scooby Doo Wrestlemaina Mystery' VIP Screening, New York, America - 22 Mar 2014

Context: Clinton reflects on the beginning of her campaign.

Clinton’s quote: “We bundled into an oversized black van I call ‘Scooby’ because it reminds me of the Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine (our van has less shaggy psychedelic charm, but we love it just the same).” 

Clinton was in college when “Scooby-Doo” premiered in 1969, but presumably she might have watched when Chelsea was young. And as a teenager in the ’60s, she would have been able to appreciate “psychedelic charm.”

“Star Wars”

"Star Wars: A New Hope"

Context: Clinton explains her daily routine during the campaign.

Clinton’s quote: “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, having my hair and makeup done was a special treat every now and again. But having to do it every single day takes the fun out of it.”

This might be the nerdiest reference in the entire book, because Clinton doesn’t bother to explain the source (as she painstakingly does in all other cases). You know you’re really a nerd when you just casually drop a line like this.


Veep Season 6 Episode 7 Julia Louis-Dreyfus


Colleen Hayes/HBO

Context: Clinton is giving credit where credit’s due to her style team, which includes a variety of staff members on and off the road.

Clinton’s quote: “Barbara [Lacy], like Isabelle, is perpetually cheerful. In addition to doing my makeup on the campaign, she does makeup for movies and TV shows such as ‘Veep.’ I, of course, don’t want to be compared with Selina Meyer in any way, shape, or form, but there’s no denying, Julia Louis-Dreyfus looks fantastic.”

This connection to “Veep” is almost too meta to be believed — especially when you consider Clinton’s reluctance to be compared to the fictional female President. According to IBT, Lacy worked for Clinton for 12 years before leaving to do the makeup on “Veep” until 2014… at which point she returned to work on the Clinton campaign.


Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Ed Sullivan John Lennon, Paul McCartney Ed Sullivan, center, stands with The Beatles, from left, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, during a rehearsal for the British group's first American appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," in New York. A small, 18-inch solid bronze statue of the legendary television variety show host, Sullivan, has been recovered by Los Angeles police . The statue was taken Sunday from atop a pedestal in an outdoor exhibit at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame Plaza in North Hollywood Ed Sullivan Statue, New York, USA

Context: Clinton is reflecting on her childhood.

Clinton’s quote: “My hangouts were everyone’s hangouts: the public library, the local movie theater, swimming pools, skating rinks. My family watched TV together at night. When the Beatles performed for the first time on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1964, my friends and I gathered together around the screen, alternately silently captivated and shrieking with glee.” 

One pattern to observe so far — Clinton’s tastes don’t stray too far from the mainstream.

“Game of Thrones”

"Game of Thrones"

Context: During the campaign, in case you didn’t hear, Trump rallies got a bit heated when the subject of his opponent came up.

Clinton’s quote: “It’s not easy for any woman in politics, but I think it’s safe to say that I got a whole other level of vitriol flung my way. Crowds at Trump rallies called for my imprisonment more times than I can count. They shouted, ‘Guilty! Guilty!’ like the religious zealots in ‘Game of Thrones’ chanting oh ‘Shame! Shame!’ while Cersei Lannister walked back to the Red Keep.”

Can we all agree that when discussing women in politics, Cersei isn’t a great reference point? That feels like an easy thing to agree upon. But the visceral feeling Clinton invokes with that reference does make a point.


Leslie Odom, Jr and the cast of “Hamilton”

Joan Marcus

Context: Being a woman in politics isn’t all bad!

Clinton’s quote: “It can also be deeply rewarding to be a woman in politics. You know that just by being being in the room, you’re making government more representative of the people. You’re bringing a vital perspective that would otherwise go unheard. That always made me stand up a little straighter. It’s why I love the song ‘The Room Where It Happens’ from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical ‘Hamilton’: 

No one really knows how the game is played 
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens 
But no one else is in the room where it happens” 

This is a slightly odd choice given that in the context of the play, this is a song sung by Aaron Burr about how he wishes he could be in “the room where it happens,” but he isn’t. Meanwhile, theoretically Clinton is coming at this situation from a different angle, actually involved with what’s going on.

“There’s Something About Mary”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1636741a) There's Something About Mary, Cameron Diaz Film and Television

Context: Clinton is reflecting upon her primary campaign, largely fought against Senator Bernie Sanders.

Clinton’s quote: “Jake Sullivan, my top policy advisor, told me it reminded him of a scene from the 1998 movie ‘There’s Something About Mary.’ A deranged hitchhiker says he’s come up with a brilliant plan. Instead of the famous ‘eight-minute abs’ exercise routine, he’s going to market ‘seven-minute abs.’ It’s the same, just quicker. Then the driver, played by Ben Stiller, says, ‘Well, why not six-minute abs?’ That’s what it was like in policy debates with Bernie. We would propose a bold infrastructure investment plan or an ambitious new apprenticeship program for young poeple, and then Bernie would announce basically the same thing, but bigger. On issue after issue, it was like he kept proposing four-minute abs, or even no-minute abs. Magic abs!” 

Technically, this isn’t Clinton’s reference. But she did include it, and it’s nice to know that the 1998 Farrelly Brothers comedy is remembered for more than just that Ben Stiller hair gel scene.

“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Rooney Mara

Context: Clinton digs into Trump’s response to reports of Russian hacking interfering with the election.

Clinton’s quote: “‘I don’t think anyone knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC,’ Trump insisted. ‘I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds, okay?’ What was he thinking about? A four-hundred-pound guy in the basement? Was he thinking of a character out of ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’?”

Lest you think Clinton’s just making this reference as if the book is full of hacker-types, the only character in “Dragon Tattoo” that might meet that description is that of “Plague,” a hacker described as “six foot two and 330 pounds.” But it does sound like she’s actually read the book.

Jane Austen

Colin Firth And Jennifer Ehle In The Television Programme Pride And Prejudice.Colin Firth And Jennifer Ehle In The Television Programme Pride And Prejudice.

Context: Self-care, 1990s edition, as explained by Chelsea Clinton during her speech at the 2016 DNC.

Clinton’s quote: “[Chelsea] described how hard it was to see me lose the fight for health care reform in 1994, when she was fourteen. She was there to comfort me and help provide diversions, like watching ‘Pride and Prejudice’ together.”

A bit of fact-checking here: Unless Clinton has the dates confused, this isn’t a reference to the classic BBC miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, as that first premiered in 1995 and didn’t air in the United States until 1996. Perhaps mother and daughter watched one of the many screen adaptations that had come out prior to 1994? There’s another possibility: Clinton has “Pride and Prejudice” confused with the Emma Thompson-starring film “Sense and Sensibility,” which came out in 1995. Or, maybe it’s this — following the bill’s failure, Clinton was sad about health care reform for a long time.


Homeland Season 6 Episode 12 Claire Danes Elizabeth Marvel

Context: Clinton describes trying to keep track of all the revelations surrounding Russian interference with the election.

Clinton’s quote: “To keep it all straight, I started making lists of everything we knew about the unfolding scandal. At times, I felt like CIA agent Carrie Mathison on the TV show ‘Homeland,’ desperately trying to get her arms around a sinister conspiracy and appearing more than a little frantic in the process.”

Carrie, for those who don’t watch “Homeland,” is clinically bipolar and prone to, um, extreme reactions to certain situations. It’s, perhaps, not the best comparison Clinton could draw. Fortunately, she does follow this revelation up with:

“That’s not a good look for anyone, let alone a former Secretary of State. So instead, let me channel a TV show that I grew up watching as a kid in Park Ridge: Dragnet. ‘Just the facts, ma’am.'”

Much better, Secretary Clinton.

“The Graduate”

Context: Clinton reflects on what drove her to explore political action as a young woman.

Clinton’s quote: “It started in college. Like a lot of kids, I felt stifled by the conservative, dollar-crazed conformity of the ‘Mad Men’ era. That scene in ‘The Graduate’ where an older man pulls Dustin Hoffman aside and, with great seriousness, shares the secret of life in one word — ‘Plastics’ — made all of us groan. It’s no wonder so many of us were looking for meaning and purpose wherever you could find them.”

This might be Clinton at her seemingly most authentic, especially for people of her generation with similar memories of the “Mad Men” era. (Bonus reference!) Mike Nichols truly captured an era with that film, but one which modern-day viewers have no trouble relating to.

Whether or not these references make the former Democratic candidate more or less relatable is up to you. But at least now you know that if you have to make small talk with Hillary Clinton someday, “Hamilton” or “Downton Abbey” is a good place to start.

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