By Matthew Cooper
January 23, 2013
As Hillary Rodham Clinton marches up to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify about the Benghazi attack, it’ll be the last “scandal” of her 20-year run in Washington. The quotation marks are there for a reason. Most of what has exorcised the Hill and press corps about Hillary Clinton over the last two decades has rarely turned out to be scandalous.
“Hillary” — what other politician gets called by their first name, “Rahm?” — has survived every "scandal" to come her way. The mysterious death of White House counsel Vince Foster in 1993? Ken Starr concluded it was a suicide. The Whitewater “scandal”? Whatever there was to it, it’s a memory now. Hard to imagine now that Washington was once consumed with how Mrs. Clinton made $100,000 on commodity futures.
She’s endured it all — an exhausting journey from the election of her husband in 1992, the crash of her health care plan in 1993, the impeachment in 1998, the Senate election in 2000, a presidential bid in 2008 that came so close, and her becoming secretary of State in 2009. Four years and more than a million air miles after joining the team of rivals, she’s atop her game. The scandal mongers, like the coterie that suggested she might have faked her concussion to get out of the Benghazi hearings, grew quiet when she was hospitalized for a blood clot.
It’s not that Clinton is blameless for the Benghazi disaster. The attack in Libya cost the lives of four Americans, including a beloved ambassador. It wrecked the aspirations of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who withdrew from consideration as secretary of State. It probably wrecked the aspirations of the president, who seemed like he wanted to nominate Rice. But even if it was Clinton’s State Department that was unprepared, the word "Benghazi" is unlikely to chase the 65-year-old into her next life of books, high-end speeches, public service, needed rest, grandmotherhood (should she be so lucky), and perhaps another run for president.
Why is Hillary so invincible now? She prevailed on Benghazi by having taken so many bullets that she became bulletproof, like her husband. At a certain point you’re like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, just letting them bounce off you. Perhaps if Clinton wasn’t on her way out of office, the debacle might have damaged her more. She’s also mastered the art of damage control.
When she was first lady, Clinton resisted the appointment of a special prosecutor in the Whitewater case because she thought the investigation would never end. Given that it led to the appointment of Starr — whose study of the Arkansas land deal devolved into an legal investigation of what and what doesn’t constitute “sexual relations” — she turned out to be prescient.
In the case of Benghazi, Clinton was in no danger of being hitched to a shooting Starr. She did the smart thing and appointed an Accountability Review Board headed by the likes of Mike Mullen, the retired admiral and former Joint Chiefs chairman, and the legendary diplomat Thomas Pickering. There’s no better “scandal” management then leading the charge to get to the bottom of things.
What emerged from the board's account is a botched security process at State that needs to be fixed and likely will be addressed under Clinton’s successor, John Kerry. Clinton will talk about this Wednesday on the Hill ad nauseam while offering the kind of “the buck stops here” claims that leaders routinely give when their agencies fall apart. Top deputies like Thomas Nides, the deputy secretary for management and resources, have already been to the Hill to take a whipping so Hillary will get less of a lashing. A few mid-level folks have resigned.
It’s no wonder then that the announced focus of the hearing in the Senate is lessons learned and in the House it's “the secretary’s view.” No one is telegraphing that they’re eager to replay the question of why Susan Rice seemed to dismiss the possibility of a terrorist involvement in the hours after the attack.
Lindsey Graham, who co-led the Benghazi charge with John McCain, will not be on the panel that quizzes Clinton. McCain will likely be there, but chances are that he won't go too hard on his former fellow senator. Their target was Rice, not Clinton. The three senators traveled together extensively and became close on trips to investigate global warming in the Arctic Circle (Different times!). They may have wanted to stick pins in Rice, but Clinton would have gotten off with a gentle rebuke.
Hillary never aroused Graham and McCain's ire the way that Chuck Hagel did. Clinton was a model for a celebrity in the Senate and she still has reservoirs of good will on the Hill. She did her work. She stayed relatively quiet. She didn’t showboat. She reached out to Republicans like Tom DeLay on adoption. No one is eager to take on Hillary.
Maybe Sens. Marco Rubio or Mike Lee (each 41) or one of the other young turks with a bright future will use the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to hurl fireballs at the former first lady. But they’re unlikely to do more than singe.
Amazingly, the same is true on the House side, even though it’s the pyre of Republican passions. Earlier this week, the Voice of America interviewed Dana Rohrabacher, one of the most combustible members of the House, about the upcoming hearing. Just a few weeks ago Rohrabacher and CNN’s Anderson Cooper got in a tussle over Benghazi and Rohrabacher lashed out at officials for lying about the attack. By contrast, he said this about Clinton to VOA earlier this week: "She has given this country 20 years of decent, good service. And I am not about to sling mud at her. She maybe made a bad call [leading to the lethal terrorist attack on U.S. government agents in Benghazi]. She has made 20 years of good calls."
By Matthew Cooper
January 23, 2013