Even in the most myopic corners of the Democratic party’s vast and ruthless political machine, the radar is picking up a faint cri de coeur. “Is Hillary really our best choice?” beeps the signal in the darkest parts of the night. And then, before it can provoke too much restlessness or dissension in the ranks, it fades and disappears under the weight of present expectations. In the coming weeks, whenever the progressive soul is at its most restive, this question will haunt the skeptics with a renewed and discomfiting vigor.
Political scandals are never more penetrating than when they confirm a set of pre-existing suspicions, and Hillary’s latest imbroglio is a doozy of election-changing proportions. Sarah Palin was so gravely injured by her inability to name her daily newspaper because the failure served only to buttress the widespread presumption that she was an intellectual lightweight. The endless batch of “elitist!” arrows that were cast at John Kerry in 2004 found their target because, deep down, Americans worried sincerely that he was too effete to be commander-in-chief. This being so, the news that Hillary Clinton broke a series of federal laws in the name of her own pride will presumably pursue the candidate all the way to the next election. Hillary’s error, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza proposes today, is damaging precisely because it “plays into everything people don’t like about her.” Worse still, the charge was first heard within the pages of the friendly New York Times.
The facts of the affair are refreshingly simple. When Hillary became secretary of state, she was required by law to obtain a government e-mail address and to conduct her official business through it at all times. She didn’t. Rather, as the Times reported yesterday, she “used a personal e-mail account” for her official correspondence, and she “violated federal requirements” in the process. American law requires that records of all government business be “retained as part of the agency’s record,” and it ensures by regulation that all electronic exchanges are kept secure from foreign snoops. By opting out of the established system, Clinton repeatedly broke that law.
The strongest argument in favor of this behavior — legally, at least — is that Clinton is a clueless, confused, and out-of-touch old woman who struggles to grasp basic technological concepts, and that she therefore had not the first idea what was expected of her. In the immediate aftermath, this was the first defense offered. It’s “worth remembering,” a former Clinton administration staffer assured me quickly on Twitter, “that Hillary didn’t have email until she was in her forties. She was clueless.” “I just mean,” he added, desperately, that “she’s no dummy — except possibly with computers — where she kinda is.”
Nobody who is familiar with the Clinton family can possibly be expected to believe this line. Vanity, as ever, is the Clintons’ meal ticket, and it is their downfall, too. Digging a little into the story today, Business Insider’s Hunter Walker recorded today that Clinton did not so much inadvertently continue to use her previous account as she had her team build and configure an alternative system over which she had full and unadulterated control. Not only did she end up sending her e-mails “from a personalized domain, clintonemail.com,” Walker confirms, but she took the first steps toward the establishment of this arrangement before she had even been approved by the Senate. The offending domain, Walker discovered, was “registered on the day of her confirmation hearing in January 2009.” For the next four years, she would use it exclusively — for communicating within the State Department, within her private organizations, and within her family and her group of friends. Thus did America’s top diplomat attend to her business on an unapproved server, through potentially unsecured channels, and without any external oversight whatsoever.
It will not be possible for Hillary’s apologists to wave this story away as so much inside baseball. Rather, authorities have been keen to remark, her decision is unprecedented in all of American history. At best, she has here exhibited a “stunning disregard for governmental transparency requirements.” At worst, she has ranged so far outside of the ingrained norms as to make comparisons futile. Jason R. Baron, “a former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration,” told the New York Times yesterday that he could frankly recall no other instance in which “a high-ranking official at an executive branch agency solely used a personal email account for the transaction of government business.” Struggling to come up with a plausible scenario in which such a flagrant violation of the rules might be deemed unobjectionable, Baron could only propose a nuclear holocaust.
When we combine this revelation with the week’s other disclosures, we begin to detect a public official who is out of control. Just last week, the Washington Post shocked the public with the news that the Clinton Foundation had “accepted millions of dollars from seven foreign governments” during Hillary’s “tenure as secretary of state, including one donation that violated its ethics agreement with the Obama administration.” In and of themselves, these gifts were highly abnormal. “Rarely, if ever,” the Post noted drily, “has a potential commander in chief been so closely associated with an organization that has solicited financial support from foreign governments.” But the infringement is made even worse when one acknowledges that these donations were never so much as reviewed for eligibility by the powers that be within the State Department. There really is no other way of putting it than to record bluntly that, while she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was making private deals with foreign governments via private e-mail, and then declining to request the requisite approval from the U.S. government. Who, one wonders, does she think she is?
The answer to that question is as it ever was: She is Hillary Clinton, and she believes, with some justification, that she will get away with anything and everything she tries. “Why,” supporters grumble, “knowing full well how effective the charge of elitism can be during a presidential campaign, does she continue to take $300,000 per speech?” Answer: Because she’s Hillary Clinton. “Why,” others inquire, “when tempers are still hot and nerves are still frayed, does she continue to take money from the outfits that are widely blamed for the financial crisis of 2008?” Answer: Because she’s Hillary Clinton. “How could she possibly believe that her ex-president husband’s temporary inability to buy a multi-million-dollar house rendered her ‘dead broke’”? Because she’s Hillary Clinton, and she has a sense of entitlement that would make Imelda Marcos blush.
And so, having been championed and overpraised for years, lionized more for her immutable characteristics than for any concrete achievements, and allowed to pretend that her few successes have been the product of her own ability and not her husband’s uncommon political talent, Clinton has of late fallen disastrously deep into the professional celebrity’s most pernicious trap: She has begun to believe her own hype. How long can it be before her fellow disciples begin to lose faith in more than just the small hours of the night? Answers welcome by e-mail.