The “old” Hillary Rodham Clinton emerged yesterday in the congressional hearings about what happened in Benghazi, and it’s the Hillary image that’s likely to last.
Pressed for the first time to answer sharp public questioning about her part in the episode, she grew angry and combative, more like the Hillary who screamed vulgarities and threw lamps at her husband at the White House than a smooth and accommodating secretary of state.
Occasionally raising her voice to a shout and scream, with her face contorted by something little short of rage, she could barely hold back tears only minutes later. She told the senators that it was the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the State Department — “the fudge factory,” as her predecessors have called it — that was at fault for the evasion, invention and confusion in the several stories put out by the Obama administration in the immediate aftermath of Benghazi.
She reminded the senators that a board of both Republicans and Democrats investigated the attack on the U.S. Consulate at Benghazi and the board “made it very clear that the level of responsibility for the failures that they outlined were set by the assistant secretary of state and below. These requests don’t ordinarily come to the secretary of state.”
This was not good enough for Sen. Rand Paul, the freshman Republican senator from Kentucky.
“I think ultimately with your leaving [the State Department] you accept culpability for the worst tragedy since Sept. 11, ,” he told her. “If I’d been president at the time and I’d found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, that you did not read the cables from Ambassador [J. Christopher] Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post. Not to know of the requests for security, really, I think cost these people their lives.”
When Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, asked why someone hadn’t interviewed survivors of Benghazi before Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was sent out to deliberately offer a false account of what happened, Mrs. Clinton exploded with sarcasm.
“With all due respect,” she replied, in a voice that didn’t sound overflowing with respect, “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans, what difference at this point does it make?”
This was truly tough stuff, to be held responsible for four people losing their lives. Mrs. Clinton was unsettled for the rest of the day. She repeated several times the assertion that she accepted responsibility for the mistakes her department made on Sept. 11, 2012, but was told in official proceedings for the first time that the fault, as well as the responsibility, was hers.
Hillary Clinton has lived in a soap opera since she first arrived from Arkansas as the wife of a credible candidate for president of the United States. Over the years, she cast several images of herself, some flattering and some not. She was the emotionally abused wife, standing at her husband’s side in the 1992 New Hampshire primary but not, she famously said, willing to take the advice of country-music singer Tammy Wynette to “stand by your man.” But when her husband introduced millions of Americans to their first public discussion of oral sex and was accused of sexual dalliance by a White House intern less than half his age, she not only stood by her man but cast herself as his avenging angel, accusing the critics of her man of working together in “a vast right-wing conspiracy.”
With the White House years behind her, she moved to New York and, having never lived in New York and neither knowing the way to Schenectady nor the shuffle to Buffalo, succeeded as a celebrity senator. She cast herself, with considerable help from her husband’s genius for politics, as the inevitable president in 2008, only to see her candidacy evaporate in the cool shadow of Barack Obama.
She drew praise from both friend and old foe as secretary of state, performing flawlessly as the president’s voice abroad. Until Benghazi. Nothing about Benghazi makes anyone in the Obama government look good. The hearings Wednesday in Congress were in all likelihood Hillary’s last hurrah. There was little to hurrah about. It’s how Washington will remember her.