- - Friday, January 25, 2013

If you thought the long-anticipated Hillary hearings were going to be a feet-to-the fire payback for Benghazigate, then maybe you should think again.

In her back-to-back appearances Wednesday, departing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton left Senate and House Republicans hitless, winless and basically befuddled. Little Leaguers enjoy a 10-run rule that brings such uneven contests to merciful endings — so the little nippers can lick their wounds and try again another day. If Congress had anything similar, Mrs. Clinton might have ended her testimony hours earlier, beaten rush-hour traffic across town and made it back to Foggy Bottom long before happy hour.

Maybe the Republicans in Congress felt sorry for the former senator from New York, bested by Barack Obama for the presidency, wounded by the Benghazi tragedy and discredited by a damning Accountability Review Board of her State Department stewardship. Republican Sens. Ron Johnson, Rand Paul and John McCain tried their best one-liners against her, slightly recycled from recent campaign rhetoric. Mrs. Clinton answered calmly, projecting an undiminished resolve to correct the security oversights for which she repeatedly assumed responsibility. When pressed too hard by Mr. Johnson, she deftly took his head off, handed it back to him and then kept right on running up the score. Of her hostile questioners, only Mr. McCain emerged with his dignity fully intact.

The House hearing would have been a rerun, except that dispirited Republicans and ebullient Democrats settled down to an utterly predictable pattern of five-minute statements thinly disguised as questions. The only action all afternoon came from watching Mrs. Clinton’s head alternate between gracious nods to her oh-so-polite questioners on both sides of the aisle. Apparently, they had watched their Senate colleagues and decided a farewell coronation for Mrs. Clinton was the far safer bet. Even the Hillary Nutcracker doll atop my bookcase seemed to grin more broadly.

Benghazi was only the latest episode of a three-decade epic in which Mrs. Clinton has become one of the great survival stories of American politics. Extending back through the mists of Whitewater, Paula Jones, Troopergate and the unique challenges of being President Bill Clinton’s long-suffering wife, Hillary could have starred in her own soap opera. Instead she kept reinventing herself, epitomizing one of the signature phrases of those years and evolving from first lady to New York senator to presidential candidate to secretary of state. She is the Democrats’ Iron Lady, masterfully preserving her long-range ambitions and options, whatever they might be.

For Republicans savvy enough to give the devil her due, she can also teach some important survival lessons.

First, being smart is much better than the alternative. As K.T. McFarland of Fox News pointed out, Mrs. Clinton was far too shrewd to be mousetrapped into performing the hapless role of administration apologist memorably played by United Nations Ambassador Susan E. Rice. Bill Clinton famously avoided military service during the Vietnam War to maintain his own “political viability.” Mrs. Clinton seems to have the same idea, and she walked out of the hearings this week with her head held high, eclipsing Mrs. Rice, once her all-but-designated successor.

Second, positioning and timing are all-important. Mrs. Clinton has a poker player’s sense of knowing just when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. As a junior senator, she zealously protected defense installations in her district and became a special advocate for New Yorkers serving in uniform. Opposing the Iraq War while campaigning for president, she subsequently became a close political ally of Gen. David H. Petraeus. While such alliances are fleeting, her permanent interest as former secretary of state may be evolving into a latter-day Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson — a long-neglected Democratic vacancy.

Third, the past usually catches up with you when you least expect it. Mrs. Clinton’s announced intention of decompressing may mask another perceptive calculus about sidestepping the challenges of Mr. Obama’s second term. The short list of contradictions includes a resurgent al Qaeda across North Africa, the Syrian powder keg and looming conflict with Iran. Especially with Iran, the potential fallout includes imponderables from cyberwar at your automated teller machine to suicide bombers in American shopping malls. Mr. Obama’s likely successors in either party can surely appreciate what might happen if such cataclysmic events — finally too big to lie about — also shatter the prevailing media-Democratic consensus.

Foreseeable events can sometimes materialize suddenly, creating tectonic shifts in the American political landscape. Mrs. Clinton already understands that, together with something her Republican interlocutors should grasp as well. Benghazi was tragedy, precedent, prologue — all wrapped into one — and is best appreciated not as a “gotcha” but as a benchmark against daunting future challenges.

Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a former NBC News military analyst and author on national security issues.

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