Reality Bites

Hillary Clinton says she brings real-world experience. So when is she going to get serious about the questions over her private email account?

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton speaks during a Gates Foundation event in New York on March 9, 2015.

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Do we want a president who deals with the world as it should be or a president who operates in the world as it is? That is the question raised by the revelations of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account during her time as America’s top diplomat—and her response to it. How she responds will tell us something about what her presidency would look like.

Instead of the Clinton email story, there are a number of other stories we should be talking about regarding the former secretary of state. What does she think about 47 Republican senators writing a letter to Iran saying that they could scuttle whatever nuclear deal Obama negotiates? It’s an extraordinary act by members of the body in which she once served. Or, she could weigh in on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress, wage stagnation, Selma and race in America, or the collapse of Libya. Or Clinton could talk about how automation has changed the workforce or how families balance the demands of work and home—some of the issues she touched on in her very substantive speech last week in Silicon Valley. 

But Clinton can’t really weigh in effectively on any of these issues right now. She’s got to get past her email problem. She’s got to explain why she did it, how she’s going to deal with the fallout, and why her campaign’s first response about her homebrew practices was wrong. Her spokesman claims her six-year email regimen was within the letter and spirit of the law. It was neither. 

The press can be blamed for going overboard on the story; no one will ever get in trouble making that safe claim. (Puppies too are mostly cute.) But candidates are responsible for managing the world as it is, because that’s what being president will be like.

Most of the shiny objects at the center of nonbreaking, nonvital campaign coverage are not a test of anything except perhaps how fast we can zoom toward the bottom. One of a president’s greatest skills is ignoring the trivia and hyperventilating. President Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough has a 10 percent rule that seems about right: spend 10 percent of your energy keeping an eye on the feeding frenzy and spend the rest of your time focused on important issues. But this isn’t trivia.

While Clinton and her team leave the stage empty, all kinds of performers rush to fill it. At the moment it’s old news clips of former Sen. Al D’Amato requesting Whitewater documents or clips of Clinton expressing wonder at how Rose Law Firm records could mysteriously show up at the White House after having been missing for so long. On Sunday Rep. Trey Gowdy, the GOP investigator looking into every corner of the Benghazi attack, said on Face the Nation that lots of emails are missing. And over on Meet the Press, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that Clinton needs to come forward and explain herself. The newspapers are tiring their political reporters with demands that they write yet another Democrats-are-worried-about-Hillary piece. 

I was out in Iowa last week and Democrats who have been anxious for Clinton to start her campaign are now even more irritated. They were already wondering how Clinton could be different and engaging this time around, and this isn’t proof that things are going to be different—unless of course the strategy is to have one last big show of how not to do things in order to make the campaign look that much better in the months to come.

Operating in the world as it exists is what Clinton was presumably doing by setting up a private email account in the first place. Dogged for years by the “vast right-wing conspiracy” and a prying press, she set up a protocol to protect herself. (That’s the most benign interpretation obviously.) Forget the niceties of the way things should be—transparency, what other Cabinet officials were doing, and all that tosh—she understands the way things really are. 

Good, then we can deal with the reality at hand: The former secretary’s office has given incorrect information, she’s leaving her allies scratching their heads over how to defend her, and she’s not in control of this moment. That is a problem for her inevitable presidential campaign, but it’s also a test of how she’ll handle this kind of thing if she’s president. When you’re president, all kinds of irritating things happen and a president must learn to deal with them. It’s also worth watching what residue this leaves. If the campaign starts in a defensive crouch, will it just stay there?

During the campaign, Clinton will argue that her experience makes her especially adept at dealing with the challenges of the world. She’s got a strong foundation from which she can build that case. But when you’ve experienced a lot it means you’ve been in the fight long enough to take on barnacles. Experience can make you reflexively insular and walled-off. That’s a legitimate question to ask of anyone, whether they have Clinton’s history or not. Former Pentagon chief Bob Gates said that he didn’t support the Bin Laden raid because he had perhaps become too risk-averse from his long service in government. The instinct to create your own way, despite the rules, is a possible asset—or it’s a dangerous warning.

We’ll have to figure out which it is. The future candidate has a chance to show how experience counts in handling the madness surrounding her email. How she responds will probably tell us more about her ability to manage than anything she said in those 600 pages about her State Department years.