The Joy and the Drama

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and former President Bill Clinton try to stay dry under an umbrella as rain falls during inaugural ceremonies for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe at the Capitol i... Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and former President Bill Clinton try to stay dry under an umbrella as rain falls during inaugural ceremonies for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. McAuliffe is the 72nd governor of Virginia. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) MORE LESS
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Like many of you, my formative political experiences were in my 20s. And for me, that meant the Clinton years. I was just shy of 24 when Bill Clinton was inaugurated in January 1993 and living in Washington in my early 30s when he left office. I don’t think anyone could be a bigger Clinton diehard than I was in those days. And if it were still the mid- or late 90s, with all the frivolity and nonsense that characterized those years, I still would be. When I was trying to make my way into journalism in the late 90s, I considered writing a book at the phenomenon of Clinton-hating, which I still think would be a fascinating book because feelings about Bill Clinton, on both sides of the equation, are a fascinating way to explore intricacies of that decade.

On the merits, I think Hillary Clinton might make a good president. Obviously, I think she’d be infinitely preferable to anyone the GOP would nominate to challenge her. But the latest email blow up reminds me again – and I didn’t need any reminding – why I also quietly dread her campaign and her presidency. In a word, the drama.

I have frequently criticized political commentary that focuses on the feelings and impressions of the commentators rather than the actual policy impacts and details of what politicians would do. And if this falls into that category, I have to plead guilty. But for me it’s an inescapable part of a Clinton Restoration.

Though I have not plumbed all the depths of it, the email story is shaping up to be another classic Clinton scandal. On the merits, the hyperventilation seems way out ahead of the actual facts. It’s not clear to me that any law in effect at the time was violated. And numerous politicians at all levels of government, as well as appointees, have done similar things – indeed, even the top officials in the preceding White House. There’s even a lot of speculation about servers set up by Bill in the basement of the house in Chappaqua that seems to have no basis in fact.

But Hillary Clinton seems to have taken it a bit further than all the others combined – or perhaps combined together all the things that others individually had done. In any case, at the end of the day – like with every other Clinton scandal – I doubt very much that there’s any there there. Did they actually do anything wrong or terribly embarrassing that they’re covering up? I doubt it. And I say this because I’ve been to this rodeo before. Many times. I’ve seen how it eventually plays out.

And yet here we are again – with an almost infinite, process-driven scandal that can easily continue on into a Clinton presidency, if there is one. Consider it. Clinton and her lawyers have separated her work emails from personal ones and then sent the work ones to the State Department. But Republicans will never believe that the filtering was on the level. And by apparently destroying the personal ones, that means that Republican questions and press questions will meet a permanent question mark. Presumably even if she wanted to let a third party review all the emails now she can’t. So the deleted emails will remain the permanent fantastical repository for the decision not to prevent a rescue of Chris Stevens, give orders to erase warnings about safety at the Benghazi consulate and more.

So why do you delete personal emails? I think because you’re very focused on your personal privacy and want to avoid scrutiny and you want to permanently foreclose the possibility. Lawyers and businesses frequently do this. Clinton for these purposes is not a lawyer or a business.

If you’d been through the numskull scrutiny the Clintons were subjected to in office – the bogus “Whitewater” investigation, the purported murder of staffers, the Lewinsky investigation – you’d probably want to block off every avenue of scrutiny too. But the relationship between the Clintons and the press and the political class generally is codependent, toxic and frankly ridiculous on both sides – with extreme self-protection and legalism on one hand and hyperbole, nonsense and wolf-crying penalties on the other. Like any perennial and bad relationship it is exhausting to watch and generally impossible to pick apart where one part ends and other starts. Which is a reaction to the other, which is first? I have no idea anymore. It hardly matters.

In the main, none of these ‘scandals’ ever end up having a real there there. Not because the Clintons are good at covering things up but there just wasn’t anything there in the first place. But the one thing the Clintons bring is drama. All the time. They may not be looking for it but they find it. Always.

And it’s not just with the never ending wheel of scandal. It’s everywhere else too. I had a few reporter friends working on pieces on the 2008 Clinton campaign after the fact. And as you would expect, it leaked like a sieve with a million turf battles and mutual antagonisms. Then there’s the Clinton Foundation, which I know has done many good works but is also a source of intense and unending drama.

I had not realized until recently that Obama’s top campaign operatives early in the 2008 cycle focused in on Obama as “no drama” specifically to contrast him with Clinton. But this was branding that was real. Very real. You just don’t get this with Obama.

You can argue that his personality gives rise to various shortcomings as a president. But it’s not just that finding out that President Obama was carrying on with an intern is probably less likely than a meteor colliding with Earth and destroying all life on the planet. It goes well beyond that. For all the Republican carping about IRS and Benghazi! (TM), the Obama years have been essentially scandal-less. There’s just nothing to work with. Obama doesn’t have weird hangers-on; staff don’t surface disputes and ego battles in the press; things just don’t happen. You do not get surprises.

Clearly this is characterological: it stems directly from the people involved and what they generate around them. I don’t mean this as a “character” issue as the press like to put it. But people are just different; they live in the world differently; they have different patterns, which they generate and perpetuate again and again in different contexts.

I have my own theory about this with Obama. Whether it was chicken or egg, the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and the first black President of the United States was never going to be someone who was governed by impulse and intuition. It was going to be someone controlled, careful, deeply considered in his decisions. Obama never would have gotten where he did if he was not also capable of being daring and bold – but bold and daring after giving the available options a good deal of thought. I don’t know if Obama was born that way or whether he shaped himself into that person. But the role, the job, was going to select for it. I have little question.

That is, needless to say, not Bill Clinton. But it’s not just Monica and all the other Clinton baggage. It’s also a lot of the political genius, the effortless magic as a public speaker, his ability to charm and connect emotionally with people of so many different kinds, from so many different backgrounds. This is the thing with Bill Clinton, which I suspect anyone who has watched him closely over the years will grasp, that his political genius and skills are inseparable from his crushing flaws.

If you were around in the 90s you’ve seen this movie before. The Clintons are great. But there is always something. Always. Always a dance, always drama. It’s just inseparable from who they are.

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