Columns » Ernest Dumas

Election won't stop Hillary probes



Hillary Clinton gave such a bravura performance at the first Democratic presidential debate that many are ready to hand her the presidency more than a year before the election.

Let it be said that she was smart (only a couple of forced factual errors), cheerful, personable, tough and even repentant — all qualities that a few or all of her critics from the right and the left said she did not have. Everyone knew she was a deft debater.

Let it be said, too, that the debate helped both her and her party because both its tone and its message contrasted sharply with the Republican debates. The five mixed it up on issues but did not cast nasty slurs at each other or excite fears that the United States was at the mercy of ne'er-do-wells at home and foes around the planet and headed pell-mell to ruin. Listening to a Republican debate would scare the daylights out of Pollyanna.

But it remains to be seen whether hope and confidence play better than fear in a national election. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan would say hope is the better card. A year into Reagan's presidency, after he had passed mammoth tax cuts, the nation fell into the longest and deepest recession since the 1930s, running unemployment into double digits for 10 months and doubling its debt, and then in 1983 he sent 359 peacekeepers to Beirut to be killed or wounded by a truck bomb. But he told the country in 1984 that it was "morning in America" and voters happily obliged.

The apostles of fear, on the other hand, have been winning elections lately.

Still, whatever lift Clinton got from the debate, the dynamics of her political career have not changed. The road to the presidency will be no smoother than it ever was. That is owing to two conditions that shaped her public career and, almost to an equal extent, her husband's. Those are her brooding obsession with privacy and the media's manic obsession with everything about the Clintons. Those will continue to dog her until Election Day, and far beyond if she is elected, just as they did her husband.

Both in Little Rock and in Washington, Hillary insisted on a zone of privacy for the family and she largely got it on her terms in Little Rock but not in D.C. Privacy is one of Americans' most prized freedoms, but they do not grant it to politicians and their families or to other public figures. Hillary Clinton never understood, or at least never gave in.

She was the pivotal decision-maker in Bill Clinton's 12 years as governor just as I believe she was in his eight years in the White House but, except in her role as the school reformer in chief in 1983, she avoided and resented media. She went to lengths to keep the family's vacation spots secret, only to get a call from a reporter. It got worse in Washington.

Her memoir, "Living History," brooded about privacy. A friend staying over at the White House at the first inauguration found a rude note for Hillary that Clinton-hater Rush Limbaugh somehow got sneaked under a pillow in the Lincoln Bedroom. She figured the White House was "haunted by temporal entities." She would find furniture in the living quarters moved around and discover that security agents, without consulting her, had been looking for bugging devices.

Her privacy fixation lay behind many of the White House's troubles — Travelgate, the big national health insurance bust in 1994, and, most tellingly, the epic Whitewater snipe hunt that led to the president's impeachment for womanizing. It was her refusal to give up her law firm's flimsy billing records on work for Jim McDougal's thrift that led to the appointment of an independent counsel and eight years of hounding. The trifling legal work she did for private concerns back in the 1980s was nobody else's business, and even her husband could not budge her. When the records finally surfaced years later, as people back in Little Rock who had examined them knew, there was nothing there — invoices for niggling title work and the like. But the political damage was huge and lasting.

There was the inevitable email dustup at the State Department. For convenience, she opened and paid for a single email account that would include her everyday personal business with family and friends. Although no one will turn up any harm done to the country, it was a stupid blunder, driven again by her privacy complex. The FBI will turn up email exchanges involving matters that the government would stamp as secret, even though the knowledge was harmless and even though there will be no evidence that any enemy got hold of it. Maybe the agents will leak a juicy scrap sent to her wayfaring and perhaps wayward hubby.

And it will go on and on, just as everything the Clintons have ever done will continue to be pawed through for evidence of personal or political aggrandizement. Reporters every day are digging through state records and archives looking for long-ignored tidbits or new insights into all the arcane Arkansas events that made headlines from 1992 until 2001.

That would be especially the New York Times and the Washington Post, once known as the establishment liberal media. The two papers still drive both print and electronic media coverage of the Clintons and have since 1992, when the Times printed the first and sometimes erroneous stories about trifling Clinton financial dealings in the 1970s and '80s — the little Whitewater land development in Marion County, Hillary Rodham's short-lived trading in cattle futures when she arrived at Fayetteville to teach law, her law firm's work for an ill-starred little thrift, Madison Guaranty, and all the rest.

For more than two years, the Times has assigned a reporter full time to track the Clintons — their foundation's fund-raising and global philanthropic work, and their ancient associations, all picked up by other media. Other Times reporters have raced with the Post and other papers to develop new angles, often erroneous, on the emails or Benghazi. Its columnists, both liberal and conservative, snark about the Clintons' too-smart explanations and even her self-control, which enraged the liberal Frank Bruni.

The Times' public editor, who investigates complaints about the paper, concluded a couple of times that it was all a little too much and strange, but quoted the editors as justifying all the scrutiny because the Clintons were important and, well, fascinating people and, besides, they bring it on themselves.

A good debate won't change that.

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