The Benghazi Star Chamber

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday afternoon, I got back from a meeting downtown about 3 p.m., turned on my computer, saw a headline about a “shouting match” erupting at the Benghazi Committee hearings and said to myself, “Don’t click on that story. Just check the highlights on TV tonight.” I took my nap. At 8 p.m. as I began prepping dinner, I turned on the TV. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was speaking on CNN. As I began cutting the potatoes, I thought, “This is a long highlight and I am not hearing anything newsworthy. Why did they choose this?” Then I looked at the screen again. In the corner it said “Live.” Yes, the thing was still going on ten hours after it began. The hearings concluded a minute past 9 p.m., eleven hours in all. The Star Chamber was less of an ordeal.

There are three main takeaways. When you talk about the Clintons, you know that drama will follow. But, the Clintons are blessed by the fact that in their dramas, they are cast opposite crazy people, extremists, conspiracy theorists, madmen. Hillary Clinton is arguably one of the most polarizing figures in American public life, but what the hearings showed is that the GOP is even more polarizing, dabbling in conspiracy theories, framing questions around supposed, imaginary conversations, inviting comparisons with the McCarthy hearings. Whoever is the eventual Republican presidential nominee needs to figure out how to shine a light on Clinton’s polarizing qualities while obscuring their own polarizing qualities. This is not entirely hard -- in the Democratic debate, she said she considered Republicans her “enemies,” a comment that earned a rebuke from Vice President Joe Biden among others. The problem for the GOP is that they just can’t help themselves.

The second takeaway has to do with her performance throughout the hearing. I am no fan of Hillary Clinton, to be sure, but it is impossible not to admire her tenacious willingness to undergo the grilling. Clinton looked like the kind of person we would want sitting opposite the negotiating table with Putin or the mullahs in Tehran. She was prepared, Lord was she prepared, she was poised, she was steely, and she was human. When GOP Congresswoman Martha Roby asked her about what she was doing on the night of the attack in Benghazi, and Clinton said she returned to her home in Northwest Washington, Roby asked if she had any further interactions on the subject that night, and Clinton said no. Roby inquired, “All night?” Clinton laughed. Roby did not get why what she had implied was funny. Clinton looked great. Roby looked like a rube.

It was in the final moments of the hearing that Clinton delivered lines that will find their way into an ad, or at least into the video that will introduce her at next year’s convention. She spoke about the need to put statesmanship before partisanship. She said that “we need to work together, to listen to each other.” She was speaking directly to the concerns of those who think Washington is broken. It was masterful. I do not know if it was sincere, but I do know it doesn’t matter. In the movie “42” about Jackie Robinson, Jackie is told by the assistant to Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey that the racist manager of the Philadelphia team wants to make amends for his racist tirades in a previous game. Jackie says, “He hasn’t changed.” The assistant says, “Mr. Rickey says it doesn’t matter if he’s changed. It only matters that it looks like he’s changed.”

The third takeaway is that the GOP once again managed to spend a lot of airtime talking about something other than the things the American people care about, the sluggish economy, flat wages, the rising cost of college. Instead, they talked about what the fringe cares about, a series of missteps surrounding a tragic incident. On Benghazi, obviously something went wrong: Four Americans died. But, the idea that Mrs. Clinton was somehow to blame for all this was preposterous. It looked preposterous. I am sure the lunatic corner of the blogosphere thought it was enlightening. It did nothing to help the GOP brand. But, don’t take my word for it. By the time I tuned in, CNN and MSNBC were still covering the hearing live, but Fox News had returned to regular programming. The same Roger Ailes who ordered his network to call the 2000 election for George W. Bush before it was at all clear he had won, or someone who has imbibed the Ailes’ approach to journalism, realized that the last thing they wanted to do was continue showing Hillary Clinton vanquishing the GOP’s inquisitors.

Which leads to my last takeaway. What we saw last night -- and this is a conclusion about which I could scarcely be more ambivalent -- was Hillary Clinton becoming our next president. Yes, politics has surprises and she could slip on a banana peel or something. But, watching her calmly sit through that ordeal yesterday convinced most Americans: She is up to the job. 

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