A Problem with the Politics of Distraction

Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the media in regards to her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State in New York, on March 10, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Gombert/EPA)

This would seem one to keep an eye on:

The chairman of the House committee investigating the Benghazi attacks asked Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday to appear for a private interview about her exclusive use of a personal email account when she was secretary of state.


Obviously, there is more to the New York Times report than just the lede, and for the moment we might pause for an exercise in contrasts. To wit:

Mr. Gowdy said the committee believed that “a transcribed interview would best protect Secretary Clinton’s privacy, the security of the information queried and the public’s interest in ensuring this committee has all information needed to accomplish the task set before it.”

But Mrs. Clinton indicated on Tuesday that she wanted to give her testimony in a public setting. In a written statement, a spokesman for her said she had told the committee months ago that she was prepared to testify at a public hearing. “It is by their choice that hasn’t happened,” said the spokesman, Nick Merrill. “To be clear, she remains ready to appear at a hearing open to the American public.”

There is, actually, a lot going on with this story that amounts to essentially nothing, which in turn allows such moments to slip beneath notice. Kevin Drum noticed―

Go ahead and call me paranoid, but this sure seems like the perfect setup to allow Gowdy—or someone on his staff—to leak just a few bits and pieces of Clinton’s testimony that put her in the worst possible light. Darrell Issa did this so commonly that it was practically part of the rules of the game when he was investigating Benghazi and other Republican obsessions.

Who knows? Maybe Gowdy is a more honest guy. But since Clinton herself has offered to testify publicly, why would anyone not take her up on it? It’s not as if any of this risks exposing classified information or anything.

―and perhaps what is most significant there is the reminder that while much of the nitpicking going on around our political discourse often seems petty and pedantic, it is sometimes important to check these aspects because they are, in fact, revealing about the nature and condition of the discourse itself.

A personal outlook on any number of cyclical politcal scandals that either do or don’t rise to the level of being actually scandalous: If it is time to have the discussion, then let us have the discussion; but do not pretend that this is any new phenomenon.Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC04), in undated, uncredited photo.

Rep. Gowdy (R-SC04) and others use words like “unprecedented”, when in fact this notion requires a certain twist of logic. To the one, many of Ms. Clinton’s leading critics in the email discussion suffer exposure on this count, as well; the GOP retort to this point is that there is a difference between being a state official destroying official records and being a federal official destroying personal records. But this also runs up against a simple fact: What Hillary Clinton did was permissible under the law. And, yes, perhaps it is time to have the discussion about just how much of a public servant’s life can remain private and just how that works, but we really ought not pretend this is a new question, or even a new context. Kevin Drum asks why Gowdy wouldn’t want this discussion held in public. One might wrench the question a bit to simply point out that first and foremost, Hillary Clinton is, in fact, a Clinton, and with this pathway available to her, why would she not take it?

And, you know, sure, it does sometimes occur to wonder if maybe our political discourse doesn’t tank issues like this for a reason? At this point, with the GOP crashing down on Hillary Clinton while Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal, at least, all have exposure on the issue, and Mitt Romney certainly wouldn’t count his own destruction of state records among the reasons he lost in 2012, it just seems as if the larger question―is it time to have this discussion about public service and specific privacy?―is wrecked from the outset.

Or, maybe, we could skip past the pretenses of shock and horror, and words like “unprecedented”, “criminal”, and, “Nixon”, when all they do is obscure reality in favor of whipping up frenzies best calibrated for raising funds?

It is hard to figure what to think of the idea that for all the noise and fury, Hillary Clinton’s numbers are not taking any significant hit. To the one, this is as it should be. To the other, it suggests something discouraging, that the larger issue matters none. This is unfortunate, because as Fred Kaplan notes, the would-be scandal does actually highlight an important issue about public records in the digital age:

The scandal over Hillary Clinton’s email evasion, it’s now clear, goes way beyond Hillary Clinton. Take a look at the second paragraph of the New York Times’ front-page story on March 14, headlined “Emails Clinton Said Were Kept Could Be Lost”:

But the State Department disclosed on Friday that until last month it had no way of routinely preserving senior officials’ emails. Instead, the department relied on individual employees to decide if certain emails should be considered public records, and if so, to move them onto a special record-keeping server, or print them out and manually file them for preservation.

The Times story then returns to the saga of Clinton’s private email account, but the big, truly gasp-worthy story for the ages lies in those two sentences. The State Department is doing nothing to retain public records. Neither, others tell me, are the other federal bureaucracies. As a result, our history is vanishing into the ether. Major decisions—cataclysmic events—are happening all around us, but their causes may never be known.

That would seem to be worth something. But since this is just another occasion of a bunch of politicians pointing fingers at one another and shouting, there would seem to be a reason the American people don’t seem to care.

But there really is something worth talking about, here.


Image note: Top―Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the media in regards to her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State in New York, on March 10, 2015. (Photo by Andrew Gombert/EPA) Right―Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC04), in undated, uncredited photo.

Schmidt, Michael S. “House Panel Seeks Private Talk With Hillary Clinton About Email”. The New York Times. 31 March 2015.

Drum, Kevin. “If Hillary Clinton Testifies About Her Emails, She Should Do It In Public”. Mother Jones. 31 March 2015.

Benen, Steve. “The Republicans who did ‘exactly what Hillary did'”. msnbc. 13 March 2015.

Kaplan, Fred. “The Real Scandal Behind Hillary Clinton’s Email”. Slate. 16 March 2015.

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