September 23, 2013

Bikas Das / The Associated Press

Second in a massive series on the media’s treatment of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“Clintonworld” accorded Joe Hagan a high degree of cooperation for his much-discussed story on Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York Magazine. The former secretary of state herself chatted with Hagan, conceding that she does indeed wrestle with the prospect of running for president. “I think I have a pretty good idea of the political and governmental challenges that are facing our leaders, and I’ll do whatever I can from whatever position I find myself in to advocate for the values and the policies I think are right for the country,” said Clinton.

Staff from “Clintonworld” also put Hagan in touch with her “confidants,” one of whom termed the secretary’s path to a presidential run as a “force of history.”

No such confidants are quoted in three paragraphs on Clinton’s Benghazi record, but their spirit lingers there. Here are the graphs:

Hillary might have left the State Department unsullied by controversy if not for the Benghazi episode, in which the ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other consulate staffers were killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate. The NATO intervention in Libya was the most important foreign intervention of her tenure, and a seemingly successful one, but the lack of security in Benghazi and the confusion over how the incident occurred set off a heated Republican attack on Clinton’s handling of the disaster, and she was roasted on the cable-news spit for weeks. In January, she took responsibility for the deaths of the four Americans before Congress—while also questioning her inquisition, snapping at a Republican congressman, “What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.”

Benghazi will be the go-to bludgeon for Republicans if and when Clinton tries using her experience at State to run for president. It is a reminder that Clinton, despite the cool, centrist façade she has developed in the past four years, is only a misstep away from being a target of partisan rage once again.

Regardless of the facts, Republicans are liable to use Benghazi as a wedge to pry back her stately exterior, goading her into an outburst, once again revealing the polarizing figure who saw vast right-wing conspiracies and tried ginning up government health care against the political tides of Newt Gingrich.

To his credit, Hagan covers the relevant factual terrain: Clinton did indeed take responsibility, and there were security issues.

The message of this treatment, though, is that Benghazi is merely and exclusively a political matter, not one of leadership and preparation and integrity. For instance, those security problems — can they be legitimately dismissed in just a sentence fragment? Even Obama administration officials have conceded that the security failures constituted a significant breakdown. How much of the failure appropriately belongs to the State Department’s leader?

There are many more substantive questions regarding Clinton and Benghazi, including why she couldn’t be bothered to represent the administration on the Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16, instead leaving that task to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, who bombed. And those conspiracy-theory-producing talking points: Clinton reportedly played little or no role in their evolution. Why?

Hagan, too, spins Clinton’s famous outburst on Capitol Hill as evidence of Republican attempts to “goad” her, rather than as an example of a public official using righteous indignation to duck a question. At issue was the administration’s initial explanation that the Benghazi attack sprung from spontaneous protests associated with an anti-Muslim video. That account wasn’t valid. In a January hearing, Sen. Ron Johnson pushed Clinton on the matter:

“We were misled that there were supposedly protests and something sprang out of that — an assault sprang out of that. And that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact, and the American people could have known that within days and they didn’t know that.”

Clinton lashed back:

“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans! Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and to prevent it from ever happening again.”

For the record, it will always matter how the U.S. government accounts for the killing of our personnel overseas.

The “Clintonworld” confidants that suffuse Hagan’s extensive story will doubtless benefit from Republican overreaching on Benghazi. Those who despise Hillary Rodham Clinton have harmed their credibility by spotting misconduct in every square inch of the Benghazi public record, when in fact there are important lapses and leadership failures here and there. Dropping the entire thing into a framework of Republicans v. Hillary glosses over the real Benghazi scandal/screwup/controversy. (Choose your own term, according to your political leanings).

Instead of writing:

the lack of security in Benghazi and the confusion over how the incident occurred set off a heated Republican attack on Clinton’s handling of the disaster, and she was roasted on the cable-news spit for weeks.

Perhaps Hagan could have written:

the lack of security in Benghazi exposed a government that had failed to protect its people from terrorism on the anniversary of 9/11, of all moments.

Hagan didn’t respond right away to a question about his interactions with Clinton on Benghazi.

More from this series:

No. 1: Commentator on MSNBC: White guy can’t ‘appreciate’ Hillary Clinton’s historic-ness

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.