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Clinton’s classy mea culpa

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Once again, Hillary Clinton has demonstrated herself to be the classiest person in the room. No wonder she’s one of the most revered public figures in America.

But she is a politician, the context by which all things must be judged — at least on second pass. The first pass goes as follows: She manned up. She took responsibility for the attacks at the Benghazi compound. Good for the secretary of state.

Speaking from Peru on Monday, Clinton told CNN, “I take responsibility” for protecting diplomats. “What I want to avoid is some kind of political gotcha.”

Which brings us to the second pass.

There’s nothing like a preemptive act of courage, otherwise known as falling on one’s sword, to prevent a gotcha, particularly during a presidential campaign in which the challenger is trying to focus on security and/or intelligence failures that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

This rendition seems to be the most popular among Republicans — so far. Alternatives include that Clinton is making herself a target so that Republicans will attack her and attract sympathetic women back to the Obama fold. Riiiiight.

In the month since the attacks, a timeline of which shows a variety of explanations and backfilling, the word Benghazi has become Barack Obama’s WMD. What did he know and when did he know it?

Mitt Romney came out swinging on 9/11, the day of the attacks, literally before the dust had settled. Now, Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte have issued a news release lauding Clinton’s gesture while pointing a finger at the White House.

The senators noted several red flags that should have signaled the rising threat level in Benghazi. Among them: a bomb attack on the U.S. mission in April, another detonation outside the mission in June and an assassination attempt on the British ambassador.

“If the president was truly not aware of this rising threat level in Benghazi, then we have lost confidence in his national security team, whose responsibility it is to keep the president informed,” the senators said.

They also questioned the White House’s initial characterization of the attacks as a spontaneous protest around the now-famous (and ridiculous) anti-Islam video that set off demonstrations elsewhere, including at U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen.

In fact, there were no apparent demonstrations in Benghazi on the day of the attack. In her remarks from Peru, Clinton blamed the fog of war for the confusion and the difficulty of getting reliable information, a theme that has become the crux of the Obama administration’s explanation. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has blamed poor intelligence for her own lack of awareness that greater security was needed in Benghazi.

That is one hot potato.

Clinton sensibly has recommended stepping back from politics and allowing the FBI investigation to proceed. But this sentiment, appealing as it is, requires a third pass. Who benefits from stepping back? And when, exactly, did faulty intelligence on the ground excuse the commander in chief from responsibility? Not recently that I can recall.

It is a fact that the White House doesn’t have daily responsibility for embassy security. Neither the president nor the vice president was aware that there had been requests for additional security at the Benghazi consulate.

So, who knew what and when? Who dropped the ball? Who said there was yellowcake when there was none? Is this a political moment that shouldn’t be?

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, calling Obama’s handling of the situation “a policy of provocative weakness,” says Romney should exploit Benghazi for political gain. But this kind of bluster can backfire, as was the case when Romney criticized Obama before the facts were known.

Leadership requires temperance. The purpose of the investigation shouldn’t be to affix blame but to strengthen weaknesses. Only our enemies benefit from our circular sniping.

Which brings us to pass No. 4: Stevens went to Benghazi knowing the risks and died in the service of his country, the people of Libya and the greater good. It is tragic, but it is war.

Our only conclusion at this point is that we don’t know what happened. But it is also clear that no one in the Obama administration knew what was going on either. We will see. Until then, it is fair and reasonable to entertain the notion that Hillary Clinton simply did the right thing.

The nation benefits from her example.

kathleenparker@washpost.com

Read more on this debate: Jennifer Rubin: Who is responsible for what in Libya?

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