At first, I thought this week’s congressional hearing on the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11 was giving me a sense of deja vu only because it was our ninth such session on the night Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans lost their lives there, in the not-so-glorified house we called our consulate.
But the longer I listened, the more I realized that the moment evoked by the questions and the answers was quite a specific one — the ’90s. Once again, Republicans smelled blood. And once again, we were hearing about a give-no-quarter response from Hillary Rodham Clinton that seemed to have created more problems than it solved.
In the ’90s, it was first lady Clinton, with the help of Deputy White House Counsel Cheryl Mills, who so steadfastly refused to cooperate with investigators looking into the legality of an Arkansas land deal that she looked as if she was hiding much more than she actually was.
Even many Democrats came to feel that if only the first lady had been more forthcoming, there would never have been an independent prosecutor in the person of Ken Starr. But her legal training and her personal impulse were to give no grain of sand without bloodshed. And it was in that mode — aggrieved, certain and right in one sense but mistaken in another — that she uttered her infamous remark about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband.
Which sounded an awful lot like her frustrated, ill-advised remark at a January hearing on Benghazi, where she asked “What difference, at this point, does it make?” that the administration had initially blamed spontaneous protesters upset by an anti-Islamic YouTube video for the terrorist attack. (The answer we heard Wednesday was that because that explanation contradicted and embarrassed the Libyan president, and embarrassed him in front of his people, it slowed their response in the aftermath of the attack.)
Today, of course, the Clintons’ time in the White House is remembered more than anything as a moment of prosperity. And if her tenure as secretary of state didn’t quite put her in the company of Marshall and Acheson, as her supporters would have it, she did travel the world restoring our relationships and was loyal to President Obama in ways not everyone was sure she would be. She earned extra points for having learned, as we all hope to do, from earlier mistakes.
Wednesday’s hearing, however, raised questions about whether she has learned management lessons from her time in the White House. Legitimate issues still on the table include why her State Department didn’t address known security problems despite repeated requests and why a respected diplomat seems to have been made to pay for asking unwelcome questions.
Gregory Hicks, U.S. deputy chief of mission to Libya at the time of the attack, was personally praised for his actions in Tripoli that night by both Obama and Clinton, and he testified movingly about speaking briefly with Stevens on the evening he died. “Greg, we’re under attack,’’ Hicks heard his colleague say, and then the line went dead.
Hicks said he realized at once that this was no spontaneous protest, but a planned terrorist attack. His testimony about calling for help that never came was heartbreaking but explicable, with other officials insisting that they could never have gotten to Benghazi in time. But what’s more worrying is his account of being frozen out and then demoted when he questioned the flawed initial version of events.
Once again, we heard about how ferocious Mills, then Clinton’s chief of staff, was in getting out ahead of any trouble for her boss, angrily phoning Hicks about why he’d met with a congressional Republican without a State Department lawyer present.
That Hicks had been ordered not to meet with a dreaded Republican is outrageous on its face.
Now as in the nineties, of course, Clinton’s stalwarts say this whole inquiry is nothing but a partisan exercise — and one that, at this point, is intended to take out the most promising presidential prospect the Democrats have for 2016.
But that politics are at play — of course they are — doesn’t mean critics might not have a point or two.
Yes, there were Americans killed in attacks on our embassies while George W. Bush was president, too, and as Republicans now ask of Democrats: Where was the outrage? Some of those who are irate over Benghazi didn’t even want an investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and didn’t want Clinton’s predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, to testify.
But that does not mean it’s okay to punish a Foreign Service officer for daring to meet with a congressional Republican investigating the attack. (Administration officials say Hicks sought the desk job that he describes as a demotion.) While both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations were known to have marginalized and pushed out those who questioned groupthink, that’s no way to run a government.
I could see this helping Hillary Clinton politically if her critics, who in the past have overplayed their hand, don’t get a grip. But there is clear political danger here for her, which this week’s testimony suggests was evident to Team Hillary from Day One.
Her political adversaries are certainly ready to spring into action as if the years they spent comparing her favorably to Obama never happened. But it’s as much a disservice to Stevens’s memory to see some of Clinton’s defenders dismiss all questions about the attack as it is to see the opposition politicizing them.
And if there’s really nothing to hide, even some belated transparency would help Clinton put the less savory aspects of the ’90s behind her for good.
Henneberger is a Post politics writer and She the People anchor who is spending this semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.