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Clinton in the Wilderness

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It was nice of Hillary Clinton to issue, as all the candidates did, a statement about Passover, the Jewish holiday of the season. Clinton said she was "deeply moved" by its message of freedom and human dignity, but she should have plowed on past Exodus and into Numbers and Deuteronomy. It is there that she can find a lesson for herself -- how Moses, after all he had done, was not allowed to step foot in "the good land that is beyond the Jordan." For Moses, that was Israel. For Clinton, it's the White House.

The story of Moses is one of the most poignant in the Bible. It shows God at his most adamant and petulant, refusing to forgive Moses for his own anger and vanity when he disobeyed the Almighty. So at the age of 120, after 40 years in the wilderness, after the Red Sea and all of that, Moses died before reaching his goal -- and it was, never mind the literal truth, a lesson to us all. Even for a Moses, some actions are irrevocable.

It is the same with Clinton. It is hard to think of anyone who has worked longer or sacrificed more for the presidency. She is indomitable, steadfast, gutsy and all those other things we know -- smart, for instance. She also can be, in private and sometimes in public, charming and awfully good company. Her wilderness -- that mess about Monica, a pain so exquisite even John Yoo (George W. Bush's former torture consultant) would have winced -- would seem to entitle her to some sort of reward, a happy ending for her if not for us.

But she has gone too far -- too much disturbing stuff, some of it shocking in its coarseness. For instance, she added the coy "as far as I know" to her "60 Minutes" statement that Obama is not a Muslim. More important, she offered a weak and disingenuous defense of her Senate vote in support of going to war in Iraq. But more recently came her stunning Moses Moment, that polygraph buster about being under sniper fire in Bosnia. It was a defining time in her campaign, not because she exaggerated or lied -- call it what you want -- but because the statement was hurled into a gale of contrary evidence, including eyewitnesses and video: a serene welcoming ceremony, complete with the requisite young girl bestowing the requisite gift. No snipers. No avoiding the obvious, either: Sometimes Hillary Clinton just can't help herself.

The story was nuts -- and Clinton herself has been at a loss to explain it. But for many voters, it encapsulated their suspicion, their anxiety, their hesitation about Clinton: She lies. The consequences for her were ruinous. In a Post-ABC News poll, only 39 percent of voters said they consider Clinton honest and trustworthy. This is a damning indictment.

The Financial Times last week billboarded an opinion column "Bush's worst legacy" and wondered whether it was Iraq or fiscal policy. The menu of choices in this case is so vast as to induce vertigo, but let me suggest that Bush's "worst legacy" is what he has done to whatever trust Americans still had in their government. This administration's incessant lying, its secrecy -- its creepy Cheneyism with its petty justifications for torture and violation of privacy -- is its worst legacy, one that will endure long after Wal-Mart opens a branch in Sadr City. Only an idiot would trust this government.

And so it will be the job, the obligation, the solemn task of the next president to restore that trust. John McCain could do it. He's an honorable man who has fudged and ducked and swallowed the truth on occasion -- about the acceptability of the Confederate flag, for instance -- but always, I think, for understandable although not necessarily admirable reasons. Barack Obama could do it. We are learning that he, too, can do the F's -- fudge, fib or forget. I don't believe him on the Second Amendment -- and he says one thing on NAFTA in Ohio and a campaign adviser whispers another to Canada by way of reassurance. But these are minor matters, the "You look beautiful tonight, dear" fibs of marriage that have their functional equivalent in politics. They are necessary. They lubricate life itself.

But with Clinton, it's a different story. She planted her foot in the unforgiving pitch of self-caricature. Now, about 60 percent of the electorate doubts her honesty. The image has hardened. She wants to become president so badly that she has made the goal more important than how she gets there -- and now she has rendered herself incapable of doing an essential part of the job. Her plight is virtually biblical. Her own Jordan is too wide to cross.

cohenr@washpost.com


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