Diane Sawyer is deservedly receiving kudos for her news-making interview with Hillary Clinton. In one interview she obtained more revealing information about Clinton’s values and mind-set than we’ve gotten in literally decades of questioning. For other interviewers and for Clinton’s Republican opponents-in-waiting, there are lessons to be learned:
1. Stop obsessing on what Clinton said; focus on what she did. The Benghazi talking points memo has been plowed and re-plowed, but Clinton’s own culpability in the security failures and her management style more generally at the State Department have not. The latter goes to the heart of her legacy and her qualifications as president. She talks a good game about “inputs” — meetings held, countries visited and orders given — but is easily flummoxed when pressed to talk about what outcomes she achieved. Questions about her failure to speak out against the president or secretary of state are among the most useless. Who cares? (She is a loyal Democrat. Hardly news.) What matters is the policies she followed and favors.
2. Clinton’s image as a protector of the needy, especially women and children, is overblown. Getting at her fixation with wealth (a fault line that runs back to the Whitewater and cattle futures scandals) puts a dent in that image of selfless protector of the weak. Worth pursuing is her record on human rights. She gave some lovely speeches from time to time. But her reticence on the Green Revolution, dismissiveness of human rights as a front-burner issue with China and opposition to the Magnitsky Act (until its passage was inevitable) don’t reflect well on her concern for the oppressed. Likewise, her recent thumbs-up for the freed Pussy Riot rock band members smacks of opportunism; she did virtually nothing for human rights in Russia when she had the chance. As Sawyer did in honing in on specifics, asking what she personally did for women and children and whether the status of women in China, Russia, the Arab World and Afghanistan improved when she was secretary of state would be revealing. By the way, other than the Foundation (funded by rich people and powerful entities), what charities does she give to and in what amounts? Does she match Mitt Romney’s generosity?
3. What policy ideas has she had, and what plans for the future does she have? What came through in the interview is that Clinton has become a political celebrity by being in or close to power, not by dent of creative policy or bold initiatives. She has talked about her role in passing the baton to future secretaries of state, as if that is an accomplishment. She insisted that presidents don’t have grand doctrines these days. So what exactly does she bring to public service and to a future presidency other than her own celebrity? What was her policy for the Arab Spring? (Silence. Birds chirping.) If the Middle East “peace process” was a dead end, what does she think is the role of the United States in the region?
4. A delegator, not a leader. President Obama pleads that he was in the dark on numerous scandals (e.g. the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Veterans Affairs) and learned about these things in the press. In the case of Benghazi, he insists that he ordered his staff to protect our people; he then appears to have taken himself out of the loop on the night of the attack. Being a hands-off leader and blaming underlings aren’t working out so well for him, and Clinton’s assertion that ordering people to keep Benghazi secure likewise rings hollow. Insisting that barking bland orders is akin to proper management won’t be received well by voters who see the perils of a president who practices plausible deniability on a daily basis. Pressing Clinton on what she did to ensure that objectives were followed, what she did to ensure that key information flowed to her and whether all that travel really accomplished anything goes to a weak point for her — basic managerial competence.
5. What about all that money? Clinton got in plenty of hot water suggesting that she and her husband were struggling, at one point claiming that she was $12 million in debt, and that she’s been obliged to scrounge up speaking gigs (for $200,000 or more a pop). The interview reminds us that the Clintons have an arm’s-length relationship with financial propriety. Will Clinton reveal a list of all her speaking engagements, all the Clinton Foundation donors and an explanation for the debt they managed to ring up? Unlike Mitt Romney, for whom we knew how he earned his money, the Clintons’ financial backers and generous friends remain a bit of a mystery. There is no excuse not to bear all, and reporters should ask her some basics (e.g. did foreign governments or entities owned by foreign governments contribute to the Foundation) and probe how forthcoming she will be if she runs.
6. Don’t let up. Sawyer did what few congressional committee members, reporters and debate opponents do — stick with a subject, listen to the answer and press her for responsive and complete answers. This seems rudimentary, but in fact, it’s rarely done. Clinton is so used to evading the question and giving flim-flam answers that a genuinely tough inquisitor throws her back on her heels. A persistent and prepared interrogator makes news and serves the public well.