Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifying on the Benghazi attack before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January. Seated behind her, in the blue pashmina, is her longtime aide Cheryl Mills. (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

At first, I thought this week’s Congressional hearing on the deadly attack in Benghazi last September 11th was giving me a sense of déjà vu only because it was our ninth such session on the night Ambassador Chris 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 both the questions and the answers was quite a specific one — the 90s, by name. Once again, Republicans smelled blood. But also once again, we were hearing about a give-no-quarter response from Hillary Clinton that seemed to have created more problems than it solved.

In the 90s, it was First Lady Hillary 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 like 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, both her legal training and her personal impulse was 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 Benghazi hearing, 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 terror attack. (The answer we heard Wednesday was that since that explanation contradicted the Libyan president, it embarrassed him with his people and 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 her president 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 really has learned the management lessons of her time in the White House. Perfectly 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 testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. (Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

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 Ambassador Stevens on the evening he lost his life. “Greg, we’re under attack,” he heard his colleague say, and then the line went dead.

Hicks testified that it was immediately clear to him that this was no spontaneous protest but a planned terror attack. His calls for help that never came were heartbreaking but potentially 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 administration’s flawed initial version of events.

Cheryl Mills (photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

Once again, we heard about how ferocious Cheryl Mills 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 90s, of course, Clinton stalwarts see this whole inquiry as a purely partisan exercise — and one that, at this point, is intended to take out the most promising presidential prospect the Democrats have for ’16.

But that politics are at play — and 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 in office, 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 9/11, and didn’t think Hillary Clinton’s predecessor, Condi Rice, should testify.

But that does not mean it’s OK to punish a foreign service officer for daring to meet with a Congressional Republican investigating the attack. (Administration officials counter that Hicks was not punished, and sought the desk job he characterizes as a demotion.) While both the Clinton and Bush administrations were known to have marginalized and pushed out those who questioned group think, that’s no way to run a government.

I could actually see this helping 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, too, which this week’s testimony suggests was evident to Team Hillary from Day One.

Her political adversaries are indeed ready to spring back into action as if the years they spent comparing her favorably to Barack Obama never happened. But it’s as much a disservice to Stevens’ memory to see some of her defenders dismissing all questions about the attack as it is to see some of her detractors politicizing them.

And if there’s nothing to hide, then even some belated transparency would help Clinton put the less savory aspects of the 90s behind her for good.

Clarification: In response to administration claims that Gregory Hicks voluntarily sought the job he currently has in the State Department, Hicks’s attorney Victoria Toensing said that “Mr. Hicks had a choice between no work and the job he has, which has no meaningful work.”


Melinda Henneberger
Melinda 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.