Hillary Clinton answered a handful of questions from reporters today in Iowa -- after a mere 40,000 minute wait! What's drawing the most attention are her answers on Iraq (she regrets her Senate vote for the use of force) and the release of e-mails she sent as secretary of state (she wants the State Department to make them public ASAP).
But, the most revealing thing she said wasn't about either of those topics. It came when she was asked about the New York Times story about Clinton's ongoing ties with longtime friend Sidney Blumenthal -- and memos he sent to her regarding Libya while she was serving as the nation's top diplomat.
Here's Clinton's full response -- courtesy of WaPo's Bob Costa who was on the ground in Iowa with her:
I have many, many old friends, and I always think that it's important when you get into politics to have friends you had before you got into politics, to understand what's on their minds. He's been a friend of mine for a long time. He's sent me unsolicited e-mails, which I passed on in some instances. I see that as part of the give and take. When you're in the public eye, when you're in an official position, I think you do have to work to ensure that you're not caught in a bubble. I hear from a certain small group of people and I'm going to continue to talk to my old friends, whoever they are.
That answer reminds of a similar answer that Georgetown hoops great Allen Iverson used to give to reporters when they asked him why he refused to break ties with some of his longtime friends who, in the minds of some, brought an unsavory element to the NBA and clouded Iverson's ability to focus on being the best basketball player he could be. Iverson's response was, and I am paraphrasing here: These people were my friends before I got famous, and they'll be my friends after I stop playing basketball. They are my true friends. I don't care what any of you think about me or them.
Okay. I wasn't sure -- and still am not sure -- that that was the right answer for Iverson. But I am absolutely certain it's not the right answer for Clinton.
Iverson didn't need anyone to elect him to anything to be successful in his chosen profession. So, the opinions of others could cost him money, potentially, but couldn't fundamentally impact his playing career. That's the exact opposite of the situation Clinton finds herself in. How she -- and the people she surrounds herself with -- are perceived matters in a very real way to her future career prospects.
So, jettisoning "old friends" who keep getting the Clintons into hairy territory perception-wise would seems to make all the sense in the world. And yet her response, when questioned about Blumenthal's role as a sort of ad hoc adviser on Libya, is basically: Hey I've known this guy for a long time, so I'm not going to say anything bad about him.
Her loyalty is, I guess, admirable at some level, but remember that Hillary is not running to be voted "most loyal friend." She is running to be elected president. And, if that is truly her goal, then the politically savvy thing to have done would be to distance herself from Blumenthal (and his ilk) a long time ago and -- if she chose not to do that -- to make very clear when asked about his unofficial role in her orbit to downplay it like crazy.
Why didn't Clinton do either of those things? Who knows. But, the Clintons' past does provide some evidence that when it comes to friends and politics, they prize loyalty over all else.
When Bill got elected president in 1992, there were a number of people in the Clintons' Arkansas orbit who national Democrats assumed would be jettisoned when the duo came to Washington. Except they weren't. Perhaps the best known of this group is Webb Hubbell, a law partner of Hillary's and close confidante of the Clintons who was named associate attorney general by Bill Clinton. Less than two years later, Hubbell pled guilty to overbilling clients at the law firm ands spent several years in prison. And now, according to this Daily Beast story from 2014, Webb Hubbell is back in the Clinton orbit, although, admittedly, far from its center.
Hubbell's story may be the best known but it is far from the only example of the Clintons' willingness to overlook mistakes in service of the all-important trait of loyalty. If you stand by the Clintons no matter what, they will almost never abandon you. (The converse is that if you are perceived as having betrayed them, they will never forgive you.) Again, admirable, perhaps, in a friend. But far less admirable -- or wise -- when running for office.
That goes double or even triple when the knock on you as a candidate is that you have too much baggage to be elected. As I have said before in this space, Hillary Clinton's greatest gift in the 2016 race is that she's Hillary Clinton. Her biggest weakness is also that she's Hillary Clinton.
Being someone who has lived in the national spotlight for decades means Clinton is totally known by the electorate and generally regarded as capable of doing the job she is running for. That's the good side. The bad side is that Clinton's name also brings with it lots of memories that people -- even those who like she and her husband -- would rather forget. The entire Monica Lewinsky scandal is at the top of that list but the cronyism of the Blumenthals and Hubbells of the world isn't far behind.
Given that, any storyline that makes the average voter think "Electing Hillary means bringing back all of these people?!?" is a bad one for her chances.
Clinton would do well to remember William Faulkner's great line from "Requiem for a Nun": "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Getting distance from some of the dead weight from her past -- rather than defending them as her only real friends -- is the politically smart thing to do. But, when it comes to loyalty and friendship, the Clintons have always had a blind spot.