The circus is back in town.
Hillary Rodham Clinton has not yet even announced that she is running for president, but the spectacle of the Clinton White House years is unfolding again, touched off by the controversy over her practice of using a private e-mail account, rather than an official one, while she was secretary of state.
Her defense, which was simply that it was more convenient to do it that way, is unlikely to satisfy her critics or stop the questions.
Clinton’s campaign-in-waiting had long planned for Tuesday to be an intentional echo of one of her most inspirational moments — a commemoration at the United Nations of the 20th anniversary of a speech that Clinton delivered at a conference in Beijing.
It was there that the then-first lady had declared that “it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights” and began to lay out the premise that would be the hallmark of her tenure as a 21st-century secretary of state.
But Tuesday ended up feeling more like a throwback to the darker side of 1990s politics, when — with just two hours to spare before her U.N. address — Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill announced that Clinton would hold a “brief press conference” after her speech.
It has been a week since news broke about Clinton’s use of a personal e-mail account — a violation of White House guidelines at the time stipulating the use of government e-mail accounts.
Clinton had no such government account and did not turn over what she said was relevant material from her personal e-mail until nearly two years after she left the State Department.
Since that violation became public, the airwaves have been filled by a familiar cast of characters who have stirred uncomfortable memories, even as they have leapt to her defense.
“Do you remember Whitewater? Do you remember Filegate? Do you remember Travelgate? Do you remember Pardongate?” former Clinton strategist James Carville asked Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC.
For viewers old enough to remember, the details of those scandals and pseudo-scandals may be hazy, but the impression lingers of a presidency that ran as a perpetual war room. Indeed, that was one of the reasons that Clinton lost in 2008, the first time she ran for president, to a younger, fresher figure who offered a chance to turn the page.
Nor was Carville the only figure having a back-to-the-future moment on cable as a result of the latest controversy.
On Fox News Sunday, former Clinton White House lawyer Lanny Davis attempted a clumsy, legalistic rationale on her behalf, only to be asked by moderator Chris Wallace, “Do you ever get tired of cleaning up after the Clintons?”
On CNN, designated wise man David Gergen — who had been brought into the Clinton White House in 1993 to help its image — ruminated that Hillary Clinton had been “badly damaged” because she was reminding voters of “some of the worst aspects of the 1990s.”
Clinton’s tenure as President Obama’s secretary of state gave her a chance to reset her image. But the questions surrounding her e-mail account revive the impression that she has a penchant for secrecy. Meanwhile, the finances of the foundation that she runs with her husband and daughter, Chelsea, have also raised issues of transparency and forthrightness.
Part of the problem is that Clinton has yet to officially announce that she is running for president, much less put together the kind of rapid-response operation for which the Clintons have been known. When Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, Carville famously wore a T-shirt emblazoned, “Speed kills.”
That her team picked the high-security U.N. headquarters as a venue for her news conference only heightened the spectacle by sending journalists to scramble for credentials that generally take days to arrange.
The line wrapped around the block outside the cramped office, where a single staffer was handling the requests.
Republicans accused Clinton of manipulating access to her news conference.
“Hillary Clinton’s response to her e-mail scandal is already turning into another exercise in limiting transparency,” Michael Short, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. “She and her team had perhaps hundreds — if not thousands — of options for a venue for today’s press conference on her secret e-mail scandal, but Clinton instead chose one of the most difficult places for reporters to get access to: the U.N.”
Merrill labeled that line of argument “the RNC’s Malarkey Express” — a statement that, perhaps unintentionally, evoked Clinton’s 1998 contention that a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was at work against her husband.
Tuesday was not the first time Clinton had felt compelled to call a news conference to defend her ethics.
In 1994, questions swirled around the Clintons’ investment in a failed land venture known as Whitewater and the startling success Hillary Clinton had trading cattle futures. The first lady summoned reporters to the State Dining Room of the White House and spent more than an hour answering questions about her dealings.
Clinton said then that she had failed to appreciate the realities of public life.
“My sense of privacy . . . led me to perhaps be less understanding than I need to [be] of both the press and the public’s interest, as well as [their] right to know things about my husband and me,” she said. “I’ve always believed in a zone of privacy. And I told a friend the other day that I feel after resisting for a long time I’ve been rezoned.”
That line, she later wrote in her memoir, “made everyone laugh.”