Hillary Clinton’s email problem brings to mind Richard Nixon’s problems four decades ago. No one doubted Nixon’s intellect, or even his ability. But there were always lingering questions about his character. His attacks on his opponents in his earliest campaigns, his involvement in the “Red Scare” of the late 40s and early 50s, questions about financial gifts when running for Vice-President, his petty attacks on the press when losing the 1962 race for California governor, all led to the moniker of “Tricky Dick.”
Despite being reelected as president in 1972 with a whopping 61% of the popular vote, he left office disgraced two years later when the Watergate cover-up was one incident too many for the American people.
The Clintons (whether fair or not, the two are inextricably linked) have a similar problem. Both are unusually intelligent and capable people. Many of Bill’s problems were related to personal peccadilloes, but he often was too careful in parsing his words to avoid revealing the truth (“it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” he famously said in a deposition) or even lying (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”). His line that he “didn’t inhale” his marijuana smoke, even if true, was a too-cautious way of trying to escape judgment from others.
Hillary herself has often made statements that seemed designed to obfuscate, even if true. When asked in 1994 about the lack of records pertaining to their Whitewater investments, she responded “shoulda, coulda, woulda … we didn’t,” and she resurrected these words at a congressional hearing about the Benghazi incident during her time as Secretary of State. In both cases, her explanations were plausible, but nevertheless unrevealing.
One cannot help but wonder the degree to which the Clintons’ history of trying to control the stories told about them have made this a bigger deal than it really is. After all, if she had used a State Department email account, as was stated policy, there would be no way of knowing if she was also conducting official business on her private email and failing to turn it over. Public officials are allowed to use private email, but must turn over any official business. How do we know for certain that they do? We don’t, of course, except that we have to rely on their word for it.
In this case, we are also asked to give the benefit of the doubt, but in reverse. Here, everything was conducted on a private account, and we are asked to take her word that she turned over all the official business. If there wasn’t such a long history of the Clintons trying to control any revelations about them, this incident would likely be a fairly minor story.
Will this incident ruin her chances for a run for the presidency? Probably not. Nor is this the sort of lapse in judgment that would effectively disqualify her. But she should take the Nixon story to heart. She might one day be elected to the presidency and even prove to be competent in that role. But a persistent penchant for secrecy and control of information threatens to undermine her relationship with the American people.