Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is departing from the State Department on her own terms and with a formidable legacy intact. Given that Clinton, no matter what she decides about 2016, will undoubtedly remain an influential figure in American public life for years to come, one might have expected her long-time detractors, who have been trying for more than 20 years to trip her up, to land some solid blows to her widely admired reputation for leadership on the global stage. Instead, we've been treated to salvos that were silly, at best; and on the one potentially serious issue raised, the Fox News-initiated and Mitt Romney-fortified Benghazi craze, all the attacks fell flat.
The Fake Concussion
The first attempt to tarnish Clinton as she prepared to leave office got started when news broke of her concussion in mid-December and a potentially life-threatening blood clot later that month. The usual suspects quickly tied the news to the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya to suggest Clinton was fabricating all of it to avoid testifying on the tragedy. Bill O'Reilly said of her concussion, "If she was in the NFL I wouldn't let her play, but I think she can make a phone call." Fox's Laura Ingraham told the host that conservatives were now calling Clinton's condition as "the immaculate concussion." Their colleagues Charles Krauthammer and Kimberly Guilfoyle accused her of having a "severe Benghazi allergy" and pulling a "duck and cover." John Bolton jumped on the bandwagon, suggesting this was a fake "diplomatic illness."
Their unhinged use of Clinton's health as a political weapon quickly drew fire from their own ranks and beyond (imagine, their speculation was too much even for some of their own counterparts at Fox). Things got more embarrassing when the State Department not only challenged these false claims with the facts but also scolded a Fox producer for falsely suggesting ulterior motives were involved in Clinton's sick leave. Of course, the Big Lie was laid bare in due time, as all the world saw Clinton's doctors quoted on the record on her condition; Clinton, flanked by her family, leaving New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City; and Clinton wearing special glasses for medical reasons in her Congressional testimony last week. In short, no sane person could believe the illness was fabricated.
The instant Clinton choked up during the Senate hearing as she reflected on the four lives lost in the Benghazi attack -- "For me, this is not just a matter of policy, it's personal. I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews," she said -- the right-wing was again on the case. Rush Limbaugh without hesitation called the moment "part of the script." Fox jumped in with Ingraham suggesting she was "lip-synching crying" and Sean Hannity arguing the whole thing was "staged, probably at the direction of" James Carville.
The baseless speculation of the Right-Wing Noise Machine clearly emboldened Senate Republicans' post-hearing line that Clinton was using all the diversion tactics she could muster to dodge key questions. Most notably, moments after the hearing, Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, himself the master of feigned outrage in the hearing, went on the air to claim that Clinton's show of emotion in response to the deaths of four Americans was "her trump card to get out of the questions." A day later he turned tail, recanting what he said on CNN, and admitting that he "probably speculated and I shouldn't have." At the end of the day, in a desperate effort to deny Clinton her humanity, her enemies looked like fools.
These two smears were tied to the Right's months-long and now widely discredited politicization of Benghazi. With a candidate for the White House who couldn't hold his own in foreign-policy debates, they sought to turn the Sept. 11th tragedy into a mega-scandal to win the upper hand. Romney and his allies outsourced much of the work to Fox News and right-wing media - and a seemingly impenetrable wall of noise and falsehoods was formed to attack the administration. With Obama re-elected and no longer standing for office, the Right came gunning for Secretary Clinton - whose political career may not be over.
Not surprisingly, Fox's top-line arguments made it into several of the questions and statements Republican lawmakers shamelessly asked Clinton, but she demolished each one. Shetorpedoed the lie that State Department officials negligently watched video of the assault in "real time" here in DC -- as she said, "there was no monitor, there was no real time." She put to rest Fox's bogus narrative that she and the President justified the attack the day after - "I want to be clear that of course it was a terrorist attack. The very next day I called it an attack by heavily armed militants on our compound," she said. And she drowned out the false accusation that the administration intentionally misidentified the source of the violence saying, "With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans...What difference at this point does it make?"
The reviews came rolling in. Typical was Eugene Robinson's in the Washington Post. He wrote, "Clinton's smooth and confident performance at Wednesday's Senate and House committee hearings was fun to watch. When her would-be inquisitors asked serious questions, she gave serious answers." Joan Walsh also noted her strong performance, writing "Three weeks after her release from a New York hospital with a blood clot on the brain ... Clinton stood up to the raging bulls with grace and fire of her own."
When all was said and done, Clinton had the last word, telling ABC News, "When someone tries to put it into a partisan lens, when they focus, not on the fact that we have such a terrible event happening with four dead Americans but instead what did somebody say on a Sunday morning talk show, that to me is not in keeping with the seriousness of the issue and the obligation we all have as public servants."