It's Not About the Emails

03/12/2015 07:00 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015
Yana Paskova via Getty Images

After days of silence, prospective presidential candidate Hillary Clinton held a press conference to address her decision to use a private email account while secretary of state. She tried to put the controversy to rest by saying that she did this for convenience -- having one account for both business and private emails was just easier than having a separate account (and device) for both. She said that all of her business emails have now been turned over to the government and that her private emails, covering such topics as her daughter's wedding and her yoga classes, were deleted. What she missed seeing -- and saying -- is that this issue is not primarily about emails.

She is not alone. Her critics, mostly Republicans intent on derailing her bid for the presidency, have gone on a partisan, holier-than-thou, rampage insisting that she broke precedent (if not the law) for government officials. They are demanding the deleted emails and accusing her of destroying emails that demonstrate her failures as secretary of state, especially the Benghazi terrorist attack. They, as she, seem to think the core issue is the emails.

To the contrary, the real issue is about ethics and character, both much more essential in a secretary of state -- and president -- than how they handle emails.

The ethical failure came when Secretary Clinton first confronted the question of how she would use email. What she should have seen was that this was not a purely technical or convenience issue but an ethical one. Had she seen that, she would have understood that her decision involved a conflict in values. How should she, for example, balance convenience with transparency? How should she balance her individual desire for privacy and control of her emails with the public's desire for access and a full historical record? How should she manage the trade-off between the short-term benefits of using her own server with the long-term costs of the questions that might raise, especially were she to delete emails before turning them over to the government? If she saw these value conflicts, we could credit her with ethical thinking. But the statements in her press conference provide no evidence of that, and the failure to spot an ethics issue, much less think ethically, is a danger in a potential president.

The character failure came from what she did not say at her press conference. She did not acknowledge that the public has questions about her truthfulness. What she did not say is something like this: "I understand the public's concern that my use of a private email account raises questions about my integrity. I understand that some believe I have something to hide and that their trust in me is now subject to question. Integrity and trustworthiness are essential traits in a public official. I regret that I have brought them into question as regards my service as secretary of state. I will do all I can to permit the government to retrieve the private emails that I deleted. I will also conduct myself, in any future public position, with much greater awareness of concerns about my character. I hope the public will judge me on the full record of my public service, in which I have always strived to earn and reward their trust. At the same time, I have learned from this episode, and I agree with President Coolidge, who said long ago, that 'character is the only secure foundation of the state.'"

Would such a statement have quieted the controversy? No, if for no other reason than that Republicans would press the attack no matter what she said But what such a statement would have done is show that she understood the importance of ethics and character in public life. What such a statement would have done is shift the discussion from emails to ethics, from the content of the missing emails to the content of a candidate's character. That shift would put the ethics and character of Republican opponents into play as well, giving her the freedom and legitimacy to question their ethics and character. They, as much as she, have things to answer for in that regard. And this would be healthy for all candidates, for the coming presidential election, and thus for all of us.