Thinking back over Barack Obama’s tenure as it winds down, trying to ponder his future legacy, I’ve returned in my mind many times to one impressive but always overlooked fact. In seven and a half years, there hasn’t been a single big scandal that’s engulfed his administration.
Now I know that sentence is a real knee-slapper to conservatives, some of whom swear that the only reason Eric Holder and Obama aren’t wearing jumpsuits is the existence of the liberal media. But for the rest of us, the explanation is simpler. It seems to have been—as these things go in 21st-century America—a surprisingly clean administration. No special prosecutors. No arms-for-hostage deals. A few distressing flares shot out of the penumbras of the executive branch—the VA, most notably. But there’s been nothing directly involving the White House, and it’s been a great relief.
So you’ll forgive me if my thoughts drifted even more strongly in this direction as I watched Obama and Hillary Clinton share a stage for the first time this campaign Monday afternoon in North Carolina, when Obama came out swinging hard in her behalf. Let’s say Clinton wins, and let’s say she manages to serve out two terms. What are the odds that in July 2024, if God and fate still permit me to be doing this kind of work, I’ll be able to write the first paragraph of this column about a Clinton administration?
My track record as a critic of the Clintons’ attackers goes back two decades now. I have researched a lot of these things deeply, and I came to conclude—after initially believing the hype about Whitewater—that most of the bombs lobbed at the Clintons were duds. Whitewater was that. The Clintons lost money and concealed nothing. The attempts to paint her in particular as corrupt have always been, to me, chiefly ideological. That is, conservatives hated what she represented from day one—a bossypants feminist who showed open contempt for more traditional models of womanhood—and they wanted to get her. One way to get her was to carry on about how radical she was. But that didn’t really sell outside conservative circles, so they had try another route: to prove that she was corrupt.
However: To say all that is by no means to say that she, and he, never do anything wrong. They do. And as FBI Director James Comey made clear Monday morning, she did plenty wrong in her emailing habits. It was obvious that Comey wanted to communicate that very clearly.
You’ve already read by now the summaries of what Comey said, so we don’t need to go back over that here. I think that politically, the “extremely careless” bit and the 110 emails that Comey says were classified at the time will be liabilities. But I also don’t know that this moves that many votes—those who think she shouldn’t set foot in the Oval Office because she’s untrustworthy thought that before Comey spoke. And she sure is lucky to be running against a racist con artist who wants convicted murders to speak at his convention.
But as a longtime Clinton watcher and (usually) defender, I hope to God she takes a key lesson away from this.
She used the private server in the first place because she didn’t want her personal emails to be available to right-wing groups like Judicial Watch that have hounded her all her Washington life. And look at what happened—Judicial Watch got them anyway, and helped kick up a scandal to boot. Learn from this, Hillary. Judicial Watch and others will always be after you. It will never end. You can’t win this, and you can’t make any more ethically corner-cutting decisions with stiff-arming Judicial Watch in mind. When you’re president, those decisions will be grounds, fairly or not, for impeachment proceedings.
I also would love to see, though I know we never will, a Clinton press conference later this week where she stands up and says: “You know, I did wrong here, and I apologize. Believe me, I’ve learned a lesson from this, and it is X. And when I’m president, rest assured I’m just not going to use email, okay? Just won’t use it. And Bill might, but he’ll email in exactly the way the law demands. And, by the way, I think Bill was wrong to call on Attorney General Lynch in the way that he did and have told him so. That won’t be happening in my administration, either. Things are going to be different.”
Over the years, when these Clinton dust-ups have happened, I’ve said to her people some version of the above. Why not just have her say publicly that this was a mistake, she’s truly sorry, and she’ll work to see that it doesn’t happen again? And it has been explained to me that, well, she doesn’t have the emotional ability to do that; that she thinks it shows weakness; that it just hands her opponents and the media more material; whatever.
And all those things are true. She’d take a murderous pummeling for three days. And you know what? Then, those three days would end, and after that, whenever questions arose again, she could say I addressed that, I know I was wrong, and I laid out how I’m going to behave differently in the future.
This is the only way I can see for her to do anything about her lousy trust numbers. Admit error and promise to try harder. She worries far too much about how such an admission will be heard inside the Beltway, when she ought to give more thought to how it will be heard outside of it.
So there she stood on Monday afternoon in the Charlotte convention center with the president who’s run the least scandal-plagued administration in 40 years, in what was supposed to be a triumphant moment that was instead tarnished by the oxygen-stealing Comey announcement (I can’t help but wonder if Comey, a Republican, timed it like that). “I’m here today because I believe in Hillary Clinton,” Obama told the raucous crowd, for whom the whole Comey exercise might as well have never happened.
He’s had a “front-row seat to her judgment,” Obama said at one point. He called her a “great secretary of state.” And: “I saw how she won’t quit.” And: “There has never been a man or woman more qualified for this office than Hillary Clinton. Never. And that’s the truth!” And that’s when he officially endorsed her, at 4:03 pm.
So now she has that, and no sword of indictment dangling over her head. In a few days, Trump will say something intolerable—or, if they’re on their game, the Clinton oppo people will dump some of their research into some willing media hands—and we’ll be talking about something else. This email issue won’t go away, but barring new revelations, I don’t think it will be decisive over the next four months.
The next four, or eight, years, however, are another matter, unless Hillary—and Bill—finally acknowledge two things.
One, that preemptively taking all possible steps to avoid future trouble is not capitulation to enemies; it’s just smart self-preservation. And two, in the event of a lapse, contrition isn’t weakness; it’s strength, and it’s by far the politically smarter play than stonewalling, which Clinton did at the beginning of this scandal.
I hope on Air Force One, Obama talked with her about some of these things, and I hope she listened.