'Brilliant People Get Away With a Lot in Clinton World'

If voters ever elect Hillary president, America will get a team of longtime Clinton loyalists too. And that may be a bad thing.
hillary clinton full full.jpg
Reuters

The article on the Clinton Foundation the New York Times published today is a reminder of what you inevitably get with Bill and Hillary Clinton: tremendous smarts, drive, ambition ... and a lot of baggage.

"For all of its successes, the Clinton Foundation had become a sprawling concern, supervised by a rotating board of old Clinton hands, vulnerable to distraction and threatened by conflicts of interest," Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick report. "It ran multimillion-dollar deficits for several years, despite vast amounts of money flowing in. And concern was rising inside and outside the organization about Douglas J. Band, a onetime personal assistant to Mr. Clinton who had started a lucrative corporate consulting firm -- which Mr. Clinton joined as a paid adviser -- while overseeing the Clinton Global Initiative, the foundation's glitzy annual gathering."

Why does this matter?

The success or failure of such a high-profile charity is significant in itself. The Clinton Foundation has done a lot of good, and has the potential to do more, and more efficiently, for many decades to come. I hope the impressive Chelsea Clinton's rise inside it turns out as well as I imagine it will. Even without her family advantages, she'd be qualified to advance such an enterprise, while her status as Bill and Hillary's daughter makes her uniquely able to escape both the need to be vetted for loyalty and the temptation to focus on ingratiating herself to the namesakes. She brings competence without those complications.

But the article is also a look inside the world that Hillary Clinton inhabits as she prepares for a presumed 2016 White House run. If elected, could Hillary bring competence without complications?

Almost certainly not. What the profile of the Clinton Foundation clarified is that Hillary Clinton would enter the White House with all the complications of a two-term president -- at the end of her eight years. Ponder the trajectory of recent two-termers: early popularity, signature achievements, scandals, and fatigued voters ready to see them go. Plus a whole universe of orbiting loyalists with long memories. 

As first lady, Hillary Clinton went through it all. It's especially easy to see why she would now place a high value on loyalty. But is it healthy for a new president to be so surrounded by battle-hardened loyalists? Would the surfeit of loyalists she's accumulated displace the hiring of staffers who would bring needed outside perspectives and also the newbie's focus on advancing the country rather than Team Hillary?

She'd also enter the White House knowing how to manipulate the levers of power. Experience was part of the case she made for herself in 2008, and after Foggy Bottom, she has even more of it. In many ways, that's a good thing, but one needn't look very far back to see its dark side. Dick Cheney's familiarity with the levers of power enabled him to sneakily exercise too much of it. The problem wasn't just that he was vice president. Long experience taught him how to aggregate maximum power in the executive branch. Is that the sort of vice that would temp Hillary Clinton?

I rather think so.

The best line in the Times article quotes an unnamed acquaintance of Bill Clinton, who captured the Clinton family's past and present: "Brilliant people get away with a lot in Clinton world." 

Agree or disagree with her politics, Hillary Clinton has a brilliant mind. So should Americans overlook her flaws? Should they make peace with the inevitability that she'd surround herself with "a rotating board of old Clinton hands, vulnerable to distraction and threatened by conflicts of interest"? And that many of them would know, even better than the average Washington insider, how to manipulate the system in order to maximize their own status, measured in money and power? It's been a problem at the Clinton Foundation. Would it plague a Clinton White House?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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