Hillary Rodham Clinton is an ancient presidential candidate. Not age-wise. Attitude-wise.
Staggered by self-inflicted wounds, the former secretary of State faced a choice between the right way and wrong way to manage a public-relations crisis in the post-Internet era, when the 1990s tactics of deflection, deception, and victimization are far less effective. She chose the wrong way.
Rather than be transparent, completely honest, and accountable, Clinton doubled down on the 1990s. She refused to turn over her emails stored on a secret service in violation of federal regulations. She defended contributions to her family's charity from foreign nations that discriminate against women and support terrorism, a brazen contradiction to her public profile.
"I fully complied with every rule I was governed under," she said, a legalistic dodge that rivals Al Gore's lame defense of his fund-raising shenanigans in 1997: "There is no controlling legal authority."
She dodged legitimate accusations, parried accusations that were never in play, and coolly laid out a defense that you could boil down to five words: "Trust me, I'm a Clinton."
Unfortunately for Democrats, the Clinton crisis-management operation is a pay phone in an iPhone world, stuck on the stale side of Bill Clinton's famous bridge to the 21st century. She fired up the way-back machine to ensure that the controversy gathers steam and long legs.
Clinton had a four-point response:
1. She decided to use her personal email account for both work and private business as a matter of convenience. "Looking back," she said, "it would have been better had I simply used a separate account."
That was as close as Clinton got to contrition, and even this talking point was misplaced. Nobody questions her right to use a personal account for work-related matters. Nobody seeks to make truly private emails public. The issue is Clinton's clear violation of federal regulations requiring her to store official emails on government servers. For reasons she left unsaid, Clinton went rogue.
A home-brewed server gives her full control of government records. Theoretically, she can delete or withhold public documents without the public ever knowing.
2. The "vast majority" of her emails went to government authorities, which means they would be captured by people who (unlike her) followed federal rules. Clinton didn't put a number to "vast majority" or characterize what material was contained in the "minority" of emails lost. Presumably, though, they're on the server she won't cough up.
3. After she left the State Department, House Republicans investigating the Benghazi attack discovered that they had none of her emails and notified State. The agency asked all former secretaries of State to turn over their emails. With her cache secured on an off-the-books server, Clinton decided which ones to turn over: only 30,490 of 62,320 emails, according to her office. More than 31,000 were deleted! It is irrelevant that Clinton says the notes are private. Those are our emails, not hers. A government archivist, not a Clinton, is suppose to decide what is private and what is public.
4. She took the "unprecedented step of asking the State Department to make my work-related emails public for everyone to see." Gee, thanks. We can see the emails you want us to see?
The first question came from a Turkish reporter selected by Clinton's staff. Big surprise: He played the gender card for her, asking whether a man would face such protests. "I'll leave that to others," Clinton replied, happily feeding the phony narrative.
Her faux disclosure is akin to a divorced father losing custody of his four kids, kidnapping them, returning three, and patting himself on the back for turning over "the vast majority of my kids." He broke the law. Clinton broke the rules.
Clinton said she didn't delete any official emails, but won't turn over the server to prove it. She said she emailed no classified information (presumably even to her husband), but won't cough up the server to prove it. She said there were no security breaches, but won't produce the server to prove it.
Trust me, I'm a Clinton. This is part of a decades-old pattern: For all their strengths, Hillary and Bill Clinton have a weakness for victimization, entitlement, and their unbounded belief that the ends justify the means.
Rules are for little people, not them.
She had a choice—the right way or the wrong way, the new way or the old way. She chose to turn back the clock to the 1990s, when her husband's White House overcame its wrongdoing by denying the truth, blaming Republicans, and demonizing and bullying the media.
She unleashed the hounds of Whitewater. David Brock demanded a correction from The New York Times, which broke the email story. James Carville dismissed the charges as "right-wing talking points." A slightly less-worn henchman, Howard Dean, called one of my stories "trash." These retreads made Clinton look small.
In the 15 years since a Clinton sat in the Oval Office, the Internet overwhelmed the media "gatekeepers"—the few dozen priestly reporters and editors who determined what news, opinion, and gossip the public would hear about. Scandal-hardened Clinton aides worked the gatekeepers hard—lying, spinning, bullying, and deflecting attention to Republican reaction.
Today, there are 300 million people equipped to do their own reporting, writing, and publishing. You can't keep the truth from them. You can't bully them all or fool them all.
That is why transparency, authenticity, and accountability are sacred attributes of any modern leader. Whether you're running a church, a business, or a political party, leadership is now a no-B.S. zone.
I'm not saying this disqualifies Clinton. Republicans may nominate another weak candidate, and somebody has to be president.
I wish I could ask her: Why seek the job, Mrs. Clinton, if you can't reshape it? While you may be able to disqualify Democratic and GOP rivals with your tired tactics and stale strategies, the office you'll win will be a caretaker's. A discredited caretaker overseeing a political system that you helped make even less appealing to Americans, particularly young voters.
Is that what you want? I didn't think that's what you were about.
I've known both Clintons since mid-1980s, when I covered the state legislature for the Arkansas Democrat (now Democrat-Gazette) and the Associated Press. I admire their intelligence and passion and empathy. They've been good to my family. I've actually long thought that she has the potential to be a better president than he was.
Today I wonder if she's even up to the job.
March 10: "Hillary's Choice"
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.