Clinton Time Capsule #1: Lessons Learned?

FBI director James Comey appearing before Congress last month. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This is an item I wrote last night but was too busy to look over and check this morning, so I didn’t post it. Then I was in meetings all day. I’m posting it now with a new first paragraph in the wake of today’s announcement from FBI director James Comey about “re-opening” the email investigation into Hillary Clinton. Otherwise I think the main point still stands.

New intro: Are these extra emails that James Comey has found likely to contain a criminal or national-security bombshell that was not in the thousands of emails the FBI has already reviewed? Anything is possible, but my guess is no. Is this announcement, which is so certain to roil the news through this weekend, likely to change the fundamentals in the election and give Trump the edge? Again anything could happen, but again my guess is no.

But apart from anything it ends up telling us about Comey, the episode does illustrate something about candidates in general, and Clintons in particular, and about the process of learning in politics. Follow along with me if you will (now back to pre-Comey version of the post):


Bill Clinton was overall a successful and very popular president. If he had been eligible to run for a third term, he would have won. If his relations with Al Gore were such that Gore would have welcomed his campaign support (as Hillary Clinton now welcomes that of the Obamas), it would probably have made enough difference—in New Hampshire, in Tennessee, above all in Florida—to have spared the country the recount nightmare and Bush v. Gore and put Gore in office.

I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and would have voted for him again in 2000.

And yet, I will never understand or excuse the recklessness and indiscipline with which he put so much at risk through sexual misbehavior. He risked his presidency (which survived), his successor’s chances (which did not), his historic legacy, and of course his marriage.

When it comes to Bill Clinton, it is possible simultaneously to think, He was very good at what he did. And to ask, Why oh why was he so reckless?


Let’s apply this logic to Hillary Clinton:

Because of arguments like those the Atlantic laid out in its unusual editorial, I believe that she is beyond question the right choice in this election. Much of the reason involves her opponent, and the unacceptable ignorance, intolerance, and instability he has come to represent. Part of the reason is her own vast experience and knowledge, and the bulletproof demeanor she displayed most recently in the debates. Based on what she did in her eight years in the Senate, four years as Secretary of State, and the past few years on the campaign trail, we have an idea of the day-by-day competence and steadiness she would bring to the presidency.

And yet. The latest crop of stolen Wikileaks emails brings up the counterpart to the question about her husband. Why oh why did she make such a deal about withholding the transcripts of her paid speeches—given that the contents, once they (inevitably) leaked, were so anodyne? Why oh why didn’t she just dump out preemptively whatever there might have been to know about her email server, given that one way or another it was bound to trickle out? (This is the question that John Podesta and Neera Tanden apparently asked when they learned about it 18 months ago.) Why oh why, given that she was so likely to run again for the White House and knew about the industry devoted to discrediting her, were there so many gray-zone choices about paid speeches and foundation gifts that have turned into headaches now?

“Headaches” is also a crucial word, since the speech-and-foundation “scandals” appear so far to be all smoke, no fire. Indeed these seem to be classic illustrations of the “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” maxim. In the case of Donald Trump and his still-withheld tax returns, it’s probably the reverse. He is willing to take the heat on the cover-up, because whatever is in those returns would be worse. In the Clintons’ case, so far there is absolutely no provable case (that I’ve seen) of actual quid-pro-quo or payoff. That’s why the news stories are all about “appearance” and “questions” and “clouds.”

This is not nearly as egregious as her husband’s recklessness. But it’s similar in being unnecessary, and self-inflicted. Perhaps the Clinton-camp thinking was fatalistic: Opponents are going to go crazy about something. Look at birtherism! Look at Benghazi! So there is no point in being extra-careful, since opponents will find a reason to hold endless hearings anyway. Still ...


Now, the payoff. As I argued back in installment #146, there is a positive side to Hillary Clinton’s seeming awareness that she is not a “natural” political talent like her husband or Barack Obama. The benefit is that (as is obvious) she works, and (as should become obvious) she improves.

She has dramatically improved as a speaker, as shown at the Al Smith dinner. She now freely says that she was wrong in supporting the Iraq  war—and while her judgments are still more hawkish than Obama’s, whose original opening against her in 2008 was their difference on Iraq, her views on foreign policy seemed tempered by the Iraq mistake.

Thus the hope for her administration, assuming she wins: To recognize that her greatest self-inflicted damage in the campaign came from an instinct toward secrecy and a protective palace guard. And, as the nation should hope, to learn from this mistake, as she has learned from others.