The transcript of a life (scandalously unscandalous)

The transcript of a life (scandalously unscandalous) June 9, 2016

I can’t read everything, there just isn’t time. So I haven’t read, for example, Proust.

I also haven’t read the 30,490 pages of emails sent and received by Hillary Clinton while she served as Secretary of State from 2009 until early 2013.

But I could read them if I wanted to — all 55,000 pages of them, because they’re all public. Reading all of Colin Powell’s email from his term as secretary of state in 2001-2005 would not be an option because all of Powell’s work-related email was deleted from his private server after he left office.

Yes, Powell — like Condoleeza Rice and Madeleine Albright and every other secretary of state from the advent of email until the present — used his own email address to send email because diplomacy is a 24/7 job. This wasn’t a “scandal” for Powell because, well, it wasn’t scandalous. And because his last name isn’t “Clinton.”*

But I don’t need to read all 30,000+ of those Clinton emails because many others have. And many of those many others have been extremely motivated, driven, incentivized. Those emails have been pored over by jaundiced journalists, rigid skeptics, hostile oppo research hacks, dirty tricksters, honest prophets, cynics, idealists, opportunists, legislative aides, dark-money PACs, and squadrons of lawyers.

What did they find? What monstrous villainy, duplicity and scandal was revealed?


Remember the Sony email hack? Remember how careers were ended and relationships broken when that company’s email was made available to the public and everyone got to see all the behind-the-scenes, behind-the-back commentary from Sony executives?

That didn’t happen with Clinton’s emails — four years’ worth of them. All the readers of all those emails came up empty, scandal-wise — even on the level of petty interpersonal scandal. They went in looking for ammunition and came away unarmed, not even finding anything that could be bent or twisted or reforged into something vaguely scandal-ish.

Randomly search any hour-long segment of Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes and you’ll find someone saying something appalling, insulting, embarrassing or criminal. Scrutinize four years of Hillary Clinton’s email and you’ll find … a dutiful secretary of state doing her job.

This should not be surprising because it isn’t new. Throughout the 1990s, Clinton’s every written and spoken word, her every outfit, was scrutinized. Her tax returns have been “news that’s fit to print” for nearly 30 years. I read some of them in the newspaper. I stopped reading them, eventually, because they were boring. Not boring as in “Oh, it’s hard work poring through these documents to find the smoking gun” but boring as in there was no smoke, and no gun — just blandly fastidious tax returns filed by lawyers for lawyers who know that every jot and tittle is going to be scrutinized, in public, at length, and spun in the most hostile imaginable way.

Remember GoodWill-gate? Yeah, that was one of the many “scandals” of the “scandal-plagued” Clinton years. They donated clothes to GoodWill and itemized the receipt, and instead of just writing “bag of clothes” like most of us get to, they listed every item in the bag because that’s pretty much what you have to do when you know that lawyers and oppo researchers and journalists will do it for you if you fail to do it for yourself.

This is why I didn’t understand the attempt to make the transcripts of Clinton’s speeches on the lucrative corporate-speaking circuit into some kind of political gotcha game. We already have a transcript of pretty much her entire life, warts and all. Every infelicitous turn of phrase, every gesture, every trip in the sense of a stumble and every trip in the sense of a journey. We have the receipts and the depositions and the tax returns and thousands of speech transcripts and videos (you think the other speeches were wholly original, divergent compositions that didn’t recycle those?) and the hit-piece biographies and the notes of all the designated shadows from oppo-research teams and everything Fox News and the Scaife Foundation have been able to dig up or manufacture over the past quarter century.

If you want a microcosm of Hillary Clinton’s life and character, watch the 11 hours of her testimony before that Benghazi hearing in the House of Representatives. It is, like all of her life, documented, recorded and transcribed. And, like all of her life, it has been subjected to intense, granular scrutiny. And the result of all of that scrutiny turns out to be repetitive, insubstantial, and boring.

I don’t actually recommend watching (or reading) all 11 hours because, again, repetitive and boring. The lesson of that hearing is the same as the lesson of those 30,000+ emails. There’s no there there. And yet despite the failure of those members of Congress and the failure of the oppo-researchers poring over all those emails, we’re still expected to regard these things as evidence that Clinton is untrustworthy. “Emails,” people say suggestively, as though this word were fraught with some deeper, nefarious meaning. “Benghazi.”

None of that means that I’m a fan of every policy decision Hillary Clinton has made or supported. But that’s a whole other ballgame. Those who say “Hillary Clinton is wrong about X” get my attention and, quite often, my agreement.

But those who say “Hillary Clinton is tainted by scandal” are blowing smoke, and then trying to convince us that where there’s smoke, there must be fire.

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* It also wasn’t a scandal for Powell because, in 2001, digital communication was still new enough that we — collectively, inclusively — still hadn’t worked out all the implications of the switch to email. In the 1990s, we were still mostly in “gee, this is cool” mode. Concerns about transparency and public records and accountability were being discussed by tech geeks, but hadn’t yet reached the level of policy, in part because The Powers That Be — office holders who might use secret email systems for nefarious secret purposes — weren’t yet technologically savvy enough, on a personal level, to imagine or exploit any of those possibilities even if they wanted to. (Think of David Petraeus outing himself for revealing classified information due to his clumsy lack of email smarts. Or the fact the personal email Powell used as secretary was an AOL account.)

But while Powell’s use of a private email account doesn’t strike me as particularly scandalous, the mass-deletion of all of his emails does. That’s the issue here — not what domain name is in the address, but whether or not the public has access to the public’s business. Hillary Clinton using her own Blackberry to do her job didn’t wind up keeping her communications out of the public record. Powell’s deletion of his AOL emails did. That’s the problem.

And yes, there’s also the whole realm of security — which is why Secretary Kerry is now following the belated Washington policy of only using official and officially secured email servers. And, yeah, that’s really something that lots of people probably should have thought about back in the 1990s when the olds in our three branches of government were first warily “logging on” to their Electronic mail (still two words, upper-case E), or having their interns print out paper copies for them to read. But that larger matter of how government adopts and adapts to evolving digital technology was not the specific responsibility of any secretary of state.

** All the depositions, from Clinton, her husband, and everyone who ever worked with them or for them before and after their years in the White House. That means dozens of people forced, by that relationship or association, to hire good lawyers. That’s why — even though it was impolitic — I tend to cut her a bit of slack for cashing in on that corporate speaking circuit. If I and my family and my friends and co-workers were perpetually being sued and deposed for a couple of decades, then I think I’d probably take that money too, because I don’t hate my family, my friends, or my co-workers and I thus wouldn’t want to see them going into debt from having to defend themselves from perpetual frivolous lawsuits.

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