Ruth Marcus: Hillary Clinton's protective crouch

"I don't want any risk of the personal being accessible."

— Email from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to aide Huma Abedin, November 2010, contained in State Department inspector general's report on Clinton's private email use.

WASHINGTON — This is not a smoking gun — yet it explains so much.

Actually it is the opposite of a smoking gun because Clinton in this email expresses willingness to obtain a "separate address or device" in order to fix the problem they were confronting: messages from her private account ending up in State Department spam.

If only that had happened. How many months of ugly headlines, how much political harm could Clinton have avoided if she had taken the clunky, inconvenient route of the second BlackBerry and the official email?


But the accretions, the scar tissue built up over years of politically motivated attacks and endless investigations, reinforced Clinton's instinct for the protective crouch.

"My sense of privacy — because I do feel like I've always been a fairly private person leading a public life — led me to perhaps be less understanding than I needed to of both the press and the public's interest as well as right to know things about my husband and me," Clinton said 22 years ago, at her pretty-in-pink news conference on commodities trading.

But that lesson proved impossible for Clinton to internalize, and the incursions on her privacy became more excruciating than she could have imagined that day in the State Dining Room. The ironic consequence has been even more mucking around in the personal zone that Clinton has sought so assiduously to shield.

The resulting damage, self-inflicted and staff-enabled, is incalculable. It is a political wound that refuses to heal, mostly because Clinton's enemies are all too happy to pick at it, incessantly, but also because Clinton has been so compulsively resistant to confessing error.

She dutifully acknowledges that the decision to rely on a private email account was, in retrospect, a "mistake" that she would not repeat — duh! — but seems constantly compelled to relitigate the conduct.

"I thought it was allowed," Clinton told CNN's Wolf Blitzer after the report was released. The governing regulations "were not a model of clarity." Using personal email was "the practice under other secretaries" — as if Thomas Jefferson himself set up a private server at Monticello, when the report makes clear that, actually, only Colin Powell behaved similarly, far earlier in the email era.

How, how, how could Clinton & Co. — this is a massive failure of staff as well — have failed to reconsider the permissibility, not to mention the wisdom, of this practice? Not long before she became secretary, the George W. Bush administration had found itself skewered over White House officials' improper use of personal email to conduct government business. Skewered by, among, others, Hillary Clinton, who railed against "the secret White House email accounts."

Still, astonishingly, the Clinton team did not bother to check what the rules allowed,even though she "had an obligation" to do so, and the policy was that "normal day-to-day operations should be conducted on an authorized" system. Had Clinton or her aides bothered to ask, the report says, she would have been turned down.


Perhaps. Another revealing aspect of the report is the culture of enabling surrounding Clinton, within her inner circle and trickling down. This is not unique to her; the natural bureaucratic impulse is to satisfy the new boss, to accommodate her needs.

But a leader also shapes that impulse, by sending, or having her staff send, explicit and implicit messages about the toleration for pushback. The report suggests that Clinton at State was the queen bee, to be unquestioningly served by the hive.

When department staffers raised concerns about Clinton's server, the inspector general said, a senior official responded that "the mission ... is to support the Secretary and instructed the staff never to speak of the Secretary's personal email system again." It is not fair to blame Clinton for this particular high-handedness -- she was not involved in this discussion -- but it is reasonable to ask what role she and her team played in creating this climate of acquiescence.

The greatest irony here may be that the Clintonian urge for privacy produces the opposite of what she needs. Clinton as candidate has done best when she allows the real person inside to poke through the protective shell. Clinton improves when her "personal" becomes accessible. She continually disserves herself by striving to shield.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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