Published March 5, 2015
“Poor judgment,” sounds like a bit of a euphemism for Hillary Clinton’s willingness to endanger national security and skirt (or break) the law to escape accountability for her actions as Secretary of State. Yet poor judgment may in fact be Hillary’s deepest problem. A president, above all, is called upon to exercise good judgment. Hillary’s executive judgment has been chronically flawed—in exactly the same way—for decades.
In the wake of her email scandal, the press has been reminding us of Hillary’s history of secrecy and her troubled relationship to the truth. There’s a deeper story to tell here, however, and it ties Hillary’s transparency allergy to the many troubles of Bill’s early presidency. Even sympathetic liberal authors like Carl Bernstein and William Chafe attribute the disarray of the early Clinton administration to Hillary’s flawed judgment.
While the usual liberal line on this era is that Hillary has learned from her mistakes, it now seems clear that her many errors of judgment are rooted in longstanding character flaws that cannot change at this late date. Hillary has been protected up to now by the tendency to chalk up frank discussion of her foibles to sexism. Yet the moment for an honest consideration of her executive weaknesses may have arrived.
Hillary is brittle. She bristles at contradiction and retreats into a bubble. Her resistance to scrutiny and accountability is part of this larger picture. Her preferred way of dealing with the outside world is commanding a “war room:” masterminding a battle with the enemy while remaining behind the scenes. At the executive level, Hillary functions best as top policy advisor to a natural politician like Bill. Her biggest mistakes come when she walls off the press, the public, and any advisors who might contradict her.
One of the biggest problems of both the first Clinton White House and Hillary’s 2008 campaign was the existence of competing staffs, one for Bill and one for Hillary. Hillary had contempt for Bill’s staff, and frequently voiced it openly. Her own staff, “Hillaryland,” was unflinchingly loyal (to her, not Bill), but they were also loath to contradict her. As Sally Bedell Smith puts it, “Her subordinates were all true believers. They might advise her to ‘do something about those bags under your eyes,’ but they avoided crossing her about significant issues. ‘If she wanted your opinion, she would ask,’ said one of her friends. ‘You didn’t volunteer your opinion’….they were all afraid to say no to her.”
Observers have long wondered at Hillary’s willingness to alienate the entire White House press corps at the beginning of the Clinton administration by walling off the White House press corridor (and then desperately attempting to “erase her fingerprints” from the decision). Chafe says Hillary’s move “amounted almost to political hara kiri.” Hillary’s email scandal looks similarly suicidal. Yet both make sense in light of her overriding tendency to avoid scrutiny and retreat into a bubble.
Many other troubles from the days when Hillary served as de facto co-president have the same origin. The travel office firings on trumped up charges (in which Hillary also tried to disguise her role) were an attempt to surround herself with “her own people.” More broadly, Hillary’s determination to run everything herself led her to designate a weak chief-of-staff for Bill and to avoid bringing experienced Washington hands into the White House. These decisions, which eliminated anyone powerful enough to contradict her, led to the chaos of the early Clinton presidency.
When Republican congressman William F. Clinger charged Hillary with illegal and abnormal secrecy in the development of her health care plan, the charge resonated. As Bernstein puts it: “Clinger’s charges made Hillary appear to be something of a paranoid. It was now made to seem that she and [Ira] Magaziner were running their operation with a military-like secrecy unprecedented for a peacetime domestic program. (That was pretty much true.)”
Ultimately, Hillary’s unwillingness to brook contradiction destroyed her health care initiative. She treated even powerful Democratic senators, who might have been potential allies, as enemies when they asked for even modest scaling back of her plans. As Smith puts it, “When confronted with dissenting views, Hillary responded with unbending certitude.”
The point is that Hillary’s apparently heedless and self-destructive secrecy is part of a broader failure of judgment rooted in character flaws that have not disappeared. Affable, flexible Bill has served for years as a kind of shield for Hillary, softening her tendency toward brittle retreat into a bubble of yes men (and women). Bill may rival Hillary in his troubled relation to the truth, but at least he takes in and takes on the outside world with the skills of a natural politician. What will happen when Hillary’s worst tendencies have free reign in a presidency of her own?
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.