There Is No Real Hillary Clinton

People aren't meant to be relaunched as often as phones, but here we are

Hillary Clinton Credit: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist/The NY Times/Redux

In the last day, Hillary Clinton announced her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal that she will likely claim she only championed as part of her duties as secretary of state and that, in reality, she just as likely helped to create. She probably opposes it as strongly as she did NAFTA, which her husband created, and which she and Barack Obama campaigned against in 2008 and then proceeded to do nothing about. This is a habit. She probably is doing this because, in spite of a career in which neoliberalism got her this far, Bernie Sanders is starting to eat her lunch among labor voters, progressives and anyone who is not a big-money donor. You know, the people who vastly outnumber the latter and do things en masse, like vote.

In the last 10 days, once-prospective Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy praised the House Select Committee on Benghazi for doing what it was always — only — ever intended to do. "Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?" he told Sean Hannity. "But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping." McCarthy, who possesses both the look and adroitness of a personal injury attorney, accidentally disclosed that the allegedly most vital investigative body in American government is a petty leverage tool as sound as a plastic spork trying to pry open the pull tab on a fruit cup. Telling the truth only cost McCarthy his shot at a job doing the opposite.

But while the former issue addresses an agreement that covers 40 percent of the world's total trade and represents a volte-face by a candidate critics accuse of having zero core beliefs beyond electability, the latter is what will make headlines forever. A trade deal, the future of American labor and the shrinking manufacturing base of this country is something for "unserious" social-democrat whackos like Bernie Sanders to talk about.

When we talk about Benghazi, we're talking about who Hillary Clinton really is. And that's something we'll be forced to talk about until November 2016, with cynical political imprecations like murderer, with sad-sack troll jobs from dead-enders like Rand Paul, and with the inevitable Hillary Clinton response. A new declaration of authenticity — whatever that means, in a contest among people who think it's normal to believe they can and should lead the free world — a new field trip to middle America, maybe a video with grandmothers, as if it say, "I, Hillary Clinton, recognize that those are grandmothers." 

This is our debate now.

More power to you if you remember what is being investigated about the September 11, 2012, attack on Benghazi, and what was found. Four Americans are dead, and the truth of their loss for friends and loved ones probably represents the alpha and omega of any objective sense of what happened: Everything else is a mishmash of fuckups, bad estimates and, later, bad spokesperson responses crushed under a midden of horseshit and committee minutes. Embassies request additional temporary security all the time, and most of the time nothing happens. In the past, when bad things happened, we responded with something like political proportionality, despite death tolls that would send today's conservatives reeling and calling for the smelling salts. This time, the bad thing happened in Libya. And while one might want to blame the Republican-controlled House for cutting $243 million from America's embassy security budget, that's almost as much of a political football propelled by hindsight as anything the Republican Party has done since.

And, boy, have they done a lot. There was Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Car Alarm), head of the House Oversight Committee, throwing millions of taxpayer dollars down the toilet demanding endless, repetitive data dumps from the Pentagon and conducting sham harangues complete with rehearsed buzz-zingers in search of whatever Benghazi poltergeist was clattering around his tiny mind. Issa's committee broadcast classified CIA information live on C-SPAN, outed and endangered Libyans who worked for the U.S., and doggedly pursued a phantom "stand-down order" that both Fox News and the Republican-controlled House committee had to admit never existed, eventually concluding that "the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack." Although Issa did once nearly catch Hillary Clinton in an act of perjury for denying she'd seen a cable she'd signed, before everyone who's ever read State Department cables explained to him that all cables from Washington are automatically signed with the name of the Secretary of State. Later, Issa spent 16 days in a Chinese finger trap.

After using tons of public money to try to wallpaper over kicking himself in the dick about Benghazi, Solyndra, Fast and Furious and the IRS, all in search of the next and final clue, Issa was term-limited out of his chairmanship and booted off Benghazi in particular, even being personally ejected from the hearings. In his stead, we now have towheaded little shit Trey Gowdy — what would happen if Dewey Crowe from Justified had eschewed blue-collar crime to become a failed mathlete.

Gowdy's current Benghazi Select Committee already commands a budget greater than the entire House Intelligence Committee, which is tasked with oversight of considerably more than one building and surrounding neighborhood, in one city, on one day, in 2012. Whatever. No public expense shall be spared to keep Hillary Clinton from the presidency.

Already, Gowdy's investigation has drifted to wherever he can find dirt he needs, holding out the potential that he may yet prove Hillary whacked Vince Foster to cover up the drug smuggling at Mena Airport. Of the 136 questions he directly asked Clinton, only eight are about Benghazi. We've turned now to determining whether Hillary had an email server, whether that email server was legal, whether the emails she got were classified (some, after the investigation), whether the server was hacked, and who she talked to. To that end, there was Sid Blumenthal in June, being grilled for nine hours for being a Clinton email recipient, an ugly reminder of being grilled by Kenneth Starr in the Nineties. Any blockbuster that vacuous and stupid eventually gets its sequel.

Stupid is the point. Despite pledging to conduct a torrent of hearings, former prosecutor Gowdy has done as little as possible with all possible glaciation. The faster he goes through the lack of evidence and testimony, the sooner he runs out of nothing. The slower things go, the closer we get to November, 2016, when leaks with the intensity of squeaking popcorn farts can have the most noxious impact on any Clinton campaign, aided in no small part by either media happy to double-dip by hyping the latest accusations and later hyping their debunking of them, or by Clinton-loathing fellow travelers. In the latter case, he'll always have Fox News and frequently even the New York Times — simultaneously the respectable veneer and Patient Zero of Whitewater speculation — which already reports on the Clintons with such pathological negativity that you can't help but suspect Bill once fingerbanged a Sulzberger. 

Besides bearing an impact on the future of the republic and how we as a nation value concepts like data and causation, none of this might matter much, except the Clinton campaign has to keep responding to it. When every major newsbreak about you reiterates or merely adds another detail to a decades-old narrative about your being a nefarious scofflaw who regularly murders political or military redshirts within your kill radius, you have to keep reassuring people that you are a good candidate and especially a good person. The upshot is that the Clinton campaign appears to be on a bi-monthly schedule of reintroducing itself. 

To a casual observer, Hillary Clinton has been refit, redesigned and rolled out about as many times as the rumors dogging her for over 20 years. It's absolutely enervating. People aren't meant to be relaunched as often as phones. With a person, no matter how cosmetic the redesign might be on something that still possesses some kind of core software, the inevitable effect is the delegitimizing of the whole. Repeated insistence on authenticity eventually erodes the truth of even the authentic things you never felt needed defending: the more you begin sentences with, "To be perfectly honest…" the more it sounds like everything you're saying is a lie.

Take Clinton's recent opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, a dangerous and polluting scar across the Midwest and Plains that promises as many permanent jobs as maybe two mall Sunglass Huts. It's almost a certainty that she always opposed it, and it's almost a certainty that finally saying what she really thought will be dismissed as conniving opportunism anyway. It's a far cry from the adulation that Barack Obama received when Diamond Joe Biden forced his hand and made him endorse gay marriage. 

Obama claimed an evolution on the issue that had always been transparently political hogwash, but he got a pass on it because Obama never labored as poorly as Clinton to convey his identity. His books and his best speeches played off — and celebrated — the difficulty of coming to understand who he was in this world. Obama put himself through the trials of identity before anyone else could. Like the comic who can vivisect himself with sharper words than any heckler, he'd already endured the most reflective scrutiny through his own self-appraisal: If you were going to pull apart Barack Obama and his race and heritage and experience and put him back together into not only a person but a purpose, you'd have to do a better job than he did. Ultimately, that surer sense of self bought him a lot of indulgence from people who felt political sympathy with him. It's a lot easier to pick and choose when to be partially full of shit when people can walk away still convinced of who you are. 

Hillary is not so lucky. Even if we were to stipulate that Hillary Clinton is merely an awkward candidate who keeps accidentally obscuring a wonderful human being yearning to be a great statesman, who cares? We will never know for sure. A few weeks ago, in New York Magazine, Rebecca Traister suggested an intriguing idea: "Barring the possibility that more serious breaches are turned up, these emails may do the work a thousand soft magazine profiles never could have: letting us in on the fact that after all these years, we do know Hillary Clinton. And she’s not half bad." Traister focused on emails in which Clinton seems down to earth. Struggling to get a fax machine to work properly. Or eager to call it a day. ("Now, let’s wrap this up in the Senate and go drink something unhealthy!")

In short, maybe Gowdy's strategy of demanding more in-office communications from Hillary, then sensationally releasing them over weeks and weeks, sending journalists pouncing and reprinting them, could ultimately backfire. In place of a smoking gun that is never going to appear, all we'd find is a fairly OK older lady who hates BS as much as the rest of us and likes human things, like booze.

Even if Traister's right, it probably won't matter, because all the heartening unmediated information about a candidate like Hillary Clinton still faces two powerful forces that stand in the way of human beings looking at Hillary Clinton and seeing one too.

One, not many people pay that much attention to politics. Email details will take a backseat to allegations and explanations, stories splashed on A1 and leading Wolf Blitzer's Hour of Hoarfrost Credulity. And worsening the old line that "if you're explaining, you're losing" is the fact that Hillary's explanations — when not self-contradictory — currently always seem to be followed by some forced hard reboot of The Candidate. The average reader will see another accusation, yet another Clinton explanation. 

Two, people suck at changing their minds, especially toward politicians, ideas and other people. It's the signature failure of liberalism anywhere: Understanding and careful consideration are much higher-order functions than succumbing to fear, nurturing resentment and rejoicing in punishment, which has been the right's schtick since Torquemada. And resentment, fear and punishment are very good at accommodating themselves to new facts. We could discover a thousand touching Hallmark moments in Hillary Clinton's emails, and people who already hate Hillary Clinton will have countless excuses to write them off. They'll just be Hillary's version of Hitler's Dog — that one humanizing aspect that makes a detested public figure more sinister. Even liberals play this game. Hunter Thompson could enjoy talking football with Nixon. George W. Bush legitimately does seem like a fun dude to watch a ballgame with. Mike Huckabee actually likes some fucking great rock and roll. It just makes them bigger bastards.

The irony of the media and the Republican Party's decades-long harassing of the Clintons over piddly shit is that it sets the trivial terms of its undoing and its ceaselessness, at the expense of things that would be damning if anyone wanted to argue policy pertaining to objective reality. You can constantly write up a bill of indictment on tissue paper and watch Chuck Todd frown at it, but it's going to snap when you try to hang anyone with it. We can keep investigating something the DoD, Congress and even Fox News conceded was a non-starter, and the media can keep condemning Clinton for denying and deflecting blame — knowing full well that they would have slammed her for accepting blame in the first place, then derided the decision as a rookie move. 

Lost in the current terms of the American duopoly are more important questions about who should be the next president than ginned-up narrative meeting ginned-up counter-narrative. Not just discussions about the Keystone Pipeline or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but massive forests shattered by shell-bursts and doused in gore, all ignored in the Republican Party scavenger hunt for an evil email tree. These idiots, warmongers almost to a man, won't ask about the tens of thousands dead in Libya in an ongoing civil war whose circumstances Clinton helped engineer because there might be electoral nits to pick underneath the stack of corpses. The Benghazi investigation is so fundamentally alien to any concept of surrounding human cost that, to paraphrase Willard from Apocalypse Now, it's like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

The most depressing thing about the Benghazi panel, besides the waste of time and money and the total sucking moral void at its core, is how easy this has all become. Clinton is accused of a new crime; Clinton releases a new Clinton, etc. Like two people coming to a draw in a video game and pressing the reset button over and over, the only truly staggering realization is the vacancy of the entire exercise. This is how Trey Gowdy can bring something new to the investigation solely for being a different organism than Darrell Issa; and this is how "wow, this fax machine sucks, let's get fucked up" starts to seem like a real human spark for something like a personally consistent candidacy.

After we felt like having a little "light intervention" like a war amuse bouche, and as all the while various Libyan tribes and strong men pass the time turning their fellow citizens into scrapple, this is how low the stakes are on what constitutes moral horror and a good candidate to lead the free world. The fifth or eighth or 12th or 20th iteration of a chickenshit investigation with all internal integrity of a cotton-candy cone being hit with the firehose, and a former first lady/senator/secretary of state who keeps rolling out new appeals based on riding in a van to order a burrito or sitting down to an interview with the auteur behind a navel-gazing twaddlefest targeted at New York blogger solipsism. 

These are the types of battles you get when you arm yourselves only with weapons this mean and flimsy. There is almost no point in debating whether Hillary Clinton is a real person or a good candidate or even one with a certain axis of political aspirations if the next topic in the discussion is going to be something either totally imaginary or morally devoid to the point of insanity. We don't need a real or a fake Hillary Clinton, or to bother determining which one is which. We're hardly even going to talk about the one we already have.