What happened on the Hill Thursday echoed the famous scene from All the President's Men, when super-source Deep Throat scolds reporter Bob Woodward for botching a story about hated Nixon henchman H.R. Haldeman.
"You let Haldeman slip away," says Deep Throat.
"Yes," answers a sheepish Woodward.
"You've done worse than let Haldeman slip away. You've got people feeling sorry for him. I didn't think that was possible."
With Thursday's interminable, pointless, haranguing, disorganized, utterly amateurish attempt at a smear job, the Republicans and their tenth-rate congressional attack schnauzer, South Carolina's Trey Gowdy, got people feeling sorry for Hillary Clinton. Over the course of 11 long hours, they made the most eloquent argument for a Hillary Clinton presidency yet offered by anyone, including Clinton herself.
Hillary's detractors, and I've been one of them, have long complained that she is a politician without firm principles. She, her husband and the other Third Way types who've dominated the modern Democratic Party specialize in a kind of transactional politics, in which issues are endlessly parsed to maintain a balance between fundraising interests and populist concerns. It's a strategy that wins elections, but doesn't get the heart racing much.
But there is one overriding principle that does animate and define the Clinton campaign, and that's keeping Republicans out of office. For years, this has been the Democratic Party's stock answer for every sordid legislative compromise, every shameless capitulation to expediency, every insulting line of two-faced stump rhetoric offered to get over: We have to do this to beat the Republicans.
I never bought that argument, for a lot of reasons, but Trey Gowdy made it look pretty good Thursday. Those idiots represent everything that is wrong not just with the Republican Party, but with modern politics in general. It's hard to imagine a political compromise that wouldn't be justified if its true aim would be to keep people like those jackasses out of power.
What was that whole thing about? What was Gowdy trying to prove? That Sidney Blumenthal had Hillary's private email address, and an ambassador didn't?
The overriding implication of the Benghazi hearing seemed to be that Hillary Clinton was so crass, unfeeling and politically self-involved as to not care if members of her State Department were massacred. Again, Hillary has a lot of flaws, but we're supposed to believe that she doesn't have a problem with dead Americans? Seriously?
This is the same kind of abject stupidity we saw in the 9/11 Truth movement, which believed unquestioningly that a whole bund of Bush administration officials was willing to see Americans murdered en masse in order to further some convoluted world domination scheme.
Gowdy went to places like this over and over again Thursday. At one point, he was giving Hillary a hard time for responding too quickly to an email from Huma Abedin pointing out that the Libyan people "needed medicine, gasoline, diesel and milk."
"Do you know how long it took you to answer that email?" Gowdy ranted.
"Well, I responded very quickly," Hillary replied.
"Yeah, four minutes," Gowdy chirped. "My question, and I think it's a fair one, is the Libyan people had their needs responded to in four minutes. And there's no record of our security folks ever making it to your inbox."
The look on Gowdy's face at this moment was priceless. He was proud, like a 3-year-old who went potty all by himself. But what was he even talking about? That Hillary Clinton cares more about the lives of Libyan strangers than she does her own employees? Was that seriously the idea?
Then you had that Kansas windbag, Mike Pompeo, sarcastically offering to bring breakfast in to help Hillary answer questions more expeditiously. The preposterous implication was that he, Pompeo, was the time-aggrieved party here, suffering delays because Hillary wouldn't give simple "yes" or "no" answers in the middle of his and Gowdy's 11-hour nothingburger of a hearing marathon.
Pompeo went on to sarcastically quote "noted conservative" Diane Feinstein, who said that the "incidents…were likely preventable." Then, pleased with his gotcha question, he asked if Hillary agreed with Feinstein.
Hillary stared back, almost confused by the feebleness of the question, and gave the obvious answer: Well, in hindsight, everything is preventable, isn't it?
Stuff like this was the substance of at least half the questions: "Madame Secretary, would you agree that shit happens?" For this, they spent millions of dollars investigating.
Then there was Alabama Republican Martha Roby, who reminded me of a bowling alley manager worried to death that she didn't have enough size 9s to get through a Friday night. Roby looked terrified, like she just wanted to make it through to the end without mispronouncing all of those foreign locations.
Her shtick at one point devolved into questions about a) the fact that Hillary went home on the night of the attacks, instead of staying in the office, and b) the idea that Hillary waited too long to personally call the survivors of the Benghazi attack.
She asked: Did you call them the first day? Did you call them the first week? Hillary answered no and no.
"How would it have harmed the case that they were trying to build for you, secretary of state," Roby asked, "just to check on their wellbeing?"
"I did check on their wellbeing," Hillary answered bluntly.
"No, personally," Roby insisted.
Hillary sighed and surrendered. OK, she said, she didn't call them personally until after they'd come home and after they'd been debriefed.
Roby triumphantly summed up Hillary's testimony. There were "two messages" of her answers, she said. One was that "you went home" on the night of the attack, and "didn't go back until the next morning."
The second was that "you used the FBI's inquiry as an excuse not to check in with your agents who were on the ground, and had survived that horrible night just to ask them how they were."
So it wasn't just that Hillary Clinton didn't call the survivors. It was that she used the FBI as an excuse to affirmatively not call the survivors.
Again, the implication here isn't just that Hillary was indifferent to American life, and cared more about the lives of Libyans than Americans. She apparently also actively wanted to avoid calling the survivors, because… why again? Because she hates American diplomats?
These morons in Gowdy's committee were so bent on proving that Hillary is an unfeeling, ambition-crazed schemer bent on riding gleefully to the White House on the corpses of Benghazi victims that they ended up making her look like the one thing she really isn't, at least not very often: a regular person.
Most of us who watched the fiasco imagined what we would do in her position, facing that same ludicrous barrage of circular questions. Most normal people would have done all of the same things she did: sighing, choking back angry retorts, shaking a head in disbelief at times, even laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Actually many people would have lost it early on and grabbed Gowdy by his goofy silver fro-hawk somewhere in hour six or seven, a fact that made Hillary by contrast look patient and presidential, in ways her campaign had been unable to achieve all year.
If you follow partisanship to the extreme, this is where you end up: Israel-Palestine, Serbia-Albania, Ajax-Feyenoord, Sox-Yankees, Republicans-Democrats. You get to a place where you don't merely disagree with your opponents, you actively disbelieve in their basic humanity.
The Republicans at the Benghazi hearing made Hillary a proxy for an aspect of this phenomenon that virtually every blue-state American has seethed at in the last decade or so: being accused of treason.
We've been told that we hate veterans, that we sympathize with terrorists, that we long for a UN takeover or Soviet rule. It's said all the time that it makes us happy to see cops shot or soldiers killed in battle. Not only do we hear this on right-wing TV, we see the amazing spectacle of millions of conservatives believing it. To believe this stuff, you'd have to believe we aren't even people.
Hillary was forced into that same narrative Thursday. In this hearing she wasn't really being accused of mismanaging just the latest of thousands of logistical screw-ups by the U.S. government over the years.
On a deeper level the Republican committee members were accusing her of not caring about martyred American lives, because, well, "liberals" only care about the victims of torture or police brutality or other special interest groups they can exploit for political gain. In conservative legend, they don't care about "regular" Americans.
Having to face down that absurd accusation will humanize Hillary anew with a Democratic electorate that had begun to wonder what she really stood for. Now she's not an aristocrat who takes money from Goldman and Citi, she's a symbol of a majority demographic that is officially tired of being told it isn't American enough. You can't put a price on the ad the Republicans gave Hillary Thursday. I think they won her the White House.