The Clinton Way

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from TIME Magazine,

They write their own rules. Will it work this time?

As a rule, these are words no politician wants to be speaking in the days leading up to the launch of a major campaign:

“What I did was to direct, you know, my counsel to conduct a thorough investigation …”

“I fully complied with every rule that I was governed by.”

“They were personal and private, about matters that I believed were in the scope of my personal privacy.”

As a rule, a candidate wants to take flight on outstretched wings of hope, not scramble in the dirt on the crabbed limbs of legal compliance. Every day spent saying “Trust me, my lawyer’s O.K. with it” is a bad day–and worse if she appears to be reading from lawyer-vetted notes.

As a rule, these would be dire, perhaps fatal, markers of a campaign crashing on takeoff. But in this case the politician was Hillary Clinton, whose carefully laid plans to unveil her latest presidential bid hit turbulence on March 10 as she fumbled her way through an awkward press conference in a corridor at the U.N. At issue: Clinton’s decision to ignore White House guidance as Secretary of State and instead conduct government business through a private email account hosted on her family’s personal server.

The Clintons play by their own set of rules. And in this case, the former Secretary of State explained, those rules bless her decision to erase some 30,000 emails from the family server despite knowing that the emails had become a subject of intense interest to congressional investigators. These were merely “private personal emails,” Clinton averred.

Off message? Definitely. Clinton’s script for the month of March envisioned a series of events highlighting her long career as an advocate for the rights of women and girls. This was to culminate in her official announcement–perhaps as soon as early April–that she was again running to be America’s first female President. But if awkward press conferences could bring down a Clinton, the political super-couple might never have left Little Rock.

Along with her husband–the 42nd President of the United States–Hillary Clinton is the co-creator of a soap-operatic political universe in which documents vanish, words like is take on multiple meanings and foes almost always overplay their hand. Impeachment can be a route to higher approval ratings; the occasional (and rare) defeat merely marks the start of the next campaign. Whatever rules may apply to them, the law of gravity is not one.

Still, Clinton’s failure to defuse the email issue, along with a growing list of questions about the family’s relentless fundraising and her husband’s choice of companions, has revived hopes among erstwhile rivals in the Democratic Party that the Hillary dreadnought might actually be sinkable. Backbiting inside the Clinton campaign–a hallmark of her failed 2008 presidential effort–has begun to leak into the political press. Republicans who were morose over their presidential chances mere months ago have a spring in their step.

Hillary and Bill Clinton have always been a team–and never more than when the chips are down. That doesn’t mean they are interchangeable, though. As she once put it to a diary-keeping friend: “He can make things happen. And anyway what I really love is policy … I’d be happy in a little office somewhere thinking up policies.”

This streak of introversion makes her fiercely protective of her privacy, even to the point that it causes her trouble. She laughs and grieves behind closed doors among a tiny group of trusted friends, while in public–as her political consultant Mandy Grunwald once noted in a 1999 memo that became public record–she must work to be “real” in public settings.

If sticking to their old rule book poses a danger to Hillary Clinton’s chances, it probably won’t be a matter of scandal fatigue. Instead, it will be the feeling of déjà vu. Can voters look at Clinton as she appeared at her press conference–once more scrambling to explain the unexplainable–and see more future than past? After all, as the Clintons understood so well back at the beginning of their road, winning campaigns are about the future and start in that place called hope.

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