Back on Broadway: The Hillary Clinton Show Returns

Can the Clintons' 1990s tactics still work today?

Hillary Clinton gave a press conference for the ages Tuesday—and one that could remind voters that she is from another age politically.

Clinton's team gave the press little advance notice, resulting in snarkier than usual coverage. Then the former secretary of state, senator and first lady showed up late for the press conference.

While everyone anticipated an explanation of her emails, Clinton opened with remarks about females. The Democrat who would like to be the first woman to serve as president of the United States thanked the United Nations for "putting the challenge of gender equality front and center on the international agenda."

Clinton then shifted her focus to a mode of communication that predated email: snail mail. She addressed the Senate Republicans' letter to Iran, calling the missive "out of step with the best traditions of American leadership." She said, "[O]ne has to ask, what was the purpose of this letter?"

Treason, or something awfully close, Clinton answered her own question. "There appear to be two logical answers," she said. "Either these senators were trying to be helpful to the Iranians or harmful to the commander-in-chief in the midst of high-stakes international diplomacy."

You can think the letter was unhelpful and that most Senate Republicans' Iran views risk another Iraq-like disaster, as I do, and still marvel at Clinton's brazenness.

Then we got to the main event. About half of her emails were personal and not handed over to the State Department. Clinton and her team made the decisions as to what was too personal to hand over. The server hosting these emails is private and won't be handed over. She took about ten questions and was gone.

Not likely to put the questions to rest. But there were some familiar Clintonian tics at work here. (Though Hillary did demur when asked if she "were a man today, would all this fuss being made be made?")

When Bill Clinton finally confessed his relationship with Monica Lewinsky to the public, he still angrily asserted he had a right to privacy.

"Even presidents have private lives," said the forty-second president of the United States. "It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life."

Hillary didn't raise the specter of a vast right-wing conspiracy practicing the politics of personal destruction, though some of her longtime surrogates and apologists have.

But she did imply that this was a whole lot of snooping into personal matters that are none of the public's business. These were "emails about planning Chelsea’s wedding or my mother’s funeral arrangements, condolence notes to friends as well as yoga routines, family vacations, the other things you typically find in inboxes."

Are you the kind of person who wants to gawk at wedding-planning messages or harass Hillary as she was burying her mother? If so, you are like Ken Starr, with a salacious interest in people's private sex lives.

"No one wants their personal emails made public, and I think most people understand that and respect that privacy," Clinton said. Just as no one would want their personal indiscretions made public.

Appealing to people's sense that some investigations are unseemly invasions of their subjects' personal space is one of the main things the Clintons did to survive their scandals during the 1990s. Hillary reportedly thought it was a mistake to accede to an independent counsel, so she will be especially reluctant to give the Republicans any quarter.

The second thing the Clintons did was talk about what a distraction such investigations were from their important public business. Hillary wasn't heavy-handed about this in her press conference, but her remarks were peppered with references to all the important things she did at the State Department and through her foundation.

"I am very proud of the work that I and my colleagues and our public servants at the department did during my four years as secretary of state, and I look forward to people being able to see that for themselves," she said.

Clinton even said the reason for her unorthodox email practices was "convenience," the need to expedite her work. (Never mind that having to sort through a bunch of emails that would otherwise have been captured by the government for transparency purposes and sending printouts via regular mail doesn't sound very convenient.)

The third thing the Clintons did to get through scandals was to vocally assert that their detractors had done a lot of digging without finding anything. Clinton didn't do this Tuesday, though some of her defenders did. Howard Dean referred to the email controversy as a "nothing story."

All of these tactics worked back in the 1990s. The question is whether they will still work today, in a very different time.

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