Hillary goes on attack

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Article Highlights

  • If there's one constant theme to Clinton's 23 year stint in public life, it is her desire to turn the tables on her critics and turn her weaknesses into strengths.

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  • According to various accounts, Hillary always wanted to "go on the attack."

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  • When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Hillary had a ready-made explanation: It was all a "vast right-wing conspiracy."

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Last week, Hillary Clinton's proto-presidential campaign leaked an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir of her stint as secretary of State. Titled "Benghazi: Under Attack," the chapter offers her take on the infamous terrorist assault that killed four Americans, including our ambassador to Libya.

A better title might be "Hillary: On the Attack." If there's one constant theme to Clinton's quarter-century stint in public life, it is her desire to turn the tables on her critics and turn her weaknesses into strengths.

In a 60 Minutes interview in 1992, she said that she wouldn't be "some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." When she was criticized, she snapped, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession."

Even as governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton had a reputation as a philanderer. The Clintons' response was to attack any woman who came forward as just another "bimbo eruption," in the words of their rapid-response point-woman, Betsey Wright. Clinton political guru James Carville famously insisted such women could be found simply by dragging a $100 bill through a trailer park.

Probe into Whitewater

During the Whitewater investigation, Carville was let loose on Kenneth Starr, defaming the independent prosecutor round-the-clock and even writing an unhinged manifesto about him.

According to various accounts, Hillary always wanted to "go on the attack." In 1996, she ordered White House lawyers to whip up a report condemning The Washington Post for its Whitewater coverage. (Press secretary Mike McCurry had the study destroyed.)

When the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Hillary had a ready-made explanation: It was all a "vast right-wing conspiracy."

The tactic in all of these — and many other — instances is to make the controversy about the accuser, not the accusation. But her real goal is to turn her vulnerabilities into assets.

In 2003, when she published her aubiography, Living History, everyone wanted to know how she would deal with the ordeal of being Bill Clinton's wife. She gave a slew of interviews painting herself as the dignified victim of a philandering husband who refused to be defined as simply a victim. She did a masterful job, though the press helped as much as it could. In the first interview of her book tour, ABC's Barbara Walters helpfully asked, "Are you a saint?"

Clinton responded, "No, no, but I'm a senator. And my job is to represent New Yorkers. And I can't feel that there's anything personal about it."

Carefully crafted image

It was a perfect answer, signaling that the issues matter more than her personal travails. At least that was the spin.

When the Post noticed that much of her book was devoted to a "ferocious" partisan attack on the GOP crafted "to please even the least compromising members of the Democratic left," reporter David Von Drehle asked to interview Clinton about the substance of her book. He was rebuffed. Talking about the substance of her book would undermine her carefully crafted image.

A similar spin effort is underway now. According to Politico's Maggie Haberman, Clinton's Benghazi chapter relentlessly attacks the motives of her critics. Clinton writes that those skeptical of her version of events "exploit this tragedy over and over as a political tool" and "minimize the sacrifice of those who served our country."

Clinton has a ready answer for anyone thinking of asking unwelcome questions about Benghazi: "I will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans. It's just plain wrong, and it's unworthy of our great country. Those who insist on politicizing the tragedy will have to do so without me."

Translation: I am not a stonewaller; I'm a patriot. Asking questions I don't want to answer is indecent.

The chapter was leaked, Haberman writes, "on the eve of a meeting in which members of Democratic-leaning groups" were "briefed by Clinton's team about how she addresses the attacks in the book." In other words, this will be the new talking point, recycled endlessly by her supporters on and off MSNBC.

It remains to be seen whether the press will stand up to the spin or whether they will obligingly ask her, yet again, whether she is a saint.

Jonah Goldberg, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and National Review contributing editor, is also a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.

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