It was bound to happen. Sooner or later Hillary Clinton’s past was going to catch up with her. Her time in the White House wasn’t exactly characterized by peace and tranquility and she has been known to step on a few toes now and again.
Yes, once Hillary decided to run for President, and to do so based on her “experience”, that very history was bound to become an issue. And now it has, but not in the way you might have expected. The issue is not the scandals themselves, but access to the records of her time in the White House.
Last week The Los Angeles Times reporter Peter Nicholas noted the contrast between the former first lady’s campaign and the millions of White House documents still being locked up at the Clinton Presidential Library:
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton cites her experience as a compelling reason voters should make her president, but nearly 2 million pages of documents covering her White House years are locked up in a building here, obscuring a large swath of her record as first lady.
Clinton's calendars, appointment logs and memos are stored at her husband's presidential library, in the custody of federal archivists who do not expect them to be released until after the 2008 presidential election.
While it doesn’t come as a great shock that someone named Clinton is being less than forthcoming with important documents, it should be interesting to see how this issue plays out. Here we have the Clinton penchant for secrecy and obstruction clashing with candidate Clinton’s need to reshape her image.
Hillary has spent her time in the Senate, and her presidential campaign, striving to revamp her image and soften highly negative public perceptions. Instead of the cold and calculating politician she casts herself as the friendly but tough candidate; instead, of the schemer looking out for number one, she is the leader looking out for the little guy. Whether it is her demeanor, her tone, her hairstyle or her clothing everything is aimed at softening her image and putting the past behind her.
But simply softening her image isn’t enough. She has to win the nomination with the support of the party’s left wing base. This effort has involved plenty of red meat rhetoric harshly attacking President Bush for his incompetence, secrecy, and cronyism.
Putting aside the bold hypocrisy this involves, this stance puts her in a bind. She is running on her experience in the White House to differentiate her from fellow Senators Obama and Edwards. She has castigated Bush for his secrecy and called for transparency in government. The last thing she wants is a scandal about hidden records and a reminder of the ugliness of her husband’s administration.
Some might want to dismiss this as another attempt by her enemies to smear her character, but the issue is not so easily dismissed. Hillary's unprecedented campaign for president requires that voters have access to the information they need to make an educated decision. If she is running for president based in large part on her experience in the White House then the record of her actions there are critically relevant.
So the question is: what is in those records that she doesn’t want released? Does anyone really believe that staffing levels or a high number of record requests is preventing these documents from being released? The Nichols article even quotes an archival expert noting that the staffing level excuse doesn’t stand up.
Hillary could solve this potential problem, and give her campaign a boost, simply by agreeing that transparency is important to her and therefore she is going to do what it takes to get the records released before the election.
This issue ironically presents a perfect test case for Senator Clinton. She is running as the competent, friendly, candidate who will do what is right. She claims to be for transparency and offers a fresh start from the secrecy and deception of the Bush administration.
If this is true, and not simply a calculated political pose, the answer is simple: she should release the documents.
Call me cynical, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.