Say what you will about Meet the Press host Tim Russert, but he proved to be an effective moderator for Wednesday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire. He wasn’t afraid to challenge the candidates on the issues and force them to defend their policies and statements.
And by using a creative hypothetical he caught Hillary Clinton in a bind. Not surprisingly she said what she thought the audience wanted to hear. She even managed a nice comeback line. The only problem was her answer didn’t mesh with her previous statements. This will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with her history. The truth is that Hillary has a long record of instinctive responses that sound good but turn out to be untrue or contradictory after further investigation.
In discussing the issue of torture as a tactic in the war on terror, Russert raised an interesting hypothetical that had been offered by a guest on his program. We have captured the number three man in Al Qaeda; a bomb is set to go off somewhere in the country; and we know he knows where it is. Wouldn’t we, the guest argued, have an obligation to “beat it out of him?”
Hillary responded that torture "cannot be American policy, period." Russert then sprang the trap he had set: the guest who had offered that scenario? Her husband, Bill Clinton. The former first lady had a ready quip when presented with this surprise: “Well, he isn’t standing here right now.” And when pressed on whether this meant she disagreed with her husband, she responded “Well, I’ll talk to him later.”
Hillary’s response drew applause, but in substance it was a change from her previous position. The New York Daily News pointed out that her response conflicts with the answer she gave them last October. When questioned about a “ticking time bomb” scenario then she seemed to indicate that a narrow exception was possible:
"In the event we were ever confronted with having to interrogate a detainee with knowledge of an imminent threat to millions of Americans, then the decision to depart from standard international practices must be made by the President, and the President must be held accountable," she said.
Hillary has been fighting to project a tough demeanor to convince voters that she can handle the role of Commander in Chief. And it is likely that the way she answered last October was part of this strategy to project a “whatever it takes” attitude about the war on terror.
On Wednesday, however, her fellow candidates were all forcefully rejecting torture as an option. Perhaps fearing that she had already ducked too many questions (responding to Syria, her Iraq vote, Social Security, etc.), and not wanting to appear equivocal, she gave her full-throated rejection of torture without thinking that it contradicted her previous statements on the issue.
Her quick response to Russert’s surprise seemed to go over well with both the audience and with media pundits, but it once again highlights a less flattering trait than her sense of humor. Hillary is all too quick to respond with an answer that makes her look good at the expense of the truth.
Few may recall the controversy and scandal that rocked the first years of Bill’s administration and even fewer may be aware that a great deal of the problems were caused or exacerbated by Hillary. Whether it was Travelgate, Whitewater billing records, the Health Care debacle, or any other of the innumerable early stumbles, Hillary regularly shaded the truth and held back information. This tendency caused suspicion and distrust among the media and White House staff and acerbated an already shaky start for the new president.
Her memoirs are also laughably slanted even by the low standards of that genre. Quite simply her natural instinct is to withhold information and attack anyone who questions her. She may try to hide this by laughing whenever a question is raised, or by offering deadpan one-liners, but it is clear that Hillary shares her husband’s seeming inability to offer a straight answer.
The question is whether she will share his remarkable ability to get away with it. For the sake of the country, let’s hope not.