Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton's confrontation with Donald Rumsfeld at the Senate Armed Services Committee last week lasted only 12 minutes but offered a glimpse of the 2008 Democratic presidential front-runner's style. A tense Sen. Clinton seemed mechanical, reading a five-minute indictment of the secretary of defense. His six and one-half minute impromptu response was far more animated.

The headline from the hearing was the assessment by Gen. John Abizaid, U.S. Middle East commander, that Iraq's sectarian violence could become civil war. Clinton's contribution was becoming a latecomer among Democratic politicians calling for Rumsfeld's dismissal. Actually, she demanded his head in an interview with the Associated Press after the hearing, not face to face with the secretary.

Clinton's performance was more a campaign tactic than a Senate hearing procedure, trying to immunize her from anti-Iraq voter rage aimed at Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Clinton planned the confrontation, picking and editing Rumsfeld quotations to upgrade her anti-war credentials.

Rumsfeld had not appeared before the Armed Services Committee since February when he was invited July 26 to testify at an Aug. 3 hearing on Iraq and Afghanistan. On Aug. 2, the secretary declined and told reporters that his closed-door session with all members of Congress Aug. 3 would suffice. Clinton then wrote Rumsfeld a public letter urging his presence. She is the least senior Democrat on the committee, but Senate Republican sources say her elevation of the issue probably persuaded Rumsfeld to change his mind late Aug. 2.

Because of low seniority, Clinton got the floor near the end of the three and one-half hour session. Other senators posed serious questions about policy and operations, and even partisan Democrats wrapped comments around questions to the secretary. But Clinton made no pretense, using most of six minutes allocated each senator to assault Rumsfeld, campaign style. She concluded: "Given your track record, Secretary Rumsfeld, why should we believe your assurances now?"

Taken aback, Rumsfeld was silent momentarily before uttering a favorite phrase: "My goodness!" He then compared his approach to the senator's: "I've tried to make notes and to follow the prepared statement you've presented." He instantly produced a masterful point-by-point rebuttal.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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