Hillary Clinton kept her cool last week as she fielded questions from two congressional committees about the State Department's failure to protect our envoys at Benghazi. Until a senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, pressed her on the subject. That's when she lost it:
"What difference at this point does it make?" she wanted to know.
What difference? It made the difference between life and death for Chris Stevens and Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty and Sean Smith, the four Americans killed in the attack.
According to the official line, they were all the victims of a spontaneous demonstration that got out of hand. That was the story dutifully repeated on the Sunday talk shows by the administration's ambassador to the United Nations -- Susan Rice. Even though it had little or no basis in fact.
But what difference does it make at this point? It makes a difference because the questions that so upset Hillary Clinton go to the heart of this administration's credibility -- and hers, too.
Those four Americans, as it turns out, were killed by a well-planned terrorist attack long in the making. Not because a demonstration got out of hand, as the administration knew or should have known almost from the first, and finally had to admit.
But at the time our president and commander-in-chief was engaged in a heated re-election campaign, and he was claiming he had al-Qaida on the run. It might have been embarrassing if he'd had to confess that our poorly defended station in Benghazi had been overrun by al-Qaida or one of its allied branches -- just when he was claiming it had been decimated.
Predictably enough, Hillary Clinton rejects any such explanation for the administration's changing stories about Benghazi. To quote her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "I told the American people that heavily armed militants assaulted our compound. ... And I stood with President Obama as he spoke of 'an act of terror.'"
She felt no need to go into detail: that the president made his generalized reference to terror as a postscript, almost an afterthought, to his statement that day, and made no specific mention of a terrorist attack. Or of the repeated requests for more protection that our people in Benghazi had made, and that the State Department (Hillary Clinton, secretary) had brushed off. Or the numerous signs of an impending attack that had been ignored by Washington.
No wonder the State Department is referred to by its location in Washington -- Foggy Bottom. Urgent requests for protection, factual reports, cries for help ... they can sink without a trace in that miasmic bog, while overwritten memos repeating the obvious are churned out endlessly. Bad decisions may not be questioned ("It's our policy") while good ones face innumerable, and often enough insuperable, objections. Their very novelty may be grounds for rejecting them. And the one unbreakable rule is never to admit a mistake.
Not until the truth becomes a truism may it be admitted. It took 10 days after the attack at Benghazi for Secretary Clinton, speaking to reporters in Pakistan, to say: "What happened was a terrorist attack...." By then she was only repeating what had become more than obvious. And had been obvious almost from the first.
Ms. Clinton also told the congressional committee investigating Benghazi that she had been quick to take responsibility for the State Department's failure to protect our diplomats: "As I have said many times since September 11 (when the attack occurred), I take responsibility...."
Really? She did publicly accept responsibility for what happened at Benghazi -- but that was on October 15, more than a month after that murderous attack. There are times when carelessness, apathy and general incompetence amount to negligence, and this was one of them. Madam Secretary's explanations won't wash.
But when explanations fail, there is always emotion to appeal to: "I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews," she told the senators. "I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters...." Which reminds me that, when Whitewater was the scandal du jour back in 1994, Hillary Clinton received "TV Guide's" award for the "best performance ... in a drama or press conference." And deserved it.
What struck some of us most forcefully about that dramatic scene at Andrews was that the 24 Marines who accompanied those coffins home, six to each body, were 24 more than were assigned to protect our people at Benghazi when they were still alive.
A resignation is the sincerest sign that a public official is willing to take responsibility for what has happened on his -- or her -- supposed watch. As we were taught in the service, a commander is responsible for whatever his unit does or fails to do (emphasis mine). Yet Hillary Clinton stayed on as secretary of state.
By now a number of assistant secretaries and other underlings have been fired or disciplined or reassigned, but at State, taking responsibility is apparently only for the lower-downs.
Benghazi was a test not only of American preparedness, which this administration failed, but a test of whether it could accept any intelligence different from its fondest preconceptions about the nature of the Islamist threat. It failed that test, too, perhaps because it lacks the most basic requisite for facing the realities of this world: humility. At Benghazi, that proved a fatal, a tragic, failing.
What difference does that make at this point? It could make all the difference if Hillary Clinton decides to run for president in 2016. That comment about what difference does it make is sure to come up if she does. It's one of those classic misstatements that follow politicians to the end of their careers, if not longer. Much like the comment she made when she was still Sen. Clinton that it would take "a willing suspension of disbelief" to think the Surge would work in Iraq. (It did, and with remarkable dispatch.)
That comment from then-Sen. Clinton is barely remembered now, and maybe Ms. Clinton is hoping this one will fade, too. For it would take a willing suspension of disbelief to think she was telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth last week about what happened at Benghazi. For the more questions she answered during those hearings, the more doubts she raised.
Afterthought and suggestion: John Adams, the auteur who gave us "Nixon in China," needs to write a work to be titled "Lady Hillary of Benghazi" modeled on Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District." Only an artist of John Adams' stature could do justice to a diplomat of Hillary Clinton's. To quote an excerpt from the libretto:
What, will these hands ne'er be clean? Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red....
Exit Lady Hillary, pursued by her demons.