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.
Clinton briefly looked startled, then told Rumsfeld: "This is not 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, when you appeared before this committee and made many comments and presented many assurances that have, frankly, proven to be unfulfilled -- " That was too much for Rumsfeld, who interrupted: "Senator, I don't think that's true. I have never painted a rosy picture." He added that "you'd have a dickens of a time" finding "excessively optimistic" statements. "I understand this is tough stuff."
With no time left to speak, she put Rumsfeld's allegedly rosy statements in the record. "We didn't have a 'dickens of a time,'" a Clinton aide told this column. But Rumsfeld's characterization was apt. Of 13 examples mined by Clinton's staff, only four were among the "many" statements to the Armed Services Committee. They are no more triumphant than this 2004 comment: "I do believe we're on the right track."
Many of the supposedly false claims Clinton attributed to Rumsfeld are subject to interpretation. At the end of 2002, he said on CNN's "Larry King Live" in respect to Afghanistan: "The Taliban are gone. The al Qaeda are gone." In truth, the Taliban government had been dispersed and the al Qaeda guerrilla camps were demolished. Clinton omitted that Rumsfeld added: "It's not going to be a perfectly tidy place."
Going through Rumsfeld's voluminous utterances, he is not Little Mary Sunshine. "Difficult" is a favorite word. The quintessential Rumsfeld is shown in an April 7, 2004, press briefing: "Anyone who knows anything about history and looks back at the difficulties and the potholes in the road as you go through that series of difficult stages you have to go through, understands what's taking place." On June 23, 2005, he told the Armed Services Committee: "This is a tough business. It is difficult, it is dangerous, and it is not predictable."
Like a candidate brandishing embarrassing rhetoric from an opponent's past, Clinton aides were seeking and shaping partial Rumsfeld quotations to make sure their boss avoids being Liebermanized. The Clintons are famous for "the permanent campaign," and Hillary was pursuing it last week while forgoing serious debate over Iraq.