Did you watch Hillary Clinton’s testimony in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Thursday? Okay, most us did not, at least we did not watch all eleven hours of it. This includes yours truly. I did watch clip after clip online and the more I watched the more engrossed I got. I realized that Clinton did a Benghazi on the committee. It was a kind of charmed and karmic experience that did exactly the opposite of what the committee intended. It made Clinton look good, human and demonstrated she had both great leadership qualities and a great legal brain. It also demonstrated that she is grounded.
As for the members of the committee, at least the Republican ones, the longer it went on the more foolish they looked, as they became increasingly nitpicky. They endlessly plumbed topics that really didn’t matter, such as her relationship to their longtime political friend Sidney Blumenthal. They seemed certain that if they kept stroking those ashes there would be an ember there.
Eight hours of testimony, eleven hours of elapsed time essentially revealed nothing they hadn’t heard before. Three years earlier she had gone before the same committee and told essentially the same story. She spent a day and an evening essentially repeating herself while always responding in a civil manner to members of the committee that frequently sounded shrill and like loose cannons. At the end of it all, even the committee’s highly partisan chairman Trey Gowdy was forced to concede they learned nothing new and that the hearing was a waste of their time.
Meanwhile for those tuning in Hillary Clinton got eight hours of airtime that allowed her to demonstrate pretty convincingly that she would make an excellent president. She proved to be both measured and entirely unflappable, but also demonstrated that she was grounded and pragmatic. Many Americans saw perhaps for the first time a woman completely at odds with her stereotype. To some extent this included me, as I prefer Bernie Sanders to her for the Democratic presidential nomination. That’s still true after her testimony, but I no longer believe that she would not be a very capable president or couldn’t quite master the complexity of the issues she would be dealing with. Arguably there are few better jobs to prepare for the presidency than being Secretary of State, given that the secretary has an impossible and largely thankless job of trying to bring some sense of order to a world awash in political change. After trying to triangulate Israel and Palestine, dealing with a Republican congress must be relatively simple in comparison.
Americans watched her model a future president and watched Republicans devolve into the worst of their stereotypes, making them that much easier to loathe. She looked sensible; they looked like partisan fools. She looked mainstream; they looked extreme. She sounded pragmatic; they sounded obsessed bordering on deranged. She looked like she was tethered to Planet Earth; they looked like they were on a planet of their own.
They kept trying to frame questions so that they could not help but get the answer they wanted, going with a “When did you stop beating your wife?” meme. Reflecting their compulsive and black and white thinking, one congresswoman would allow no ambiguity in Clinton’s answer: yes or no. No yes but, no no but just an absolute answer that could be later used to prove she is a liar. And of course they asked the sorts of questions that go beyond reasonable. Can any of you remember what you had for dinner seven nights ago? Committee members expected perfect recall of events that happened years ago, as if Clinton were dictating a journal of events into a Dictaphone every fifteen minutes. As the hearings dragged on it just got more and more wacky and surreal. At some point you just had to wonder: how the hell did these people ever get into Congress in the first place? Exactly whom do they represent?
Yet Clinton remain largely unflappable and serene, driving in a contrast that got more marked over time until the committee looked more like a parody of a committee than an actual committee. For Clinton, the hearing essentially gave her eight hours of free airtime and drove in exactly the messages that she wanted to deliver as well as demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that she was highly qualified to be our next president.
Two days later, I get the feeling that Thursday’s hearing was something of a landmark, perhaps the most notable hearing by a congressional committee since the Watergate days, doubtless to be studied over and over again by academics and scholars as an object lesson on how not to hold hearings.
Clinton didn’t need to orate. She didn’t need to scowl or condescend. She just needed to be the grownup in the room. She was pretty much the only one.