It’s tough to find full-throated praise for Hillary Clinton’s United Nations press conference yesterday. For starters, she’d already done a horrible job of managing the controversy over her decision, while Secretary of State, to use only her personal email account for official business. It had been a full week since The New York Times first broke the story. One of the cardinal rules of crisis communications is to get out in front of the news and apologize immediately for any missteps. Instead Hillary had remained silent, only to finally offer an explanation for her conduct that made little sense.
Standing in front of a tapestry of Picasso’s “Guernica” at the UN, an apt backdrop for her embattled stance, she claimed she eschewed her State Department email address for the sake of “convenience.” “I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for personal emails instead of two,” she said. But even I, Luddite of Luddites, have two email accounts on my iPhone. If I can do it, Hillary, backed by tech savvy aides, most certainly can. And as neoconservative columnist Jennifer Rubin pointed out on The Washington Post’s website yesterday, just two weeks ago, Clinton said that she used two phones, an iPhone and a Blackberry, and there is footage of her saying so. “It was Hillary Clinton at her worst,” wrote Rubin of Clinton’s press conference. “In a nutshell, she said trust us—even if she herself did not follow the rules others were expected to comply with.”
For the record, Hillary didn’t break any rules about email when she first became Secretary. Although the practice was discouraged, when she took office there was no requirement that members of the government use a government address. But in October 2009, 10 months after she took the job, new regulations from the National Archives and Records Administration said agencies where employees were free to use private email systems “must ensure that federal records sent or received on such systems are preserved in the appropriate agency record-keeping system.” Hillary’s emails were backed up on her personal server, and in the press conference she said she had sent emails to “government officials on their State or other .gov accounts so that the emails were immediately captured and preserved.” But she didn’t say anything about how the emails she sent to people outside the government had been archived. She did say that she had turned over to the administration all communication about official business, amounting to 55,000 printed pages, deleting “private personal emails” about planning daughter Chelsea’s wedding, her mother’s funeral arrangements and things like yoga routines and family vacations.
In excoriating Clinton’s performance, The Wall Street Journal this morning said her press conference “had everything nostalgia buffs could want—deleted evidence, blustery evasions, and preposterous explanations that only James Carville could pretend to believe.” She didn’t turn all those relevant emails over to the government right away, but instead waited until Congress requested them as part of the Benghazi investigation.
When asked why, she failed to answer, saying, “I’d be happy to have somebody talk to you about the rules. I fully complied with every rule I was governed by.” Wrote John Dickerson in Slate, “[T]his was vintage Clinton from the 1990s: late, grudging, and incomplete.” The press conference lasted only 20 minutes and left us, Dickerson wrote, agreeing with Rubin that there was only one answer: “Trust me.” Wrote Dickerson, “Those hoping this well-known accomplished woman would emerge as a new kind of candidate were disappointed on Tuesday.”
New York Times op ed columnist Frank Bruni agreed. “It was all so yesterday,” he wrote. “Clinton’s challenge is to persuade an electorate that has known her since the Mesozoic era and trudged wearily with her through so much political melodrama that to vote for her is to turn the page, to embrace a new chapter, to move forward.” On that score, she failed. “She looked as if she was getting sucked into the past,” he wrote.
Nevertheless Bruni said Hillary scored a few points, and I would agree. Talking about her daughter’s wedding, her mother’s funeral and yoga reminded us that she’s a human being, rather than a political machine, a mother and a daughter “with concerns not just about her upward rise but also about the downward dog.” She also seemed to be arguing for some privacy in the realm of public life where she has been so exposed. Who can’t relate to the desire to keep private matters private?
She made another point that I don’t think has been highlighted enough: All government officials who keep a personal email account, and my guess is that most do, must decide at all times which account to use. As Bruni wrote, “So they’re doing real-time editing not much different from [Hillary’s] after-the-fact editing when she made the call about which of her tens of thousands of emails to turn over to the State Department.”