To Hilary Clinton, thanks for the memories, and are there any more?

0a50c6a10d09a4b7f2990bde9c3bf9b2 In this season of political madness and one-upmanship on the part of the fringe of the Republican Part that has lately become its core, it is sadly proper to observe that not all of the distracting noise comes from that side of the aisle.  Democrats, too, have a problem.  Hilary Clinton is not necessarily crumbling before our eyes as a potential president, but she may be slowly dissolving with the steady drip of revelations concerning her private server for e-mail communication while she served as Secretary of State.

Disclaimer: I was an employee of the Department during Secretary Clinton’s entire tenure at State.  Certain things about State I know firsthand, others at some remove, and still others only from the old “heard from a friend who heard from a friend” channel.  I do not know the former Secretary personally.  Everything I knew about her from the other two channels, though, suggests that she was a solid Cabinet member, involved and knowledgeable, concerned with those who reported to her as well as those to whom she reported.  I liked her direct style, for instance, under hectoring in a Congressional hearing on Benghazi, when she simply said she was ultimately “responsible.” Like a military commanding officer, she recognized that she ultimately would always carry this: the acts of political theater repeatedly orchestrated today add nothing to that burden.

It is utterly a mystery to me, then, why the “government e-mail on a private server” matter was ever permitted to take root, grow, and flourish to the point where, just today, after we heard that Secretary Clinton stated for the consumption of all that she had started the use of that infamous private server in March, 2009, but later today, accounts surfaced to the effect that there is an e-mail from that account to General David Petraeus dated in January of that year.  Her poll numbers in categories in such qualities as “trustworthy” continue to drop.

I am not going to say that the matter can now be effectively explained away or otherwise made a non-factor.  In fact, it seems the media will continue to offer up nuggets on this same theme until Election Day, 2016, and gleeful Republicans will continue to tut-tut and speculate at nefarious reasons for the existence and use of the server.  Neither am I going to offer a spirited defense for, or even an attempt to account for, its use over a four-year tenure.

In January, 2009, when HRC took over at State, the scene when Secretary Colin Powell took over and was aghast at the lack of a computer in his office at State was a matter of legend, having taken place eight years before.  Secretary Powell also went to great pains to ensure that State employees, both domestically and posted abroad, had access to both internal State communications (intranet) and the common variety (internet) that high school students all over the country had.  E-mail through both the classified and unclassified systems was a well-established fact of life.  There had to be a concrete decision on the part of the Secretary herself that she would use an alternative system; whether that was instead of, or in addition to the official channel, I just don’t know.

The new Secretary was no novice in the ways of Washington.  As First Lady from 1993 to 2001 and a U. S. Senator from New York after that, she had been a lightning rod for every criticism, every niggling negative comment, every sling, every arrow and broadside that every Republican operative and every media personality of the right-wing echo chamber could fire in her direction.  One would suppose that she would have been reflexively so careful to walk the straight and narrow so as not to give these sources anything to complain about.  Obviously, this is not what came to pass.

I don’t know why this all happened.  Indeed, it may be nothing but an administrative misstep, the kind that gets government employees mild rebukes from time to time, and comes off more careless than evil, but I wish Secretary Clinton would come out and say two things.  WHY would you do this (an “It was allowed, ” is beyond weak), and WHY, once it was plainly not going to be dismissed by the general public (that is, voters, rather than haters or apologists) did you not realize that the longer it took to have a “tell-all” with Anderson Cooper or just about any prominent media figure, the more it would look as if there was something hidden?  Harry Truman once spoke of heat and getting out of the kitchen if you couldn’t take that heat.  Madame Secretary, don’t try to wait for the heat to go down.  We can’t afford an overdone presidential candidate.

“Errors of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” –Thomas Jefferson

US political campaigns in general, and more specifically, US presidential campaigns, are now nearly a permanent, rolling feature of public life.  They may begin for potential candidates soon after the inauguration of the current incumbent in a given term, with the dream of what can be in four short years.  For the newly-installed incumbent at the beginning of his (or her) term in office, political advisers will advise him/her of the potential political consequences of every public utterance, every gesture, and every public appearance–and the most prominent of such consequences is election to a second term.  Potential candidates of the “out” party will scream with manufactured outrage at every supposed slight, question the integrity or intelligence (or both) of the incumbent while subtly insinuating that the screamer/questioner would never do such a thing, even in a case where the screamer/questioner is fully aware that the incumbent either acted in good faith or had little alternative.

In general, where even a casual observer would brand such behavior as indicative of a deep cynicism, in political life, it has come to be known as “positioning,” or “drawing a distinction.”  Compare this to advertising, where a contracted firm may put together a protracted campaign to convince consumers that Brand X detergent is the best ever, gets out stains better than any other detergent in history, and offers the best value for the consumer’s hard-earned cash, then contracts to convince the public of the same virtues for Brand Y.  Every member of the public audience is aware that these competing claims can not all be true; at the same time, every member of that same public takes in all these claims without counting any of them as false–an exception is carved out in the public mind with the rubric that “it’s just advertising.”

For decades, the differences between advertising and political campaigns have been narrowing.  Indeed, strategists now hire many of the same people or firms to bring a candidate’s image to the people as corporations hire to sell detergent.  There is simply too much money in politics today for it not to fall into the hands of sales experts, and a candidate’s messaging comes more and more to resemble what is said in favor of Brand X than anything like concrete policy nuance or outright difference of opinion.

For objectivity’s sake, we can quote two rather old examples, one from each party.  On the Republican side, there was the Nixon campaign of 1968 which featured numerous ads insinuating or saying outright that a vote for the Democrat (Hubert Humphrey) was a vote for coddling criminals, with carefully cherry-picked cases cited to reinforce the idea that generally, a Democratic administration would enforce laws less vigorously than would Nixon.  Democrat Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, running against the hawkish Barry Goldwater, ran ads that showed a little girl picking daisies for a few seconds, then a superimposed mushroom cloud over the first image.  Subtle? Hardly.  It was meant to paint Goldwater as a reckless hawk who might well plunge us into all-out war.  Increasingly, the parties came to see these simple strikes as effective–there was no large outpouring of revulsion, and in each of the two cases mentioned, the campaign which used the tactic mentioned won at the polls. Campaigning or advertising?

50-odd years later, we appear to have reached an “only in the movies” moment with the Donald Trump phenomenon.  Trump is a real estate mogul from the New York market turned TV personality, known to millions for telling people they’re fired.  He has no experience in governance at any level unless we count trying to  influence public officials in favor of one or another of his land/building deals.  He now leads the Republican field of declared candidates for the presidency for the 2016 cycle on the strength of nothing but branding.  His credibility, to many, is bolstered by his money.  The public reasons that he must be smarter and better than everyone else in the field; after all, he says he is a billionaire, and everyone knows you have to be really smart and skilled to make that kind of money.

Trump also has given almost no details of any policies he would back, preferring to call anyone now serving in government “stupid.”  In the fact-free zone of modern campaigns, this in fact only enhances his appeal to a substantial part of his party’s electorate, wo believe his bullying language and superficial grasp of political, military and sociological realities only give credence to the claim he is “plain-spoken.”  He is going to make the country great again, this line of reasoning goes, because he will “stand up to” the likes of Putin or others.

Much has been said and written about the impossibility of Trump’s quest for his party’s nomination.  Even if he gets that, the reasoning goes, there is always the general election, where he is sure to fail.  I am not so confident.  I remember 1980, when a “B” movie star who had spent WWII in Burbank making propaganda films and seemed hopelessly out of his depth on the national stage, went after an incumbent Democrat, no less.  The actor had been governor of California, but still.  There was no chance.  Dismiss this candidate of big talk and no substance at your peril.  All kinds of people are registered to vote, and many of them are angry at what they see as unnecessary changes in the country.  Trump promises to “make America great again” and it must be genuine.  After all, he’s a billionaire.