Clinton grilled, punches back

Chicago Tribune Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Clarence Page discusses the Benghazi hearing as a preview for 2016 as certain U.S. senators stood out.

It was darkly amusing to watch Republicans go after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Capitol Hill hearings regarding the tragic fiasco in Benghazi, Libya. But the Grand Old Party's attack dogs were barking up the wrong tree.

We still have many serious questions that should be asked about the attack on the remote U.S. mission in Benghazi that left four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, dead on Sept. 11 last year. Unfortunately lawmakers from both parties failed to ask many.

Republicans seemed to care only about questions, no matter how flimsy, from the conservative blogosphere that might embarrass President Barack Obama's administration. And Democrats seemed to care only about easing the former senator's seemingly unstoppable march to the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, if she decides to pursue it.

As she knowledgeably answered or disarmed one question after another, it was easy to forget the die-hard Clinton bashers who speculated that she was afraid to face Congress over Benghazi. When she delayed her appearance because of illness, a concussion and a blood clot near her brain, some of her merciless detractors still ridiculed her "Benghazi flu" and "immaculate concussion." They probably don't believe Obama's birth certificate either.

Afraid? When Clinton finally appeared, she looked about as frightened as a lion queen in a roomful of bunny rabbits.

For six hours in House and Senate hearings, Republicans followed the lead of Fox News, conservative websites and Mitt Romney's failed presidential campaign to press a paranoid conspiratorial narrative that crumbled even as they voiced it.

It is a narrative that unfortunately has turned valuable public attention away from urgent U.S. security concerns at our diplomatic facilities and toward statements by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice as she made the rounds of Sunday talk shows after the attack.

GOP lawmakers tried tirelessly to shame the Obama administration with a narrative that goes like this: Obama and his aides tried to cover up this blemish on their counterterrorism record before the election by describing it as a protest against an anti-Prophet Muhammad YouTube video.

Of course, we know from the presidential debates that Obama had already referred to the attack as terrorism before Rice's TV appearances. Yet her foes persist. Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, for example, misquoted Rice by omitting her caveat that the video protest scenario was the "best information that we have available to us today," and that "what we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding."

No wonder Clinton, who has repeatedly taken responsibility for the fiasco, exploded with frustration in the day's most replayed television sound bite after Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson badgered her yet again about that alleged video-protest-extremist-terrorist contradiction.

"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans," she said sternly to Johnson, her voice rising in volume and fury. "Was it because of a protest? Or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and to do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator." Right on, Madam Secretary.

Predictably, some conservative commentators edited that last line out of her sound bite, making her sound like she didn't care what caused the attack. Such brazen high jinks only make her detractors sound like they don't care about the truth — unless it makes Democrats look bad.

As a political issue for Republicans, the Benghazi hearings fizzled. If nothing else, the hearings showed us how Washington is still a place where both parties have one thing in common: Everybody wants responsibility but nobody wants to take the blame.

The hearings also revealed how skillfully Clinton, in her last appearance as secretary of state, could make Lilliputians out of her detractors in a face-to-face confrontation. No wonder Democrats, including some unrestrained cheerleaders on the congressional panels, are begging her to run for president in 2016.

If she does decide to throw her hat into the ring, the Benghazi hearings may actually help her chances. She stands tall when her critics look so small.

Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.

cpage@tribune.com

Twitter @cptime

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