Sometimes a scandal can be succinctly summed up in a single sentence. The Watergate affair was famously encapsulated in Richard Nixon’s stubborn insistence that “I am not a crook.” Bill Clinton’s numerous affairs are best remembered by his finger-wagging assertion that “I did not have sex with that woman.” It now seems likely that the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya, will ultimately be remembered only by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical question, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
Clinton uttered the memorable line during Wednesday’s testimony before Congress, when Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin asked why she had not taken the simple step of questioning the survivors about the nature of the carefully planned terrorism attack before falsely telling the public that it had been a spontaneous response to a little-seen video posted on the YouTube internet site. Johnson was scornful of Clinton’s explanation that she didn’t want to interfere with an investigation by the FBI, and Clinton responded with her own loudly shouted, table-pounding scorn that “With all due respect, the fact is that we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill so some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? It is, from my perspective, less important today looking backward as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice.”
Johnson backed off his aggressive line of questioning at that hard-to-parse point, perhaps because he was understandably intimidated by Clinton’s menacing glare, and according to most of the big-time journalists Madame Secretary got the better of the exchange. Reuters’ correspondents described a “forceful” Clinton, “by turns emotional and fierce,” and told of how her “voice cracked as she spoke of comforting families who lost relatives in the incident.” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote approvingly of how Clinton “served up a potent brew of righteous outrage,” noted with undisguised glee that the “rookie Senator” “did not attempt a rebuttal,” and called the response a “dressing-down of Johnson.” “Emotional and defiant” were the terms used by the McClatchy chain’s reporters, who also chose “confident” and “even combative at times.” The carefully edited snippets of testimony that showed up in the brief radio reports we heard all afternoon gave a similar impression, and all of the news media were obliged to mention the fawning compliments offered to Clinton by all of the Democrats and more than a few of the Republicans.
No mention was made of any diplomatic accomplishments that might justify such praised, although we were most curious to know what they might be, and of course almost no one was so ungallant as to note that it actually did make a difference whether Clinton told the truth or chose to peddle a politically expedient lie. Clinton’s claim that that the FBI’s investigation obliged her to tell the public a soon-to-be-proved falsehood about the attacks deserves all of Johnson’s scorn, and her indignant claim that she was seeking the responsible terrorists rather than a more convenient scapegoat is a contemptible lie, but the media that have been doing their best to ignore the whole affair are naturally disinclined to say so.
All of the many other appalling aspects of the affair have been given the same respectful treatment. Even the most aggressive Republicans on the investigating committees failed to ask about the military action in Libya that precipitate the tragedy, even though the intervention seems to have led to the recent violence in the neighboring countries of Algeria and Mali, with weapons from the deposed regime being used in both bloody conflicts. Clinton delegated responsibility for the lax security given to the Americans sent into the chaos of post-bellum Libya, angrily explained that those lower level employees had not been fired because the government doesn’t fire people simply for a demonstrated inability to do their jobs, then attempted to blame the allegedly budget-cutting Republicans for the problem. The fact that the administration chose to falsely blame a previously unknown low-budget filmmaker for exercising his First Amendment rights rather than admit that organized terror groups remain a pressing national security concern was somehow overlooked in almost every report, as was the fact that the filmmaker is the only person to be punished as a result of this whole fiasco, and all in all the press seemed quite satisfied with her answers.
A series of legalistic excuses and strange maladies delayed Clinton’s testimony until the election was over, her boss officially sworn in to a second term, and the public’s scant interest in the whole affair long since exhausted, so in a purely cynical sense she has some reason to sneer that at this point it makes no difference. She even claimed responsibility for the whole affair, if not any consequences, and the press was also mightily impressed by that. Come 2016 we expect to hear supporters of Clinton’s presidential campaign to boast about how she bravely took the blame for a monumental screw-up that left four brave Americans dead and their country weakened.
What difference, at this point, does it make?
– Bud Norman