Clinton: Not a Scandal, Yet. But…

The Times was sloppy, and the Beltway overheated as usual. But even if this story floats away, Clinton needs to learn some lessons from it.

03.06.15 10:15 AM ET

So by now we’ve read every possible interpretation of why Hillary Clinton used a personal email account to conduct her State Department business. There’s a lot that isn’t clear, and a lot we still don’t know. The main thing we know that is the original Times story that broke the news was really slipshod, staggeringly so for such a major story in America’s best newspaper. After I and others noted this, you could tell the Times acknowledged as much, because the paper’s Day Two follow-up didn’t really have any new news, just facts and dates that should have been in the original article to begin with. It took reporters the better part of the day Tuesday to figure out exactly which regulation the Times piece was accusing Clinton of potentially violating.

Even Mark Halperin, nobody’s idea of a Clintonista, slammed the original article. “There are things in the Times story that if they’re not flat out wrong are really misleading and unfair to the Clintons,” he said on Bloomberg TV.

The Times’ overheated sloppiness does not mean, however, that Clinton is totally in the clear here. I didn’t say that (“Clinton still has some questions to answer,” I wrote Tuesday). The citizens on whose behalf she was conducting business obviously have the right to hear her explain why she opted to use a private account. And we have the right to know whether the private server was more secure than State’s or less, and whether any classified information was electronically transported across this server. (You may think it implausible that a private server could have been more secure than State’s, but remember, Wikileaks didn’t seem to find the State systems too impenetrable, and it is after all the federal government we’re talking about.)

If the answers to any of these questions turns out to be alarming, this could become a legitimate scandal. And of course, depending on the content of the emails, we may well be in for another, related Clinton “scandal.” She doesn’t have to have said anything self-incriminating in these emails. The way the other side is out to get her, one ill-considered verb could end up being hung around her neck for days or weeks.

But even if this story were to end right here, or right after she does a press conference about it, there are a couple of lessons Clinton ought to take away from this.

First, she desperately needs someone on her staff to serve as a kind of average person-common sense barometer, and this person has to have the stature to be able to give it to her straight, and she has to listen to this person. In this case, back in early 2009, this person might have said something like, “I don’t know, Hillary. When an average person gets a job at First Federal Bank, he gets a First Federal email address, and that’s the account through which he conducts his banking business. Anything other than that is just gonna look weird to people.”

Or, last year, on the topic of her paid public appearances: “No, Hillary, not Goldman Sachs. Avocado growers, I see no harm. American Association of Sheetrock Manufacturers? Fine, if you insist. But not Goldman!”

Or: “You know, maybe it’s not the world’s best idea for you to put your name on that foundation. Cuz then whenever a question arises about its funding sources you can say ‘Hey, it’s his foundation, not mine!’”

Or, more proactively: “I was thinking, Hillary, with all these millions you’ve now made, and coming out of State, why not start your own foundation? Help women around the world with microcredit and all that. Can’t lose.”

Yes, she ought to be able to make these calls herself, but it seems clear that she can’t. They’re obviously not Bill’s strong suit either. So since neither of them seems able to do it, they need to hire some help. Or maybe assemble a panel of actual average Americans, and when one of these decisions looms, her staff can video-tape the panel reacting, and she can watch.

The second thing she needs to get is this: If she does become president, the right is going to be gunning for her from Day One, sniffing around for impeachable offenses from the second she takes the oath. This kind of secrecy and defensiveness will only add fuel to the fire—and it will put the media on the right’s side. It will make it look—not just to Hillary-haters, but to average people—like she’s hiding something even when she doesn’t have anything she needs to hide. We’ve seen that movie many times.

If she’s president, she has to break that habit. The White House operates under far more onerous disclosure and accountability rules than the cabinet departments do, and if she doesn’t follow those rules and then some, she’s just going be handing those out to get her the proverbial match.

Old habits die hard as they say. We seemed to have reason to think that the Hillary Clinton who urged the stonewalling of The Washington Post on Whitewater documents back in 1994 had gone away. We never heard any such stories in her Senate or State years until now. But that Hillary is still around, apparently. The Tweet she sent out late Wednesday night doesn’t quite equate to transparency.

The other old habits that won’t die easily are 1) right-wing loathing of her and desire to discredit and even destroy her, and 2) the mainstream media’s reflexive, uncritical, and panting promotion of every charge the right levels against her (remember, though this story came through the Times, it obviously originated in Trey Gowdy’s Benghazi committee’s investigative staff). Clinton’s old habit just feeds these others, and it’s not a dynamic she or the country will need if she’s in the White House.