Who would have thought that the most frequently quoted person at a weekend-long leadership retreat of a venerable conservative intellectual society would have been Hillary Rodham Clinton? How could it be that, one after another, these pillars of the conservative movement—people who, in an earlier time, Hillary dismissed as "a vast right-wing conspiracy"—would be citing her rhetoric?
It wasn't her credentials as a former "Goldwater girl" who came to town to take her first job with Ed Feulner, the soon-to-retire president of the Heritage Foundation, in one of his early Washington roles that made her top-of-mind for this assembly. It was something she said more recently—last month, in fact—that everyone found so memorable.
"What difference at this point does it make?!" That was the Hillary Clinton quote on everyone's lips this past weekend in Annapolis. Hillary's remark from her appearance the week before last before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, trying to explain and justify the Benghazi tragedy, wasn't being cited admiringly. Nor was it being used as a sign—or sigh—of despair about the political and social trends that cause conservatives to agonize so these days.
No one was copying Hillary. They were mocking Hillary. For those attending, her remark was the apotheosis of self-serving cynicism and irresponsibility. (In other words, precisely what you'd expect of a Clinton about to check out from long service in the Obama administration.)
From her performance before the Foreign Relations Committee senators, it's not obvious whether Hillary's memorable moment was coached in advance during prep work with her staff or something that came spontaneously—like that supposed demonstration in Benghazi! What is clear is that it was intended to be the sort of climactic "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" moment that attorney Joseph Welch used to effectively shut down Sen. Joseph McCarthy almost 60 years ago—a sharp rebuff that puts the "inquisitors" on the defensive and deflects the "inquisition."
The trouble is: The answer to Sen. Ron. Johnson's question about the true origin and nature of the Benghazi attack really does matter.
It matters for security planning. No one can reliably predict when some Internet posting or cartoon contest will so enrage some public somewhere—most likely in the Islamic world—as to start a riot that can overwhelm an isolated U.S. consular outpost—or even an embassy in a less-than-cooperative capital. If that's the problem, achieving actionable warning and ensuring "adequate" security in outposts like our leased Benghazi facilities would be almost impossible. But if the challenge is the threat of deliberate and organized terrorist attack—also tough to detect in advance and prepare for, especially in places like Benghazi—you nevertheless plan and prepare for it differently. And correctly diagnosing the security challenge up front is key to formulating the right security posture. No competent manager could miss this.
It also matters for pubic credibility. Benghazi played out in the midst of a presidential election campaign. An administration that had consciously minimized the George W. Bush's global War on Terror and portrayed the terrorism threat, post-bin Laden, as substantially defeated, now had four dead bodies on its hands—one an American ambassador, the first such humiliating loss since 1979, under Jimmy Carter. We probably shouldn't be flabbergasted, under the circumstances, that Obama's administration had trouble getting its story straight. But Susan Rice's famous appearances on the Sunday talk shows five days later and President Obama's United Nations address two weeks later, still sticking to the "spontaneous demonstration" narrative, look like dishonesty and dissembling. Since Hillary earned her spurs in the Watergate investigations, you might have thought that she'd attach some importance to telling the truth—to the American public and to the rest of the government.
But Hillary has also adopted the posture of the "stand-up" leader in the Benghazi debacle, claiming, "As I have said many times, I take responsibility, and nobody is more committed to getting this right." But nowadays, in the consequence-free society we seem to now inhabit (on which I've remarked previously in U.S. News), Hillary's (or any other Washington official's) claim to take responsibility sounds a lot like comedian Rich Little's old Watergate satire of Richard Nixon. In it, Little's Nixon character explains, "I am responsible. But I am not to blame. What, you may ask, is the difference? People who are to blame go to jail." Or, in the case of Cabinet members, at least resign—on the spot, not months later, on their own personal political schedule. What's the consequence for Hillary? None. She left the State Department in her own sweet time and under her own steam, lionized by the mainstream media and with accolades even from some of the Republican senators grilling her about Benghazi.
Will any of this evasion be remembered as 2016 rolls around? I doubt it. This sad spectacle of shrugging off responsibility while pretending to embrace it is likely to be buried as deeply in the mists of memory as those Rose Law Firm records Hillary couldn't find for so many years. After all, she's become Saint Hillary.