gender, language, politics

Clinton’s Email “Scandal”

William Langston has forwarded to me this column by Ruth Marcus from the Washington Post. In it Marcus offers reasonably intelligent and well-meant advice to Hillary Clinton about what she should have done, and should do, about Clinton’s burgeoning email problems. I have a few issues with the column, and some thoughts about what the “scandal” may really be about – something neither Marcus nor any of the other zillion commentators appears to have given any thought.


First a word or two about Marcus. She seems to be classified as a “liberal” columnist writing for the “liberal” Washington Post. In this guise she sometimes serves as a temporary replacement for the PBS NewsHour’s “liberal” commentator Mark Shields. (Getting tired of the scare quotes? Me too. But they are necessary if I want to be accurate.) Not infrequently she has had highly judgmental things to say about Clinton, so her generosity in dispensing free advice might be viewed with a bit of suspicion. One could even suspect that, by giving obvious advice, Marcus is suggesting that Clinton isn’t too bright – certainly not as bright as Marcus herself.

But while Clinton has been reviled with many adjectives over her career, “stupid” has never been one of them. I would be surprised if Marcus’s suggestions had not occurred to Clinton more than once – from the moment that, as Secretary of State, she needed to set up an email system.


To the limited extent that the commentariat has wondered publicly why the intelligent Clinton set up what in retrospect looks like a disastrous arrangement, the only answers you get are that she is so very “secretive” and “devious.” But even if she is, those traits need to be explained – especially since those who know her best and have known her longest have repeatedly described her as unusually “open” and “generous.” Can someone be congenitally “devious” and at the same time, congenitally “open”?


In recent years, public office has become a goldfish bowl – every act and word, and where possible thought, of a public individual is subjected to interminable and minute scrutiny. But the determination to know everything about Clinton – every single thought, word, and deed – and to be able to attach a reliable interpretation to every one so exceeds the norm as to move into the psychopathological. It’s not so much that Clinton is secretive, but rather that those who complain about her secretiveness are unhealthily nosy and intrusive. It is reasonable for her to try to keep her innermost self out of their creepy hands and keep some part of that self as her own. It is particularly sensible for her to do so when she has to protect not only her own personal business, but state secrets as well.


Think about it: since her husband ran for president in 1992, Clinton’s trash can has been rifled by just about everyone, starting practically from birth: her 1969 Wellesley valedictory address (and, I believe, her senior honors thesis); her private conversations, cadged from a diary appropriated from a dead confidante, Diane Blair; her every costume and hair style; and everything else that someone might normally not want exposed to the eyes of strangers, commented upon, subjected to psychoanalysis, interpreted ad nauseam and I mean that literally.


When it comes to Clinton, nobody acts normally.


So it makes perfect sense that an intelligent woman might become “secretive,” might go to great lengths to try to preserve some part of her identity as her own. And that might only force the nosy Parkers of the world to try even harder to root out … something…anything, preferably something or anything capable of a scandalous explanation. Remember Fostergate? I am sure Clinton does, and that memory is just one reason she would want to find a way to keep some things out of the public eye.


Clinton might well adopt as her personal motto, Honi soit qui mal y a pense (shame on him who thinks evil of it). You really do have to wonder what exactly is driving the busybodies. Civic spirit is not an explanation that works for me.


So here’s what I am thinking is behind the email “scandal”:


When Clinton became Secretary of State in 2009, she had had almost two decades of relentless nosiness behind her, and had every reason to suppose it would continue unabated. The idea that, to continue in public life, she had to give up any hope of personal privacy would have been bad enough. An ordinary secretary of state probably didn’t have to be overly concerned: usually there is minimal interest in the Department of State and its communications. But with Clinton, the rules are always different.


She had every reason to believe that her communications, public and private, would be uncovered and picked over by hackers of all kinds, many highly sophisticated and experienced at the hacking game. They would naturally assume that her State Department email address was the place to find the juicy stuff, and they would easily penetrate her State Department server. So she had to avoid this obvious resource, and the way she did so was to set up a private server that was much less likely to be discovered and hacked and therefore made insecure.


And further, she was forced to do so by the two-decade long snooping of the very people who are now all over her with accusations. In other words, they forced her into something that they are now using to bring her down.


In many ways, Clinton functions symbolically as our iconic woman. “Emailgate” makes it clear how we all think of women and expect them to act and not act. If Clinton tries to maintain a scintilla of privacy by setting up a non-public email account, that is terrible because she is being “secretive” and “devious,” and therefore, a typical evil woman. If word gets out that she has done this, i.e., not kept her secret well, then she is a blabbermouth, spreading state secrets around as gossipy women do. There is nowhere to hide, and she’d better not hide from us. We need to control Clinton’s communications, as we need to silence women generally or – if they dare to speak – hyperinterpret their speech.


As so often, the woman is caught in a classic double bind: damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.


It all seems remarkably unfair.