Hillary Clinton has long seemed to be operating under a potentially devastating political handicap, one she apparently hasn’t really recognized, let alone fixed.
The problem: She’s being served by a supremely loyal staff that is strong on favoring and fawning but weak on telling tough truths to the boss.
Recently, we’ve seen the eruption of totally avoidable controversies about her emails as secretary of state, just as she sought to spark public enthusiasm for her long-awaited presidential candidacy announcement.
The solution: What Clinton seems to need most urgently is a top adviser who doesn’t confuse loyalty with making the boss feel good. What she needs is someone like the adviser who years ago seemed to set the gold standard for White House chiefs of staff by personally delivering painful truths to his president. (No, not Hillary’s husband.)
I’m talking about President Jerry Ford and how well he was served by his unobtrusive but rather extraordinary chief of staff. I’m talking about Dick Cheney.
Please do not adjust your newspaper or video screen! Yes, the very same Dick Cheney.
In the runup to the 1976 campaign, Ford faced a unique challenge for an incumbent president: He’d never been on a presidential ballot before. Remember, he was appointed vice president (when Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace) and became president (when Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace).
Voters didn’t know Ford, and he didn’t know what voters thought of him. So Cheney handed Ford an unprecedentedly candid 120-page memo saying voters felt Ford was “not smart,” maybe not “competent or intelligent enough to be president,” “not in control of government,” and was a “puppet” of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and other officials.
Ford and his advisers tailored a campaign that helped him at least close the gap against his Democratic challenger and ultimate victor, Jimmy Carter.
Fast forward into the 21st century. As Clinton has tried to generate good vibes for her campaign announcement, she has been hit with respun controversies she needlessly helped energize about emails she wrote, or didn’t write, as secretary of state.
Clinton gave her Republican adversaries ammunition they needed to raise old accusations anew about what she may have done or not done before, during and after the tragedy of the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
She had chosen to write all her official emails on her personal, unofficial email server, bypassing the state department’s email system. Later she decided to send 30,000 of her emails to the State Department to be archived and 300 emails to congressional Benghazi probers. And she chose to have all the rest wiped from her private server, without any independent reviewer to authenticate her decisions.
We’ve seen no indication that Clinton ever got the gutsy advice she needed to hear: She’d regret using only her private email system; it was a foolish way to try to control access to public documents; it made her look like a control freak who was trying to hide documents (whether she was or not).
Also, that she was fueling the familiar criticism that the Clintons both act as though they alone can operate according to special rules that apply to no one else.
But instead of gutsy straight talk, all we’ve seen is that Clinton got advice that was softened and shaped to make her feel good.
Example: after the Benghazi tragedy, Team Obama chose to have then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice appear on television and say the Benghazi attacks began as an outgrowth of a spontaneous protest about an anti-Islamic video.
The New York Times reported Clinton’s foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, emailed Clinton a transcript of Rice’s ABC appearance, assuring her: “She did make clear our view that this started spontaneously then evolved.”
But it was absurd to use the word “spontaneous” since the attackers clearly came armed with military weapons. And lo, two weeks later, after Republicans had pounced on Rice’s assertion, Clinton’s adviser sent his boss a new mail that featured a reverse spin. Rice’s controversial wording wasn’t Clinton’s view after all, Sullivan assured his boss: “You never said ‘spontaneous’ or characterized their motivations.”
Ironically, what Hillary Clinton really needed was a Dick Cheney-styled adviser (circa 1976) — someone gutsy enough to warn her she could end up raising needless concerns among swing voters who can and should be hers: independent-voting women in America’s suburbs. She may well have made herself look unnecessarily suspicious in the eyes of the voters who are key to her presidential prospects.
Martin Schram, a Tribune News Service columnist, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.