The real source of Hillary’s transparency problem

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Matt Bai
·National Political Columnist
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Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference at the United Nations in New York March 10, 2015. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference at the United Nations in New York March 10, 2015. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

All in all, Hillary Clinton offered a plausible response this week to the allegations of missing emails. She thought it easier to carry just one device rather than two. She assumed her emails with staff were being archived. And then a bunch of other stuff about servers and bureaucratic process that I frankly missed because it bored me into a near coma, causing me to have a strange dream in which Senate Republicans sent a letter to Iran claiming to be a Nigerian prince and asking the ayatollahs to send them $400 billion for the federal deficit.

If Clinton thinks, however, that her explanation is going to end speculation about whatever sinister secrets she is said to be keeping, she’s mistaken. And that’s not because she’s an especially nefarious person, or because she’s a woman, or because the media is bent on destroying her.

No, to understand why truth and transparency are Clinton’s main vulnerability in 2016, you need to understand the moment in which the Clintons entered American politics, and how they came to dominate it.

First, let me say that I have a hard time getting too worked up about Clinton’s vanishing emails, although maybe I should. It’s possible, I guess, that in the many thousands of unreleased emails is evidence of her having endangered national security by talking policy on unsecured servers. It’s possible that some emails refer to meetings that Clinton or her aides would rather not make public.

And yet what Clinton said about her daughter’s wedding and family vacations being off limits resonated with me; even our highest public officials should probably be able to fire off notes to friends, or even ruminate on substantive decisions, without having every word scrutinized by reporters and enemy campaigns. Emailing for most of us now is more like having an impromptu chat than writing a letter, and no executive expects to have every chat archived.

What’s really going on here, though, doesn’t have much to do with emails, public or private. Rather, it has to do with the Clintons themselves and the assumption that they’re always holding something back.

It’s not an unfounded perception, but neither is it entirely their fault. You have to remember that when Bill Clinton and his wife rose quickly through the ranks of Democratic politics, during the 1980s, the country was in the throes of both a cultural and political transformation.

At 32, Bill Clinton wasn’t only the youngest governor in the country when Arkansans elected him in 1978; he was also on the leading edge of a generational transition, as the ’60s generation emerged from social movements to begin their ascent in electoral politics. The boomers, of course, were self-analytical, idealistic, permissive — different in every way from the World War II generation that still held sway politically.

At that time, too, American politics was just beginning to undergo a tectonic realignment. The South in which Clinton had grown up — a South dominated by Democrats, both segregationist and reformist — was fast becoming the base of a new, socially conservative Republican Party. A lot of older Democrats would hold on to their seats in the former Confederacy for many years to come, but few young Democrats would rise from it.

There was no way to navigate these turbulent currents, to somehow bridge the divide between one generation and the next in American politics, without creating some artifice and living by it. In Arkansas in the late 1970s, Bill Clinton had to maintain a persona that was a little more Southern than he probably felt after years spent in Washington, England and New Haven. (His wife, having grown up in Illinois, had to work even harder at fitting in.)

Somewhat out of step with the both the culture and the politics of the older power structure in Arkansas, which didn’t go in for antiwar protesters and draft dodgers, the Clintons had to seem less liberal than they really were. Clinton’s centrist, “new Democrat” argument was substantive and based in genuine conviction, but it also happened to be the only tenable political strategy available for a Southern Democrat in the 1980s.

Later, after Clinton became the first boomer politician to win the nomination and then the White House (and after Hillary became the first Ivy League-educated lawyer to serve as first lady), he and his wife worked to present themselves as a more traditional couple, with more traditional gender roles, than they or most of their contemporaries really were. Having arrived just as the media decided to treat politicians as celebrities, the Clintons had to stage their marriage in a way that no previous president and first lady, most of whom had less than perfect unions themselves, had ever been forced to do.

All politicians present an idealized version of themselves and their families, of course. All modern candidates are in some part performance artists. But with the Clintons, the artifice isn’t incidental; it was born of necessity, and it’s integral to their political identities.

We think they’re always hiding something essential about themselves, because they always have. The truth is that an America cleaved by generational and ideological change would never have accepted them any other way.

This is why Hillary Clinton will never be easily afforded the same zone of privacy that the media has generally extended to Barack Obama. No one assumes Obama is keeping secrets. With Hillary, there’s always some suspicion that what’s private is being kept private because it contradicts the public script.

What struck me, watching Clinton parry questions Tuesday, is how little she seems to appreciate this circumstance and her own role in creating it. Her words were sensible enough, but her manner was, as ever, contemptuous, her exasperation barely concealed. It wasn’t that she couldn’t answer the questions coming at her; it was that she didn’t think she should have to.

If I’m a Clinton adviser, that’s a problem for me. Because this isn’t 1992, when politics could be staged for the evening news. Transparency and authenticity are paramount in the social media culture, and the lack of them is fatal. Ask Mitt Romney.

This email fiasco should cause Clinton to think twice about the kind of campaign she wants to run, assuming she’s still hell-bent on running at all. To become president, she may need to dispense with the artifice, after all these years, and ask America to accept her for who she really is, rather than the part of herself she feels safe in revealing.

Old habits die hard. Presidential campaigns, not so much.