In 2009, incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked former Secretary of State Colin Powell how to handle her emails. Last month, Powell denied having ever given Clinton this advice. “The truth is she was using it (her personal email) for a year before I sent her a memo telling her what I did [during my term as secretary of state],” he told the New York Post. “Her people have been trying to pin it on me.” Powell was not telling the truth. In fact, he emailed her a detailed note on January 23, 2009, advising her to evade State Department regulations. This episode reveals many things: about Powell’s honesty, about Clinton’s judgment, and about how the national media forms conclusions about political ethics in general and Hillary Clinton’s in particular.
The harrowing reality is that the only thing standing between handing control of the Executive branch to a wildly ignorant, racist demagogue with a fondness for the authoritarian world is the second-most-unpopular presidential nominee in the history of modern polling. (The most-unpopular candidate is Donald Trump, though the gap between the two is narrowing.) That Clinton is viewed as the near-equivalent of Trump, a grotesque buffoon who has committed what would normally be considered a campaign-defining gaffe at a rate of approximately once a day for 15 months, required the convergence of several factors.
Begin with the email memo. On the one hand, when taking a new and unique job, it makes a certain amount of sense to consult with somebody who has done it. On the other, perhaps some small part of your brain should be raising alarms when you begin to think, What could possibly go wrong if I listen to Colin Powell? And then, when you listen to the specifics of the argument Powell makes, red flags abound:
Powell explains that staffers from the State Department, the CIA, and the National Security Council all told him not to use a private email account, but he did not understand the technical basis for their position and decided to ignore it. (“I got around it all by not saying much and not using systems that captured the data.”) But he warns her to “be very careful,” and there is a “real danger” of being caught if she ignored the rules. A person with good judgment would read this memo and conclude that Powell was lucky to get away with what he did and his example should not be followed. Clinton decided the opposite.
Since Clinton is running for president and Powell isn’t, it makes perfect sense that journalists scrutinize her judgment far more than his. But while this fact argues for heightened focus on Clinton, it does not mean we can dispense with the comparison altogether. After all, Powell is a useful baseline for measuring her ethics. Powell, like Clinton, consciously disregarded the rules for his own communications. And Powell, also like Clinton, set up a charitable foundation between his government stints that involved his spouse and enmeshed him in conflicts of interest with donors who had an obvious interest in his public work. (That is not even to mention the comparisons with Trump’s foundation, which appears to have engaged in outright bribery to protect his fraudulent business.) To liken her to Powell does not excuse Clinton’s behavior or imply the media should ignore it. It contextualizes it. And the context suggests that Clinton committed ordinary lapses of ethics and judgment.
Yet Clinton does not have the image of a politician who has made ordinary lapses. Her image is that of a crook — and not just in the fevered minds of Republicans chanting, “Lock her up!” Colin Kaepernick recently said, “We have a presidential candidate who’s deleted emails and done things illegally and is a presidential candidate. That doesn’t make sense to me, because if that was any other person, you’d be in prison.”
Clinton’s own behavior has certainly contributed to this reputation. As Karen Tumulty and others reporting on Clinton have found, she is caught in a pathological cycle of paranoia and indignation. Clinton distrusts the media, and her fear of mistreatment can drive her to act like a person with something to hide, making reporters suspicious, which inflates her own paranoia. But the scale of her actual mistakes and misdeeds comes nowhere close to the scale of her reputation and cannot account for it alone.
One cause of Clinton’s reputation is the Democratic primary, which subjected her to an extended character indictment. Bernie Sanders has spent a career lacerating mainstream politics as grotesquely tilted toward the interests of the rich and powerful. To him, Clinton served primarily as a useful stand-in for the failings and compromises of a system he regards as rotten. But many voters who lack a deep familiarity with the assumptions and terminology Sanders uses may not have understand his criticism in this context. When he used terms like “corrupt” and “rigged” and “bought and paid for,” they understood these in a much sharper way. Younger voters, who did not form clear views of Clinton in the 1990s, were introduced to her as a literally criminal figure. Clinton is actually viewed less favorably by voters under 30 than the population as a whole — an astonishing data point in a country where young voters skew far more Democratic than their elders.
Clinton has always polarized public opinion when she has operated within partisan politics. But it was only her primary bout that drove her into true pariah status:
A second cause is sexism. One can treat this factor cynically in the face of Democratic partisans who reflexively dismiss any criticism of their candidate as sexist, but gender bias is still a powerful factor embedded deep in our psyche. “A 2010 study by Victoria L. Brescoll and Tyler G. Okimoto found that people’s views of a fictional male state senator did not change when they were told he was ambitious,” Peter Beinart notes. “When told that a fictional female state senator was ambitious, however, men and women alike ‘experienced feelings of moral outrage,’ such as contempt, anger, and disgust.” Clinton’s relatively pedestrian misdeeds are thus blown into a lurid narrative of a sinister Red Queen. (One might object that Clinton’s dynastic quality is what causes suspicion in a country founded on anti-monarchism, but did dynastic candidates like Bobby Kennedy and George W. Bush ever face such widespread suspicion?)
A final cause is the inability of journalists to subject Clinton to appropriate scrutiny while still placing her failings in the appropriate context. This is difficult in the best of times, and all the more so when the opposing party has nominated a man who has destroyed the ethical curve. How does the press sweep Clinton for traces of radioactivity when she is standing next to a nuclear meltdown of a candidate?
The mechanics of campaign coverage add to the problem. One set of reporters covers Trump, and another covers Clinton. The Trump reporters are overwhelmed with evidence of his unsuitability. The Clinton reporters have a job, too — they need to cover their subject in a suitably tough fashion. The toughest subject matter with Clinton is her email and foundation problems. Even when reporters are doing their jobs well, the political narrative that comes through is two different candidates afflicted by different but essentially parallel vulnerabilities. Every day, Trump is nagged by questions about his fitness for office and his racism, and Clinton by questions about her ethics. And even within this restrictive framework, journalists don’t always do their job well. The New York Times recently reported a completely innocuous episode — in which the Clinton Foundation requested special visas to help rescue hostages from North Korea and was turned down by a fastidious State Department — as “rais[ing] questions” about “ties.” Matt Lauer grilled Clinton on her emails and let Trump blatantly lie without challenge about having opposed the Iraq War.