1/23/13 8:24:03 AM -- Washington, DC, U.S.A -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at senate hearing at which she will answer questions about the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. In the attack, terrorists killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty. -- Photo by Jack Gruber, USA TODAY Staff ORG XMIT: JG 42949 1/23/2013 [Via MerlinFTP Drop] / Jack Gruber USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - In a couple of years, if Hillary Rodham Clinton decides to make another run for the White House, both her supporters and detractors may look back at comments she made at Wednesday's hearings on Benghazi as evidence of what she's made of.
More than an hour into Wednesday morning's hearing - after facing some tough but polite question from Republicans and praise from her fellow Democrats for her four years of service - Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., dispensed with the niceties and pressed the outgoing secretary of State on why diplomats who were evacuated safely after the attack on Benghazi weren't interviewed immediately.
He also charged that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was "purposefully misleading" the American public with her erroneous statements that the incident, in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed, was a "spontaneous" event.
At first, Clinton stayed even-keeled and explained that State Department officials didn't think it was appropriate to interview those who were evacuated before the FBI, which was conducting an investigation into the attack. She defended Rice and the Obama administration.
And then she exploded.
"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans," said Clinton, pounding her fist on the table she sat behind as she spoke. "Was it because of a protest or because of guys out on a walk one night who decided they'd go kill Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator."
When Clinton departs from her post later this week, she will leave as perhaps the most popular politician in America and as the prohibitive favorite for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. (Her favorability rating stands at a whopping 67%, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published Wednesday.)
Clinton, President Obama's onetime rival, logged more than 950,000 miles and visited 112 countries on her way to becoming arguably the president's most effective emissary over the past four years. The man Obama picked to succeed her, Sen. John Kerry, has even asked Clinton to formally introduce him to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he appears before it on Thursday.
But could Clinton's "What difference does it make" comment have a lasting effect on her legacy?
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Clinton's comments reiterated what the White House has long been saying. Rice's inaccurate statements bear "no relevance on what happened in Benghazi, who was responsible, and what we must do to ensure it never happens again."
"History will have shown her to be one of the great secretaries of State," said Carney, who in a slip of tongue on Wednesday referred to the outgoing secretary of State as "President Clinton."
Republicans, however, haven't given up on Benghazi and see it as a millstone weighing down Obama and a blemish on Clinton's legacy.
At the first of two Congressional hearings on Wednesday, Clinton confirmed that she had not read a diplomatic cable to the State Department from Stevens prior to the incident in which he raised concerns about security at the U.S. outpost in Libya.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said that fact made her culpable for the deaths. Paul, who has said that he may be interested in making a future run for the White House, said if he were sitting in the Oval Office he would have fired Clinton over Benghazi .
"I would have relieved you of your post," Paul said. "I think it's inexcusable."
Clinton didn't take the bait with Paul. Notably, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another potential 2016 aspirant, was more measured in his questioning of Clinton, asking about some specific meetings on Libyan security that may or may not have been held.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who took exception to Clinton's tart "What difference does it make" reply to Johnson, was combative.
"I categorically reject your answer to Sen. Johnson," McCain said. He added, "If you're going to the American people to tell them what happened, you ought to have your facts straight."
Clinton, who showed emotions at times during the hearing, responded to McCain that she knew too well what was lost at Benghazi.
"For me, this is not just a matter of policy‚?¶ it's personal," she said. "I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews (Air Force Base). I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters."
It's important to note that through Clinton's eight years in the Senate and most of her tenure at State, she had warm relations with Republicans, including party stalwarts such as McCain. Even as GOP lawmakers took her the woodshed during Wednesday's hearing, most of them first thanked her for her service and admired her tirelessness on the job.
But now that she returns to private life and another potential run, the assessment, at least in the near term, of her performance will undoubtedly be viewed through a political prism.
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