The Peak of Her Game

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, listens to questions from lawmakers during her testimony on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, January 23, 2013, before Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

With due respect to Barack Obama, his second inaugural address—containing not a single phrase likely to end up chiseled in stone, but a tactical masterpiece in its GOP-marginalizing, progressive redefinition of what the traffic will bear—wasn't the best political TV of the week. The best political TV of the week was Hillary Clinton's testimony in front of the Senate and then House Foreign Relations Committees on Wednesday. After licking their chops for weeks at the prospect, Republicans eyeing 2016—specifically, potential contenders Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, both of whom were among her quizzers—may be wondering why they didn't play it safe and summon Beyonce to grill her about lip-synching our furshlugginer national anthem instead.

Never mind how the GOP has tried to hype the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi last September 11 for partisan advantage. How it happened isn't an unreasonable thing for Congress to be investigating, and Clinton herself would be found rightly culpable if neglected security concerns proved to be what sealed their doom. The problem here is that right-wingers have never grasped the fundamental illogic of trying to paint their enemies as inept and diabolical at once. So the proper questions—what went wrong, and what steps can be taken to do better at protecting our diplomats next time?—have largely taken a back seat to an opportunistic non-issue.

Namely, the Obama administration's supposed perfidy in characterizing the killings early on as spontaneous mob violence, rather than a planned attack. No wonder soon-to-be-former Secretary Clinton's best moment came when she asked Senator Ron Johnson in exasperation, "What difference, at this point, does [that] make?" Four dead Americans are four dead Americans. Neither her responsibility as their boss nor the White House's desire to run the perps to earth are in any doubt. Whatever explains it, UN ambassador Susan Rice's initial mischaracterization of events on Sunday talk shows is trivial by comparison, particularly since a) Rice's story got corrected within days and b) the long-term benefits, political or otherwise, of hoodwinking the public on this issue have always eluded me anyway.

Maybe fortunately, that's not my department. On the other hand, the evolution of Hillary Clinton, Cultural Figure, has been part of my beat for decades. So what struck me most on Wednesday was the recognition that her evolution is over and done with. After all my now grizzled demographic has been through over the years with HRC and the bozo she married, here was the finished product—even wearing her glasses in public once again, something she got dissuaded from doing sometime before hubby started running for president in earnest. Unmistakably, this careworn, cagy, shrewdly amused, unfazable old pro at every Beltway game was The Final Hillary. Whether she runs in 2016 or not, she's got no reason to fret about reinventing herself anymore, and it showed.

Starting with her non-hairdo hairdo—and talk about blissful relief from nonsense—she seemed indifferent to her own image, which doesn't mean she was. It means she knows that portrait has been signed, sealed and delivered at long last. Arguing about its provenance and/or worth on today's market is somebody else's business—voters included—from now on.

Her victory, to call it by its proper name, should provoke some awe among people in my grizzled demographic who remember everything that went into creating all the preliminary Hillarys. That may be especially true among the unreconstructed lefties who—like me—haven't always been in the tank for the Clintons. Biopic-style, the flashbacks to her earlier incarnations kept zipping by.

It already seems antedeluvian that some (male, old) reporters thought tearing up in New Hampshire might end Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. When the Secretary of State's voice quavered on Wednesday as she recalled greeting the Benghazi victims' families, calling that a feminine emotion never crossed anyone's mind. And when you recall how tense she used to be about having to suppress her anger, her "What difference does it make?" comeback to Ron Johnson was an advertisement that she's now more comfortable in her own skin—that is, sure of her values—than any Senate asshole in dick's clothing.

I still can't forget that, if she'd won last time around, we'd probably be at war with about three more countries around now. (She just hates it when she's got to disappoint her pal John McCain.) But as Clinton prepares to leaves public life for the first time in almost 40 years, the last 20 of those as national figure, I suddenly feel like Kate Winslet in Titanic. Tooting my whistle before I freeze to death, I'm croaking "Come back, come back."

Can it be—as 1984's Winston Smith might put it—that I've finally learned to love Big Sister? Maybe so. All the same, if she does go for it, I don't know if I'll vote for 69-year-old Hillary in 2016. Then again, had I been born Israeli a few generations ago, I don't know whether I'd have voted for Golda Meir.