Yes, this is Hillary Clinton’s Reverend Wright moment

As the 2016 presidential race slouches toward November, we’ve reached the moment when the presumptive Democratic Party nominee faces her biggest test so far. It’s not the California ballot. It’s not the lingering insurgency of Sen. Bernie Sanders. It’s not Donald Trump’s smears about the death of Vince Foster.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a Senate hearing in 2010. Clinton has been under scrutiny since 2014 for her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of state. Nothing she has said to date about the matter has put the controversy to rest. Photo: Department of Defense

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a Senate hearing in 2010. Clinton has been under scrutiny since 2014 for her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state. Nothing she has said to date about the matter has put the controversy to rest. Photo: Department of Defense

It is, rather, her clearly improper use of a private email server system while holding the office of Secretary of State of the United States, one of the most important roles in the US government. That decision, which she has since called a “mistake,” has raised important questions about Clinton’s character and her judgment.

All of which should sound pretty familiar.

In March of 2008, the dramatic rise of Barack Obama hit a devastating road block in the revelation that he had sat with apparent complacency through years of sermons in the church of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a man who famously described the 9/11 terror attacks as “the chickens coming home to roost.”

It was troubling stuff. Year after year, Sunday after Sunday, then-Sen. Obama attended the church of a man with unambiguously radical views about America, its history, and our racial divide. To cite one example, Wright believed that America’s government knew about the Pearl Harbor attacks and deliberately failed to prevent them.

“No, no, no, not God Bless America,” Wright sermonized. “God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.”

It was never clear how many of those bitterly controversial sermons Obama heard. But Clinton herself was quick to suggest that his loyalty to Wright’s church raised serious questions about Obama’s character and judgment.

“You don’t choose your family, but you choose what church you want to attend,” Clinton said. “I think given all we have heard and seen, [Wright] would not have been my pastor.”

Obama, famously, managed to pivot by giving one of the great speeches of his career. Speaking in Philadelphia, the future president acknowledged Wright’s “incendiary language,” but he placed the preacher’s sermons in the context of a much larger, more complicated history.

“I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy,” Obama said. “For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely—just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”

Not everyone bought it, of course. Those “nagging doubts” never quite settled. Conservatives have continued to argue that Obama was permanently tarnished by his association with Wright, whose positions were, as Obama himself conceded, “profoundly distorted.”

But a lot of Americans felt that Obama had spoken personally and frankly about the scandal. That speech likely saved his candidacy.

It’s that kind of speech that Hillary Clinton needs to give now. She needs to explain her actions using a private email server both broadly and with specificity. She needs to tell the American people why she used such tactics and she needs to lay aside semantics and sophistry in defending them.

Arguably, her lapse in judgment is the more significant. It occurred during a time when she was serving in public office and it was a decision that treated directly on her duties at the State Department. Which means that her explanation needs to be even more frank and vulnerable.

For all of Clinton’s political strengths, it remains unclear whether she is capable of an Obama-like moment of nimbleness and clarity. As the New York Times noted this week in a scathing editorial, “The reflex she is revealing again now — to hunker down when challenged — is likely to make her seem less personable to many voters, and it will surely inflame critics’ charges of an underlying arrogance.”

Assuming the FBI doesn’t produce indictments, it is still possible for Clinton to lay this to rest, as Obama laid the Wright scandal to rest. She should explain herself directly to the American people. Then she should take questions from reporters, giving answers that are candid and honest and thorough.

Clinton showed at the Benghazi hearings that she was capable of toughness. Now, perhaps for the first time in her long political career, it is essential that she show her honesty and transparency.

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25 Comments on “Yes, this is Hillary Clinton’s Reverend Wright moment”

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  1. Kent Gregson says:

    The general dissatisfaction with the two main parties candidates may mean Washington insiders and outsiders may both make an independent run. Perhaps the “spoiler” rhetoric will die down with more candidates to choose from.

  2. Peter Hahn says:

    I still dont get why this is such a big deal. Presumably there was some intention to foil freedom of information requests and this probably offends journalists. It is probably technically illegal to do so intentionally so she can’t just say so. She is not very tech savvy so its unlikely she really understood the hacking potentials. I don’t see how this rises to the “scandal” level. I do understand why the Republicans would want to push it and why maybe journalists want to make sure it doesnt get to be a habit.

  3. Peter Hahn says:

    The email “thing” doesnt involve sex, money, influence peddling, It doesnt involve passing state secrets or even leaks. It doesnt even seem to involve taking classified documents home. It does seem to involve breaking rules, although rules that weren’t enforced. No crimes were involved apparently.

    Obviously if she is indicted for a crime, that in itself becomes a serious problem, but there is no indication that an indictment is likely.

    Brian – please explain what the deal is.

  4. Brian Mann says:

    At its simplest level, Clinton took extraordinary measures (installing a private email server in her home with the help of technicians) that enabled her to conduct highly sensitive public and government business in a way that was both secretive (she retained control over which emails she disclosed and did not disclose) and vulnerable (the government’s business was conducted using equipment they could not protect). According to the State Department’s report, when people raised concerns about this, they were told by senior staffers to drop the matter.

    I don’t see this behavior as necessarily disqualifying. I think it’s fair for voters to weigh context and other factors, including decisions by other secretaries of state and the real-world impacts of Clinton’s decisions, which appear to be marginal. But I do think her conduct raises questions about her mindset and her judgment that Clinton still needs to address.

    It’s also simply a political observation: This email affair is clearly damaging Clinton seriously. She may still win without speaking to these issues, but it’s no longer guaranteed. Fairly or not, many voters are rapidly coming to the conclusion that we have two deeply and equally flawed candidates, both stained by past conduct. Landing in a state of ethical parity with Donald Trump is not where Clinton hopes to be as a candidate.

    –Brian, NCPR

  5. telfish says:

    NPR still taking Rev Wright’s words out of context I see. Nothing changes.

  6. PirateEdwardLow says:

    First and foremost, I have respect for Mr. Mann’s reporting… in general. As it comes to politics.. I have little sense that he is an insider, who has lots of sources at the national level… the fact that he ‘talks to’ Elise Stefanik, but doesn’t quote her in stories about NY21 furthers my suspicion of what access he has in political races.

    Add to this, NCPR has a small news staff with lots of work to do, which one could say makes it difficult for anyone on the NCPR staff to be too involved in only political coverage, and specifically presidential politics..

    To be clear, everyone has a right to an opinion, regardless if they are an expert on the subject. But to begin such a discussion allows others with just as much or little insider knowledge and expertise to state opinions. This includes the random google searches for issues related to what one believes.

    One point I will stand on this, related to knowing a subject. Recently there was a story about a dead inmate Clinton Correctional Facility. This is in an area that Mr. Mann covers, he lives where the correction officers are and perhaps are even his neighbors. Maybe Mr. Mann knew about this, but kept it quite to protect his sources. The story was broke by Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper.

    To say she has one pivotal moment or issue is a little confusing.. just her pay to play situation has many twists and turns a lone. In this link Senator Clinton’s son in law also is receiving money from Goldman Sachs (as well as being a former employee.. though the article doesn’t address it, one could ask how did said son in law get his job at Goldmans)

    If there is one Pivot Moment, I would say it is how pivotal she is.. on one side of an issue until she get’s money to speak for a certain group then pivoting to the other side. As you displayed with Clinton’s comments on Reverend Wright in this story.

    I once mentioned that Hillary Clinton is one indictment away from handing the presidency to the republicans (i.e. drumpf). Now this could be said about any politician, yet to be honest, we are talking about Hillary Clinton and this Washington Post article demonstrates how Clinton is perceived.

    The main point here though, Obama was condemned for siting in a church, while a preacher preached. Hillary Clinton listen to an opinion about gun control in one state and a different opinion in another state. She was the one with the shifting opinion, with the speech.

    She wasn’t at a dinner listing to a speech to Goldman Sachs and can’t remember what was said… she was the one making the speech and she knows full well what she said.

    And she knew from the George Bush/Karl Rove e-mail scandal what was proper and not. She put a server in her basement and she knew why… Like we don’t know what she said to Goldman Sachs, we don’t know why she had a private server.

    But we can speculate and the speculation is not good.

  7. The Original Larry says:

    The e mail “scandal” is a prototypical Hillary Clinton affair: she makes her own rules and then lies about it. When confronted with the evidence, she dissembles until it blows over or, finally, writes it off to some variation of the vast right wing conspiracy. What she doesn’t understand is how thoroughly sick and tired of the unending controversies and scandals…and her…the American people are. Enough already.

  8. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    People often take home pencils and post-it notes from the office. Sometimes Scotch tape. That is unethical, of course, as is driving your car faster than the posted speed limit and using your phone while driving – though many people started doing it before it was against the law.

    Lots of people are issued government cell phones from which they conduct personal business, or when they are on call use a personal phone or computer to conduct government business. Much of that stuff is probably illegal or unethical to one extent or other.

    We’ve seen over the decades lots of problems caused by technology creeping into government business with presidents from FDR through Nixon (possibly excepting Truman and Ike) recording conversations. Some of that may or may not have been illegal. Any time there is an introduction of a new technology there will be problems in implementing it within a bureaucracy. As a high government official HRC’s communications were subject to laws for public documents and Clinton has admitted that her use of a private server was a mistake, and she handed over nearly all her emails. Doesn’t seem like a giant scandal to me.

    as to Brian’s (the government) contention that “… (the government’s business was conducted using equipment they could not protect). According to the State Department’s report, when people raised concerns about this, they were told by senior staffers to drop the matter.” The fact is that the government itself couldn’t protect that information.

    If I were Hillary (and who is to say Im not?) I would make the contention that my use of a personal server was the action of a maverick department head who was trying to get stuff done without the known dangers of having out of date government technology get in my way. Which is probably pretty close to the truth

  9. Peter Hahn says:

    She could take a page from Trump’s book and simply deny that it ever happened.

  10. Robin McClellan says:

    It’s pretty clear that Hillary Clinton’s superpower is the ability to turn lemons into battery acid, but to suggest that she and Donald Trump are “equally flawed” is to compare the work she did as Secretary of State and as Senator with Trump’s building and shedding entertainment empires. Sure, her decision to have her own email server set up was a bad and poorly motivated idea, and her knee jerk attempt to minimize it to make it go away a persistent problem, but to compare that to Trump’s vision of a white Fortress America, his ability to believe things that are patently untrue and his megalomaniacal perception that he can transform those misperceptions into his vision of “America great again,” and find them equal is like comparing cheating on a final exam in high school to rigging an election.

    Will it bring her down? I certainly hope not. I have survived presidents I thought would bring down the country before: Johnson with the Vietnam War, Nixon with Watergate (who ironically was president when the EPA, OSHA, and Superfund were all created!), Reagan with a massive tax cut without cuts to expenses that lead to our current deficit, and George W. who started the longest running war the US has ever been in. I don’t know that I will be able to survive a Trump presidency, particularly in light of Cape Breton’s offer of asylum to Americans if he is elected.

  11. Peter Hahn says:

    Im not sure what she could have done differently to deal with the fallout. She can’t just release all the emails. They belong to the state department (which is why she shouldn’t have taken them home). She could release all her personal emails (which she shouldn’t have mixed in with her professional emails), to show she isn’t hiding anything, but who among us wants all our personal emails made public? and most of us don’t armies of people out there trying to make us look bad. She is kind of stuck hoping it goes away. It was a really dumb thing to do and that probably says something about her or her staff. It also suggests that as president she probably wont be any more open and transparent than any of our recent presidents.

  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    To the point Brian M makes about HRC needs to make a full personal statement I wholeheartedly agree, but I don’t see it as making a bit of difference in the public perception. It didn’t work for Obama – the Birther in Cheif is now the presumptive Republican nominee. No, there isn’t a direct relation to Rev. Wright, but the connection is there.

    Let’s look at history a bit. Remember the Starr investigation? Kenn Starr was charged with investigating the Whitewater land deals. When nothing of consequence came of that he turned to the firing of travel agents in the Whitehouse (Travelgate) which turned up nothing, then he looked into FBI files and nothing there, then he turned to the sexual harassment suit by Paula Jones, and finally after spending tens of millions of dollars he obtained an audio recording (possibly illegally recorded) of Monica Lewinski admitting a sexual encounter with Bill.

    The Lewinski investigation itself may have been illegal because a tryst with an intern was not within the scope of his investigation. Of course it lead to the impeachment hearings which Clinton survived but a succession of Republicans were forced out because of hypocrisy or illegal acts that turned up; people like Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston, Henry Hyde, Helen Chenoweth, and Dan Burton – all of whom had one or more affairs themselves – and of course there was Dennis Hastert who is a documented pedophile rapist and a convicted financial crook.

    Fast forward to the Ben Ghazi investigations which have so far cost something like $20 million dollars and when they found NO CRIMES, no misdeeds, nothing related to the actual facts involved, the committee turned to the fact that HRC used private email – something several other people in her position had done before without any criminal investigation or charges.

    So, yes Hillary needs to humble herself and admit she is very defensive about issues relating to investigations and she has a tendency toward secrecy. Then we can sit back and wait until some intrepid reporters start investigating each and every high official in Washington about their use or misuse of government and personal email, burner phones, private servers, email hacks etc. you can start with everyone on the Ben Ghazi committee.

  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Sorry for the extra post, but I forgot to note that Ken Starr who investigated Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions so thoroughly has recently lost his job because he either covered up, or actively ignored sexual harassment allegations at the University he was in charge of. Maybe someone should look into his emails to see where that thread goes.

  14. Ken Hall says:

    In the late 80’s-mid 90’s I worked for the US Army (civilian federal employee) in Aberdeen, MD. I began working there, just prior to the internet becoming a worldwide phenomena, in 1987. At the time we had government procured Zenith desktop computers of two flavors; one for “non classified” work and one certified for “classified” work and it was verboten to work on classified documents with a non classified computer. A fellow that I knew casually who worked in a division in another area was observed by his supervisor working on a classified document on a non classified government computer in his office within the on base building. She stopped him, called her supervisor who took the information to his supervisor (a two star general) who used this man’s digression to impress upon everyone under his command the seriousness of not following security protocol. The man was humiliated, fired, placed on a never to be hired by any federal agency list and damn near went to jail. The rest of us were all required to attend a briefing wherein the actions of the man and to the man were detailed as a warning. These computers were not connected to the internet and the removable data devices were floppy disks with 360 kilobyte to 1.2 megabyte capacity; miniscule by today’s standards.

    It will likely say much about the power and clout of big money if Hillary escapes the potential penalties of flaunting her disregard for federal government security protocols by conducting purportedly classified communications over a private internet server while US Secretary of State.

  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Ken, there has been no allegation at this point that I have heard to indicate Hillary used private email to send any classified information that was classified at the time it was sent. There is occasionally information that becomes classified AFTER it is released publicly, like the NYTimes stories of some years ago.

    IMO there is far too much government information that is classified. In a free society secrets should be very few. When nearly everything is deemed secret it becomes nearly impossible to keep much of it secure.

    Certainly the military is not free society and military personnel are held to a high standard, but when official government representatives and high officials are often unable to discuss even in general information regarding the public good we have a serious problem.

  16. Ken Hall says:

    KHL, From Wikipedia comes the following which confirms your contention about the security classifications of the documents communicated via the Clinton’s private server: “None of the emails on Clinton’s server were marked as classified at the time they were sent, but 2,093 email chains on the server were later retroactively marked as classified by the State Department. Sixty-five of those emails were found to contain information classified as “Secret”; more than 20 contained “Top-Secret” information; and the rest contained “Confidential” information. Of the 2,100 emails, Clinton personally wrote 104 and her aides wrote the rest.”

    I would find it difficult to comprehend how 2000+ documents would be retroactively classified as Confidential, 65 as Secret and 20 as Top Secret and that SoS Clinton and her staff created them out of whole cloth without having used or read any previously classified documents to assist them with such creations. As I recall if one uses information from previously classified documents to create a new document the new document must be accorded the highest classification of the source documents utilized on a page by page case with the cover page classified at the highest classification of any page in the document. I suppose it might conceivably be possible that multiple folks working independently could create 2100 documents which inadvertently contained classified information about which none of them had knowledge that it was indeed classified and therefore did not realize the new documents should be classified; however, I would find that to be beyond astounding.

  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Ken, my guess (and it is only a guess) is that because the position of S of S is one in which history is being made assessing what is wheat and what is chaff can’t be done fully until after the fact, sometimes days weeks or even years later. If Clinton took emails on Ben Ghazi at 11:38 on 9/11/2011 and responded there simply weren’t people around to judge nuances of what information should and shouldn’t be made public. And that gets back to my assertion that far too much stuff is regarded as secret or confidential. Even during the Cold War we didn’t keep the amount of secrets we do now, but that is a different topic except that we can’t expect high government officials to wait on making important decisions until some low level lackey decides what they can and can’t say in the moment.

    In any case, it is apparently not uncommon for information to be classified after the fact.

  18. The Original Larry says:

    Everyone is missing the point: this whole e mail scandal is less about the actual e mails and whether or not security was compromised than it is about Hillary Clinton’s attitude towards regulations, the way she conducts official business and how she manages a crisis. Whether it’s e mails, Benghazi, Whitewater or Vincent Foster, it’s all depressingly similar.

  19. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    OL, I agree completely, except I think I find what is depressing is probably different than you.
    It seems to me that Hillary is and has been held to a very different standard than someone else would be…for instance Donald J. Trump, or any other man except for maybe Bill Clinton.

    When a man skirts the edge of the law he is seen as shrewd and daring. A risk taker. A maverick.
    When a man builds a resume of service in the public and private sector as strong as Hillary he is seen as … well, it is hard to think of someone with a resume equivalent to Hillary but … Presidential.

    As I see it Hillary is held to a standard of trust higher than people like Trump, Obama, Cheney (!), Rumsfeld, Palin…

    What exactly is it that Hillary is supposed to be conniving to do? Can someone please tell me what her evil intent is?

  20. Peter Hahn says:

    OL – Benghazi, Whitewater, and Vince Foster were Republican-manufactured scandals. I also agree the email “scandal” is depressingly similar. If it says anything about her character it is that she has a tendency towards being secretive to the point of seeming paranoid. Im not sure that is irrational though.

  21. The Original Larry says:

    KHL -only she can say for sure, but it appears that Hillary Clinton is primarily interested in the personal accumulation of power and money. It doesn’t matter if she is held to a “higher standard” (which I doubt, anyway), because more than 50% of the American people think she doesn’t rise to their standard.

    PH – the Republicans didn’t kill Vincent Foster, nor did they kill our Ambassador and embassy personnel in Benghazi. Do they exploit those scandals? Hell, yes! If Hillary was the least bit believable or transparent, they wouldn’t have anything to work with. But she isn’t, and that’s the point here.

  22. Ken Hall says:

    KHL, Your contention that: “driving your car faster than the posted speed limit and using your phone while driving – though many people started doing it before it was against the law”; you apparently consider to be analogous to the potential disregard for federal classification protocols by SoS Clinton and her minions; whereas I consider it incongruous. The traveling life was much less complicated and stressful prior to 911 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security when a myriad of changes to border crossings, between us and our two neighboring countries and Transportation Security Administration regulations concerning boarding and flying within commercial aircraft. By your analogy it would appear that you would consider that someone of my age, who started flying on commercial aircraft back in the early 60’s, would be justified to walk into an airport today and ignore/subvert all of the current security protocols that were put in place by TSA subsequent to 911 because back in the early days of flying one could race up to the boarding gate just before (sometimes just after) the gate was closed and board the aircraft. Is there any likelihood you would consider trying a stunt such as that today? If so would you also please consider having someone make a Youtube video of your attempt for the edification of the rest of us?

    Much ballyhoo is made about the US being a land of laws which are widely purported to be equally applicable to every US citizen. If one accepts employment with the US government and as a function of that employment one is required to utilize classified information then one is also enjoined to safeguard that classified information by following the published directives (laws by another name) for which failure to do so can result in legal charges and punishments. If those directives are applicable to those of us at the bottom of the food chain why would you give those at the top the option/permission to ignore same with impunity? Your approach to this conundrum reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine when we were both USAF Cptns (he a senior, me a junior; he a West Point grad commissioned into USAF, me commissioned in USAF via OTS) his contention was that generals were much smarter than the rest of, us mine was that they were just humans as we all are/were.

  23. Peter Hahn says:

    OL – Vince Foster committed suicide and the Republicans claimed Hillary murdered him.

  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    OL, in the end it seems like there is simply no way Hillary could earn your trust, and Im sure millions of other people as well. So the question is if Hillary does what Brian M is suggesting will it make any difference? Is there anyone who would suddenly say “boy, now I trust Hillary!” ? Probably not. For a long time now we have been so divided that there is no convincing anyone of anything.

    Ken, as far as I can tell the worst thing that Hillary did is that she did not initially comply with federal record keeping laws which state that her communications are public documents and they must be held by the government for legal and historical purposes. So far it hasn’t been shown that she broke any secrecy laws which would be very serious (although Dick Cheney broke secrecy laws in outing Valerie Plame and I don’t see him in jail for that) and if she did so knowingly Bernie might yet have his shot. Hillary has admitted what she did was a mistake and rectified her error by turning over the documents. I don’t see that records infraction as being a disqualified to being president. I don’t see it as evidence she can’t be trusted to tell the truth any more than I would believe someone who speeds regularly is a hardened criminal who can’t be trusted to obey laws on more serious crimes.

    We know everyone tells lies. Everyone. Trump certainly does. Obama said a lot of stuff about drones early on that just doesn’t seem true. Im sure the Pope and Dalai Lama have told some lies at one time or other. But like I said above to OL, I don’t think there is anyone in this country whose mind can be changed — unless an indictment is handed down and Hillary is convicted.

  25. The Original Larry says:

    In many ways, Hillary Clinton reminds me of Richard Nixon: smart, capable and experienced but also secretive, paranoid and convinced that the rules don’t apply to them. Nixon’s enemies hounded him mercilessly, through scandals real and imagined, as do Hillary’s. Nixon however, was a master at reviving his career while Hillary seems unable (or perhaps unwilling) to produce that “Checkers” moment that could solidify hers. What Nixon’s political opponents couldn’t do to him in over 30 years of trying he did to himself, finally, thanks to overwhelming arrogance fueled by the unshakeable belief that the real problem was that his enemies were out to get him. When Hillary finally comes completely undone, and she will, it will look a lot like Nixon’s final act.

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