How Hillary Rodham Clinton can win Congressional grilling crisis

Congressional hearings are usually no-win affairs. The events at issue are past. The senators and representatives care less about the subject than making a name for themselves on television and taking political pot shots at whomever’s in the hot seat from the opposite party.

This is a crisis for anyone. Who can forget Roger Clemens? Or the Wall Street bankers? Or the Big Auto honchos — one of whom let slip that he’d flown to D.C. in the corporate jet. Oops.

In today’s case, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton can break even, and maybe come out ahead. There is an enticing element to crisis management called transformative leadership. This is what happens when a person or organization handles a bad situation effectively, transparently, smartly and emerges from the tar pit sparkling clean. To almost everyone’s surprise.

If anyone can do it, Clinton can. And, with an eye toward the 2016 presidential race, you know she wants to.

What’s she up against? Four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya, died, killed by al Qaeda in Benghazi, Libya. Even sympathetic Democrats on the foreign affairs’ committee can’t make light of that or change the facts. That’s the no-win part.

Then she took ill — even though one Republican senator accused her of ducking the hearings with a trumped-up condition and a doctor’s note — and she’s on her way out of State and into the private sector after four years. This is not the high note on which she wanted to exit.

And, when you get right down to it, there’s not a great defense for what the State Department did and didn’t do under Clinton’s watch. She can’t argue that security was sufficient — even without the reports that the embassy in Tripoli sought greater security, especially for the consulate in Benghazi, where the attacks and killings occurred.

She entered the arena with little defense. How does she turn that into a win?

First, a win is possible because expectations are so low. State and its security service screwed up, in a major way. This was a clusterflip for sure. So everyone expects the Senate and House hearings today to be poundings. If she can maintain dignity, patience, an appropriate counter-attack and make some jabs of her own, she could come out ahead.

No one doubts that she’d do all she could to avoid an outcome like this. And, given what’s on any cabinet secretary’s plate — especially at State — few would hold her personally responsible for security at one of hundreds of American diplomatic installations around the globe.

But she threw them a curve ball before the Senate Foreign Relations committee this morning. She went beyond what they expected from her. She made it clear, it is personal. Brava.

“As I have said many times, I take responsibility. And nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure,” she said. “For me, it’s personal.”

She took the hit, offered the pound of flesh, threw the chum in the water.

And then she went on to provide context, another useful move. According to CBS:

“We have come a long way in the past four years and we cannot afford to retreat now. When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer, our security at home is threatened,” she said. “Our men and women who serve overseas understand that we accept a level of risk to protect this country we love. And they represent the best traditions of a bold and generous nation.” 

She argued, however, that diplomatic personnel “cannot work in bunkers and do their jobs. So it is our responsibility to make sure they have the resources they need and to do everything we can to reduce the risks.”

She’s siding with, in order, anti-terror, stability, patriotism, tradition and American success. Not a bad lineup.

Then, you fight back. She went after several senators trying to be Monday morning quarterbacks. And if you watch some of the video, she took no guff.

How will she emerge from this? Break-even is a strong win. Adding to her leadership credentials would be an even stronger win.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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