I wrote two months ago that I thought that Hillary Clinton “can credibly claim to be the best-prepared presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940: she spent eight years in the White House, seeing the way politics and policies work from the eye of the storm. ” But in the past couple of weeks her attempts to press this argument have not worked out very well. The Washington Post awarded her a full “four Pinocchios” for telling a real whopper about coming under sniper fire when she went to Bosnia. David Trimble, former First Minister of Northern Ireland, scoffed at her claims to have been directly involved in peace negotiations there. And Gregory Craig, former Clinton White House counsel, also dismissed her claims to have played a leading role in any specific foreign policy issue.
Which is hardly surprising for a first lady. It was a mistake for Hillary to pick two minor foreign policy issues and claim to have been the key player, rather than to emphasize her experience in being at her husband’s side as he dealt with a whole range of issues. And that I do think is significant. It’s the kind of experience that makes Washington graybeards feel that people like Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who have been both elected officials and White House chief of staff, would be admirably prepared to be president.
First ladies typically pursue a “first lady’s agenda” and of course talk to their husbands at night in the family quarters. I do think that more than any other first lady, Hillary was in the room when decisions were being made–more like Bobby Kennedy than Jackie. She saw the pressures on a president, the ways a president balances politics and policy, the consequences of decisions made under pressure. That’s valuable experience, far more significant than visiting 79 countries to tour historical sites and deliver prepared speeches on women’s rights.
Another Washington Post article manages to undermine most of her specific claims but does include this defense from Mike McCurry, which I think finally gets it right:
Yet she lived through those episodes with a vantage point few get. “I would not say she was sitting there planning cruise missile attacks,” said former White House press secretary Michael McCurry, who supports her candidacy. “But you’re there and you see and you understand the requirements of leadership… . Having lived through it even as a spouse, you absorb a lot.”
None of this should be construed as an endorsement of Hillary Clinton. Experience – or charisma – devoted to the wrong aims is not exactly an appealing prospect. But I think it’s valuble to focus on just what kind of experience Senator Clinton can really claim.