Hillary Clinton is spending her last days as Secretary of State by testifying before two Congressional Committees about the September attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. She was ready to discuss the ongoing investigation and she was ready to share the measures that will be taken to protect diplomats on foreign soil from here on out… but she was not ready to beat a dead horse. When repeatedly asked — or hounded, really — by Republicans to explain why the State Department was not forthcoming with their information in the hours after the attack, Clinton gave an explosive response. And thank goodness she did.
The handling of the tragedy, specifically the State Department’s initial reports that the deaths were caused by protestors (these, of course, proved to be false, as we now know the attack was perpetrated by militant terrorists), monopolized much of the presidential debates this fall. Then, in the months that followed, Clinton accepted responsibility for the events, and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state after being accused of deliberately misleading the American people with the aforesaid protest story. When Clinton appeared in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, she expected to answer any remaining questions, not to defend herself against an onslaught of Republican frustration regarding an issue that has already been addressed. So when Sen. Ron Johnson pressed her on the issue, Clinton lost her cool.
“With all due respect, the fact is, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they would kill some Americans?” she said. “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.”
Finally. Call it an outburst, an explosion, or an eruption if you like, but what Clinton really did here was show us how she really felt. Long criticized for being an “ice queen,” Clinton allowed Wednesday’s hearings to melt her chilly exterior. For, the above was not an isolated event. From her choked-up opening remarks to her animated expressions, it’s clear that Clinton was feeling a lot of feelings, and wasn’t afraid to show it.
If only more politicians would be as brave as Clinton. It has become the norm for politicians to hide behind stoic expressions and practiced speeches, for them to give firm handshakes to their opponents and to nod appropriately during debates. Politics has become synonymous with soullessness.
There’s a good reason “diplomatic” has come to colloquially describe compromises and negotiations as well as refer to actual state-appointed diplomats: agreements are more often easily reached with a clear mind and a staid demeanor. And so, politicians have across the board adopted straight faces. And who can blame them? A firm stance and steady gaze are signs of confidence. Politicians want their constituents to know that they are in control, that they know what to do in times of doubt, and that they can be depended on to make the right choices. A somber expression says, “You can rely on me, I’ve got this.” It does not, however, say, “I understand you.”
For politics, despite all the pomp and circumstance, is not an abstract idea. “For me this is not just a matter of policy, it’s personal,” Clinton says in her opening statement at the Benghazi hearing. And really, isn’t all politics? The choices made by elected officials in Washington do not exist in a vacuum; they affect each and every one of us. It’s easy to see how hot topic issues like marriage equality and reproductive rights have a direct effect on your life and the lives of your friends and families. But the same is true of every political issue. If a decision regarding the much-ballyhooed fiscal cliff couldn’t be reached, all of our wallets would be impacted — even if you couldn’t say for certain what the heck the fiscal cliff even is. You may not be familiar with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, but the Supreme Court’s latest interpretation of it could still change your life. And sometimes, we need a reminder that politicians have us in mind when they sign off on this complicated legislation.
While politicians are elected to be the voice of the people, it’s sometimes easy to forget that they are people. In those rare moments that politicians let their shiny robot veneers slip — like Clinton during Wednesday’s hearing, President Barack Obama during his tearful speech following the Sandy Hook shooting, and Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie in the days after Hurricane Sandy — we are reminded that the issues that are nearest and dearest to us are also important to our leaders. Stoic exteriors can lead citizens to think that the politicians they voted into office don’t care. That they aren’t giving certain issues the weight they deserve. That they are more interested in putting on a suit and smiling for photo ops than they are in making real change. But in those moments of emotional truth, we see that that is not the case.
Every politician need not be someone with whom you want to share a beer or even someone you particularly like. He or she need not have the stance you prefer on every issue. But politicians do need to care about their jobs, and about the lives of those they represent. And never is this more clear than when a politician treats an issue as personal, rather than political.
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