Hillary Clinton's Finest Hour and a Half

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By Margaret Carlson

Today's long-awaited congressional hearings on the attack of the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, were the second time in my many years covering Hillary Clinton that I saw her cry. The first time, at a coffee shop in New Hampshire in January 2008, she wept for herself, worn down to a nub by a losing presidential campaign.

This time her tears were for others as she talked about standing beside the president at Andrews Air Force Base when the flag-draped coffins of the Americans killed in Libya were returned.

“I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters, and the wives left alone to raise their children,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

She quickly recovered. Throughout the two hours, which veered between a testimonial dinner and murder boards, Clinton consistently beat back the accusation that the administration moved too slowly in the hours after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack. She didn’t lip-synch her replies. There were “no delays” and “no denials of support.” She wasn't involved in United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice's much-criticized appearance on the Sunday talk shows. As secretary, she wouldn't be part of that decision.

When Clinton got the report of the Accountability Review Board, she acted. Security failings were placed at the assistant secretary’s doorstep. She accepted his resignation within 24 hours and three other officials are on administrative leave. She is moving on every one of the ARB’s recommendations.

There were moments of great theater. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, was the most blatant ham, saying that if he were president, he would have fired Clinton. For many reasons, and with a lot of company, I am grateful that the former eye doctor isn't president.

Senator John McCain of Arizona took his best shot, all but calling Clinton a liar, and he continued his crusade to convince the world that the president and Rice tried to hide the nature of the attack until after the election. His lack of temperament contrasted poorly with her composure and command of the facts. She flicked him away with the comment that they had a “disagreement.”

Throughout, she returned to her points: You cannot practice diplomacy from a bunker; that she’d asked for more security for the new hot spots in the infant democracies around the world, but Congress has refused the funds. There was accountability.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the new ranking Republican on Senate Foreign Affairs, acquitted himself with grace. He’s civil even when those all around him aren't.

 The sharpest exchange was with Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who said that Clinton was just making excuses when she said that it took time to pin down information about the circumstances of the attack. By the time he made his charge, her frustration over the line of attack making what was said on a talk show more important to certain senators than what actually happened bubbled over.

“The fact is, we had four dead Americans," she said. "Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans?  What difference, at this point, does it make?" 

What a satisfying flash of Chris Christie-like anger. It’s hard to imagine Clinton swimming in a warmer bath of American approval than she already is. She walked into the hearing with a 91 percent approval rating among Democrats -- 67 percent for all Americans -- according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. That must have ticked up a few points while she was being grilled. It is on to the House this afternoon. Maybe she can reach 99 percent.

 (Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)

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-0- Jan/23/2013 19:16 GMT