Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Sunday, December 4, 2016

At least we’d know what to expect from them. That’s the cheeriest way to cast the latest in presidential dynasty news.

Hillary Clinton lived up (or should we say down?) to past patterns and current expectations by proposing an ambitious college affordability plan one day, then — after stalling for months — agreeing the next day to give the FBI the private server she used for all her emails while she was Secretary of State.

Jeb Bush, meanwhile, gave a foreign policy address in which he downplayed his brother’s epic mistake of invading Iraq and blamed Clinton and President Obama for the chaos and tragedy now plaguing the region. We should have stayed longer and done more, he says. Sound familiar?

History inevitably repeats itself with this pair.

Clinton’s email misadventures remind me of Winston Churchill’s remark that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” In her case, it’s transparency that is the worst alternative — except when there’s no other alternative.

The late Howard Baker, the senior Republican on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal that felled Richard Nixon, said it best: “It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble.” In other words, secrets rarely keep, so get ahead of the damage with fast, full disclosure.

Clinton was not exactly unfamiliar with Watergate. In fact, as a young attorney in 1974, she was a Watergate investigator and impeachment advisor on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee. The lesson on cover-ups obviously didn’t take then. But you’d think she would have learned it during her time as First Lady.

Those eight years were defined by the Clinton administration’s early refusal to give The Washington Post records it requested about a failed land deal called Whitewater. “Hillary had persuaded the president to stonewall the Post,” former Clinton administration aide George Stephanopoulos wrote in his memoir, All Too Human. She and two other advisors, all three of them “tough trial lawyers,” he said, “were determined to follow a close-hold strategy more appropriate to corporate litigation than presidential politics.”

Whitewater, in the end, was little more than a failed real estate investment. As Stephanopoulos wrote, the country probably wouldn’t have cared about “the ins and outs of an old land deal as long as it didn’t look as if the Clintons had something to hide.” But the stonewalling led to a sprawling, bizarre investigation that in turn led to exposure of Bill Clinton’s sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, House impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, and Senate votes on the charges that fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office.

Granted, many aspects of Hillary Clinton’s current email situation are astonishing — starting with the fact that she never had an official government email address and mixed yoga plans with state affairs on her private account. But especially, given her past, the months of refusing to turn over the server ranks right up there on the raised-eyebrow scale.

As for Bush, he gave his speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and was explicit about the symbolism. He called Reagan a leader of “clarity and resolve … who took command of events” and “conceded nothing to America’s enemies.”

The real Reagan was more nuanced. After terrorists killed 241 sleeping U.S. Marines and service personnel in a 1983 attack in Beirut, he withdrew all U.S. troops — a signal of weakness in the eyes of some advisors. Later, in a forerunner to Obama’s Iran negotiations, Reagan opened nuclear arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union, which he had called the “evil empire.”

Bush did not get into any of that. He mainly railed at Obama’s “premature withdrawal” from Iraq, “minimalist approach of incremental escalation” against the Islamic State, and an Iran nuclear deal he called “unwise in the extreme.” Like almost every Republican running for president, he puts a premium on fighting, or helping others fight, until the bad guys in the region are defeated or dead. He appeared to rule out a large combat force even as he called for expanded U.S. military operations in the region and said more U.S. troops “may well be needed.”

But how can we ever do enough, stay long enough, to end centuries of strife and make it stick? Haven’t we learned by now that nothing is ever enough, that our presence can make things worse, and that this is not our problem to solve?

Apparently, Bush still believes we can determine the fate of the Middle East at the point of an American gun or training program or no-fly zone. And Clinton still believes she can play by her own rules. Both are unnerving in their own ways.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com

Photos: Republican 2016 U.S. presidential candidate former Florida governor Jeb Bush answers a question at the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015. (REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk). U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, United States, July 17, 2015. (REUTERS/Jim Young)