On Wednesday, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before Congress on the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the death of four Americans. She came under tough questioning from Republicans, many of whom have accused the Obama administration of deliberately trying to cover up the attack by initially claiming that it stemmed from a spontaneous riot. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin was particularly aggressive, claiming that Clinton could have "easily, easily" determined the precise nature of the attack within hours of it occurring, despite Clinton's claim that such an effort would have interfered with the administration's response to the attack.
Clinton responded to Johnson with fury. "With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans!" she erupted, pounding the table. "Was it because there was a protest or was it because there were guys who went out for a walk one night who decided they would kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?"
A sympathetic interpretation of her remarks would suggest that Clinton viewed the entire line of questioning as irrelevant. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, U.S. officials, distraught by the death of four compatriots and scrambling for a response, had far greater concerns than interviewing employees who were being evacuated from the consulate.
However, some conservatives and critics of the administration see her remarks differently. "Clinton lost her cool and summed up that position in a breathtakingly callous phrase," says Timothy Stanley at CNN. The difference it would make is "all the difference in the world, I would imagine, to the relatives of the personnel who died." The hashtag #whatdifferencedoesitmake took off on Twitter, with several conservative commentators charging that Clinton doesn't care that four Americans had been killed.
With Clinton seen as a potential candidate in the 2016 presidential race — and a dauntingly formidable one at that — there is speculation that her remarks could come back to haunt her. "Perceptions of how Clinton handles the hearings are expected to follow her as she exits the State Department — influencing her record as secretary of state and certainly resurfacing if she decides to make another run for president in 2016," says Howard LaFranchi at The Christian Science Monitor.
In the critiques of Clinton, liberals are hearing echoes of "you didn't build that," a phrase shorn of its true meaning during the campaign to paint President Obama as a socialist. Indeed, Clinton teared up during her testimony when discussing the victims and their families, which would seem to suggest that their deaths made a difference to her (though even the sincerity of Clinton's tears have been questioned by Rush Limbaugh and Johnson himself).
Perhaps it's actually the GOP that will suffer the most politically from Clinton's testimony. The "irate and ignorant inquisitors on Capitol Hill appeared small and peevish in their confrontation with Clinton," says Joe Conason at The National Memo, "a woman whose serious, diligent, tireless approach to public service has armed her with an enduring popularity at least three times greater than her Republican adversaries in Congress."
Clinton has certainly enhanced her stature with her legions of fans. "Hillary's loyal base — and it is ever growing among millennial women — likes the 'Athena' Hillary, the wise warrior who slays Republicans (especially men) with iciness and harshness," says Suzi Parker at The Washington Post. "They want her to be Madame President in four years. They long for her to be tough, emotionally, intelligent, and even funny. In her swan song, she gave them that Hillary to remember."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Is it now OK to have sex with animals?
- In defense of Gwyneth Paltrow
- Republicans love this new health care plan. Too bad it's basically a tax cut for the rich.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- In Ferguson, Michael Brown lost his life — and America's police lost the benefit of the doubt
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 8 tricks to surviving the holidays without gaining weight or being grouchy
- 10 classic Sesame Street moments we wouldn't show today's kids
- 17 old proverbs we should use more often
- Chuck Hagel wasn't the problem. It's America's addiction to endless war.
Subscribe to the Week