“The cover-up often is worse than the crime.” How many times have we heard variations of that quote? Usually, it’s trotted out in the context of a political scandal, one that wouldn’t really be a scandal if the principal had just gotten past an obsession with secrecy so severe that he or she acted suspiciously. In this case, it’s a “she” we’re talking about, Hillary Clinton, who repeatedly gets entangled in her fetish for privacy. It’s impossible when living such a high-profile life, with all the attendant perks, financed by the taxpayers.
She is about to embark on that most public endeavor, running for president, trying to get elected to enter the White House bubble. Of course, she’s been in the fishbowl before, as “wife of,” and never could get used to the idea that her life, to a large degree, belonged to everyone.
That’s what makes the matter of her conducting business as secretary of state on a camouflaged, private email account such a big story. It’s true, as her enforcers have fanned out to argue, that others have done the same thing — Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example. And there is no real evidence that her behind-the-cloak communications were hiding anything improper or illegal. But we don’t really know. We can only suspect. She makes it so easy. One of her enablers assures us that Hillary was abiding by “the letter and the spirit” of regulations designed to make the conduct of public officials as, uh, public as possible. Perhaps the letter was accommodated, but the Clintons have a history of often thinly slicing the laws that govern their conduct. Certainly their adherence to the spirit of the rules that encourage transparency is just another story.
Her problem is that this clandestine approach is nothing new. As someone who covered all the Clinton scandals, and even nonscandals like Whitewater, I got used to the daily parsing of words to try to avoid simply coming out and dealing with whatever was the embarrassment of the moment. The nearly covert way that Hillary conducted the effort to reform health care ultimately had a lot to do with the final plan going down in flames. But she and her people never indicated that they had learned that the none-of-your-business approach was, in fact, everybody’s business.
So now we have a situation where she has told the world that she’s willing to not stand in the way as the State Department publicly releases emails she turned over to the government. What we don’t know is just what she turned over, or more importantly, what she didn’t turn over, from her super-duper secret private accounts.
In fairness, let’s stipulate that Hillary Clinton is not the only government official who believes that the public doesn’t really have a right to know. Edward Snowden is sitting in Russian exile because he spilled the beans on massive programs in which the National Security Agency and our other spooks spy on us, their fellow Americans. Boy does United States law enforcement want him back, so he can be punished for having the audacity to expose conduct that violates the entire tradition of our alleged right to privacy.
What is it about open government these people don’t understand? How do they determine that they can’t be bound by the rules of a democracy that relies on an informed electorate? In the case of Hillary Clinton, the question is, Where does she get off routinely hiding our business from us? She says she’s learned some lessons from the failures of her last stab at the presidency, but has she? This time around — assuming there is another “this time around” — she will need to demonstrate that she can avoid the cover-ups and let us in on her secrets. At least the ones that shouldn’t be secrets.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.