Committee hearings are political drama par excellence. Witnesses speak under oath, cameras are on full display and questions have been meticulously prepared by those conducting the investigation to be both barbed and combative. Senators stare down at those testifying from behind their nametags, waiting for the opportunity to ask a follow-up that will put a nail in the coffin. It’s a place where you have to bring your A-game.
As the political philosopher Aragorn once put it before a showdown with some Uruk-Hai, “Show them no mercy! For you will receive none!”
Enter Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose successor, Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, was confirmed by the Senate yesterday. At the most recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, Clinton testified about the State Department’s preparations for and reactions to the attacks on the American Consulate in Libya where four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, were killed Sept. 11, 2012.
At the hearing, Clinton was forced to endure a barrage of questions from several old, white, male senators, several of whom rode the wave of the Tea Party to political office. These senators and their 20-20 hindsight had some questions for the secretary. Why had Clinton not read the cables requesting more funding for security? Were the attacks spontaneous or pre-meditated? And why, oh why, had the American people been misled by the State Department?
Well, reading consular cables is usually reserved for someone whose job description also includes “fetching coffee.” Furthermore, considering even the Central Intelligence Agency had some difficulty ascertaining the identities of the attackers, it might be prudent to give the State Department some leeway. Secretary Clinton’s stated goal, to “catch the perpetrators and bring them to justice,” was the correct response.
Clinton successfully pulled off one of the most difficult tasks in public speaking: responding to loaded, politically-charged accusations designed to embarrass her and her boss with composure, thoughtfulness and a potent mix of snark and snarl. Her body language was so expressive that Feminsting’s Zerlina used it to create a 9-step gif-based guide on “How to Deal with a Mansplainer.” Clinton’s testimony was a case study on how to walk into a den of hungry lions and leave with a bag of scalps.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the exchange between Secretary Clinton and Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wis. Poor Senator Johnson. He was badly outclassed in the rhetorical match-up, asking weak defensive questions from the start of the bout and completely failing to rebut Clinton’s implication his concerns were at best naïve and at worst willfully ignorant. Times like these make me remember those awful Johnson political ads about the virtues of his not being a lawyer. His accountant background probably serves him well serving in the Senate where you do very un-lawyerlike things like read briefs, interrogate witnesses and occasionally even make laws.
As someone who participated in competitive debate for six years of his life, I can tell you answering pointed questions is a hard skill to learn. The more people there are staring at you, the more difficult it is to compose yourself and give an answer that refocuses the question’s premise without sounding bellicose or contentious.
The fact Secretary Clinton has worked for so long as a woman in a space dominated by men should also not be understated. Despite countless attacks shamelessly grounded in a sexist framework from media members on both sides of the political spectrum (looking at you, Chris Matthews), Clinton managed to reinvent herself again and again, from first lady to senator to presidential candidate and finally to the world’s most important diplomat. Her presence will be missed.
Nathaniel Olson (email@example.com) is a senior majoring in history, political science and psychology.