Congressional hearings are to U.S. politics what Judge Judy is to the U.S. justice system. They are nine parts theatre, usually shedding more heat than light on important issues of U.S. governance and an occasion for obscure members of Congress to grandstand as chief prosecutors.
That makes them dreaded rites of passage for current or former White House officials, Supreme Court nominees, army generals or cabinet secretaries summoned to testify on their own behalf or as part of some investigation into alleged misfeasance or malpractice. A public pistol-whipping by power-tripping congressmen can end the career of anyone unable to give as well as he or she gets.
The House of Representatives select committee that grilled Hillary Clinton for 10 hours last Thursday officially aimed to uncover the truth behind the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. Ms. Clinton was secretary of state at the time, and her role in events that led up to the assault and later (mis)characterization of the attack have had Republicans on her trail ever since.
Democrats have maintained that the Republican-controlled committee is nothing more than a politically driven exercise to undermine Ms. Clinton as she makes her second run for the White House. The charge became a lot more difficult to refute after Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy admitted as much on Fox News last month.
But that did not make Ms. Clinton's appearance before the committee any less dangerous for the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic nomination. Republicans led by committee chairman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Tea Partier, figured they could provoke her into flying off the handle and, over 10 gruelling hours, make her come out of it looking too tired and irritable to be president.
Boy, were they mistaken. This was Ms. Clinton as one imagines Meryl Streep might play her. Engaged, encyclopaedic in her knowledge, empathetic but in control of her emotions, determined to outwit her inquisitors armed with nothing but her stamina and a paper cup to sip from. She testified alone – no legal counsel or aides at her side to pinch hit when the going got tough.
Into the ninth hour of questioning, Republican congresswoman Martha Roby asked whether Ms. Clinton was alone at her Washington home after leaving her State Department office on the night of the Benghazi attack. "The whole night?" Ms. Roby pried. "Yes, the whole night," Ms. Clinton answered, before bursting into the famous cackle that successive Saturday Night Live imitators seek to master. "I'm sorry. A little note of levity at 7:15. Note it for the record."
Ms. Clinton had the last laugh when the hearing finally adjourned at 9 p.m. Pundits unanimously declared her to be on a roll. After early campaign fumbles, she sailed through this month's Democratic primary debate head and shoulders above her rivals. Vice-President Joe Biden's decision last week to forgo the Democratic race further cleared her way to the nomination.
But Ms. Clinton is never entirely free of controversy and the Benghazi committee may yet get the best of her. It was the committee, after all, that first discovered that she used a private e-mail server as secretary of state instead of a more secure government account. That has led to a continuing FBI probe into whether she put national security at risk, and has hurt her opinion-poll numbers.
E-mails tabled by the committee further exposed Ms. Clinton's role as a vocal proponent of U.S. military intervention to remove Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, raising questions about her foreign policy judgment (given the chaos that followed his ouster) and her negligence in failing to protect American diplomats posted in the African country. In an e-mail to her daughter, revealed Thursday, Ms. Clinton contradicted her public comments describing the attack on the Benghazi consulate as the result of a spontaneous civil protest in reaction to an anti-Muslim online video. She told Chelsea Clinton on the night of the attack that it was perpetrated by "an al-Qaeda-like group."
This matters because that attack – coming on the anniversary on the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and just two months before the 2012 presidential election – threatened to undermine administration claims that al-Qaeda and its offshoots had been decimated on President Barack Obama's watch.
A Hollywood movie about the Benghazi attack is set for release just before the first Democratic primaries are to be held next February. Ms. Clinton may need to pull off a few more Oscar-worthy performances of her own yet.