Americans appear poised to elect the most transparent and well-documented president in their history, though not by her choice. Hillary Clinton is the most open book ever to have appeared on the U.S. political shelf, the most secret-free candidate, as a result of the six-year campaign by Vladimir Putin and his accomplices to undermine and discredit her.
That campaign began in late 2010 when the Russian-backed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange dumped troves of U.S. diplomatic e-mails, and has returned with a vengeance this year as President Putin has used Mr. Assange to bolster the Trump campaign. It has seen the release of hundreds of thousands of e-mails containing discussions between senior officials, including Ms. Clinton, at three organizations: the State Department, the Clinton Global Initiative charity network and her Democratic presidential campaign.
Americans are rightly alarmed that these leaks are a grotesque case of foreign interference in the democratic process. But for U.S. voters and those of us trying to get a measure of the likely next president from abroad, they are also a valuable window into the thoughts, strategies and ambitions that define Ms. Clinton and the organizations she tends to build.
The e-mails (which have been digested and summarized by teams at Politico, the Intercept, The New York Times and The Washington Post) tell a story that is both reassuring and potentially troubling.
Their most dramatic effect is to disprove the theory of government and political power promoted by Mr. Assange, Donald Trump and their supporters. Nothing could do more to disprove the conspiratorial view of U.S. politics, the view of U.S. foreign policy as corporate imperialism or the view that elections are fixed or corrupt affairs.
There is nothing very innocent or free from compromise and equivocation in the Clinton universe – it is old-school, bare-knuckle politics – but there is also not, so far as anyone has been able to find, any evidence of personal corruption on her part, of anti-democratic manipulation on the part of her organizations, or of private and secret agendas that differ from her public and stated agendas and principles.
What you will find, in great droves, are conflicts of interest. Ms. Clinton crosses boundaries between private and public sectors, charity and politics, personal and political with very little interest in such distinctions. The Clinton Global Initiative was created specifically to erase such lines: A huge charity that gives no grants itself, it channels money between governments, corporations and aid organizations (and sometimes into Bill Clinton's pockets) in a dramatic and controversial experiment in public-private-charity partnership.
The e-mail scandal shows us the dark side of this instinct: Her party's e-mails show that she really didn't see any problem with having a private business organize her official public-sector e-mails, and probably still doesn't.
The better angels of the Clinton universe are seen in her approach to the problem of Wall Street avoiding taxes on $2.4-trillion (U.S.) in earnings by hiding them overseas. E-mails show her considering an option in which, instead of changing the tax code (which Congress might not do), she would get corporations to make hundreds of billions of payments into a fund for U.S. public infrastructure. The country badly needs big infrastructure investments, but they have been blocked by a Republican Congress; her deal would get tax-owing companies to pay directly for bridges and electric trains.
That approach is either an ingenious way to deliver progressive policies through unorthodox means, or hideously compromised. It is probably both. The deal-brokering conversations in the e-mails have led some financial observers, such as Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times, to conclude that Ms. Clinton is more willing and able to crack down on Wall Street excesses than President Barack Obama, Mr. Trump or even Bernie Sanders. But the process might not be pretty.
This ability to cross lines and strike elaborate deals could make Ms. Clinton a political deal maker along the lines of Lyndon B. Johnson; he used similar big-tent backroom clout to bargain an unwilling Congress into delivering historic civil-rights and racial-equality laws, the first welfare-state programs and the war on poverty.
But if her strength is an ability to make compromises, her weakness is an ability to be compromised. That weakness will be her millstone, however strong her accomplishments.