WASHINGTON -- During the early years of the Clinton administration, when the president and his team were beset by the Whitewater real estate investment scandal, Hillary Clinton was, for better or worse, the White House bulldog.
Whitewater was rooted in her and her husband's days in Arkansas, when they built an intricate web of relations with James and Susan McDougal, two Arkansas benefactors who went in on the real estate deal with them, donated money and employed Hillary Clinton at a prominent law firm. The controversy surfaced during the 1992 presidential campaign. And both before and during her husband's time in the White House, Hillary resisted efforts to release files on the matter, arguing that doing so would invite only more scrutiny and bullying from the administration's foes. Since she had a de facto veto over the matter, the administration followed suit.
Clinton's reasoning was not unfounded. But in the end, it proved misguided. George Stephanopoulos, who was a key figure in Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, would later write that "Hillary's strategy failed." Newspapers began to report on the matter as if "the White House was orchestrating a cover-up." Soon enough, files were released, investigations were launched and a special prosecutor was appointed, to be replaced later by Ken Starr. The story goes on from there in ways that no one could have possibly foreseen at the time.
"The Whitewater days really consumed years of [the] White House's and her time," a former adviser and longtime confidante of Clinton told The Huffington Post.
As with scandals before and after, the Clintons survived Whitewater. But as Hillary Clinton dealt with another major controversy this past year -- her use of a private email account and (multiple) servers while secretary of state -- the question has always been: Did she learn any lessons from it?
With FBI Director James Comey announcing on Tuesday that Clinton had acted with negligence and carelessness in the way she set up her email -- but that it didn't rise to the level of a prosecutable offense -- the answer remains up for debate.
Clinton certainly retains a healthy skepticism about her opponents from her days as first lady. Sources close to Clinton say that she believes Republicans are more interested in drawing blood than in conducting a legitimate inquiry or establishing genuine oversight. It appears part of the reason she set up a personal email account in the first place was that she did not want her exchanges to wind up as fodder for political operatives.
"In the larger context of Republicans having gone after her, she probably thought her communications would be carefully scrutinized and was told this would be the best way to keep control of it," said the former adviser, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely. "Even in the emails that you see, her interest really is in keeping control of her personal emails. She doesn’t express, even in emails where they almost set up another account, any concern about her governmental account."
Once her email setup was discovered, there were some telling differences between Clinton's response to this situation and her actions during the Whitewater days -- not to mention a few notable parallels. Looking at the two episodes side by side is a useful way to track her growth as a politician.
When the questions about her emails began building, Clinton's initial reaction, as in the '90s, was to insist that she'd done nothing untoward. Any politician in her position would have said the same thing, but the issue quickly became a partisan squabble nonetheless. This time around, though, Clinton seemed to recognize that secrecy wouldn't suffice. She was aware, confidantes say, that she couldn't afford to give off the appearance of trying to hide something. As they say in Washington, the cover-up is worse than the crime, especially if there is no crime. So she came clean... to an extent.
In 1992, once questions about Whitewater arose, it was months before Clinton held a major press conference to address the issue (a 72-minute event remembered today as the "pink press conference," because of all the media attention given to the pink suit Clinton wore). With the email brouhaha, Clinton was much quicker to hold a presser -- albeit one largely unsatisfying for reporters, and considerably shorter than 72 minutes.
Clinton's campaign also moved to return her emails to the State Department -- except for those it deemed private -- and gave the FBI the hard drive from her email server. Clinton made herself available for interviews with the FBI and, semi-relatedly, the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which uncovered her unusual email arrangement.
But on Tuesday, Comey revealed that some of Clinton's emails had not, in fact, been handed over -- whether intentionally or otherwise -- and that her statements about classified markings not being on her emails had been slightly less than true. It was an all-too-familiar pattern for those who've worked with Clinton before. As with Whitewater, Clinton couldn't deliver a clean end to the controversy at hand. By the afternoon, one House Republican was already calling for another probe, and another, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (Va.), was demanding that Comey answer a string of new questions.
The president is campaigning with her, Comey has closed the book on it and I think that people who try to keep the book open will now seem Benghazi-like. Former Clinton adviser
Still, it is hard to see the email issue dominating the political conversation too much longer. And that may be the result of the greatest change in Clinton as a political practitioner: the recognition that humility is not a character flaw.
Those who worked with the Clinton administration to contain the Whitewater fallout say one of the lessons learned by Bill and Hillary was that disclosure, whenever it comes, does not necessarily put an end to critical coverage. And as Clinton navigated the email controversy, a key turning point may have come when she finally, belatedly, admitted that her email set-up had been a mistake -- a sentiment she never expressed during Whitewater.
"On this thing, she already admitted she should have taken it more seriously early on," said Lanny Davis, a Clinton friend who advised the administration during the '90s. "That's the lesson on this one. That's where she did make a distinction. She never said: 'Looking back, I made a mistake on Whitewater.'"
For those who have worked with Clinton, this was a different posture. Instinctively, she wants to hunker down in moments of crisis. "Put a bunch of blockades up and don't answer any questions," is how one former aide put it. But the Clinton who navigated the email controversy was acting with a bit more finesse.
"I think she is trying," said Patti Solis Doyle, who managed part of Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. "And that is evident in the apology and the remarks she gave, I think, at the Rainbow Coalition, where she talked about how she gets that people don't trust her. She's become more self-reflective."
Another former close adviser said that the email mess was "probably the closest it came to calamity of all the things she’s been through, because Comey’s statement kind of outlines a lot of factual elements that are difficult."
At the same time, Clinton has indeed gotten through it. And while the public's estimation of her trustworthiness is remarkably low, she faces an opponent in Donald Trump who's exceptionally poorly positioned to beat her, and frustrated Republicans who could easily overreach again.
"A near miss is a miss," said the former adviser and confidante, noting that Clinton is already getting back to the business of the campaign. "The president is campaigning with her, Comey has closed the book on it and I think that people who try to keep the book open will now seem Benghazi-like, and life moves on."
"An accident where the air bag goes off, but you walk out of it -- you move on, get another car," he added.
In Clinton's case, that new car could be the White House.