Hillary Clinton's Foggy Mountain Breakdown

The Hillary Clinton e mail scandal has metastasized at the same time that America has become a nation of crisis managers. We know this because with every new scandal pundits and citizens alike cite the "bungling" of the "handling" as the key reason for the mess.

That the e mail crisis is fundamentally about mishandled damage control is a diagnostic error. It's not about the mishandling. It's about the original sin, which for better or worse, is resonating with the media and, downstream, with enough of the public to cause trouble.

I won't debate the granular facts of the e mail crisis here. Furthermore, to the consternation of many of my Republican friends, I have long felt that Hillary Clinton is hyper-attacked on subjects where others, of both parties, would just get banged up a little.

The point is that Hillary's e mail practices is a scandal and savvier public relations tricks are not the answer. When you get to a certain level of political and corporate life, everybody's handlers are pretty good. So, did all of these smart people suddenly become morons and decide to implement a bad crisis management program?

No, what happened here is a combination of bad facts and the broader context of the accrued balance of past Clinton scandals, which has caused both the media and public to say, "This again?" It doesn't matter that few people really understand exactly what Hillary did wrong; what matters is the steady drip of troublesome data and cultural memory.

The tsunami of crisis management advice is as predictable as it is hackneyed - and wrong. Fess up! Hit back! Apologize! "Change the conversation!" Most of these are wishes, not strategies. It's the counterfactual notion that if the scandal figure simply did that which they are not currently doing, the whole thing would go away. And it just isn't true. Hillary apologized to ABC's David Muir and, as with all Digital Age apologizes, it was judged a misfire. (A "good" apology is not a news story, and it is in the interest of opponents to declare it a botched job)

Our culture believes that the "dark arts" work because we cannot see them, and it never occurs to us that we cannot see them because they don't exist.

Bill Clinton was an extraordinary crisis manager, not because of any invisible potion or sleight of hand, but because of very rowdy, demonstrable tactics. As I discuss in my new book Glass Jaw about modern scandal, when the Monica Lewinsky crisis broke, Bill Clinton did the following: First, he lied. Then, he stonewalled. Next, he and his surrogates preached the hazards of the "politics of personal destruction." Meanwhile, he had a superb team investigate and expose Republican hypocrites in Congress. Then, when President Clinton's enemies were dazed, bloodied and paralyzed, he apologized. Regardless of what you think of it, that was smashmouth crisis management.

Many of us who weren't Bill Clinton supporters became secret Bill Clinton admirers. It was a perverse pleasure to watch him do his thing because he was so damned good at it. Nobody wants to watch Hillary Clinton bamboozle because she can't do it. It's not Clintonian, it's Nixonian. The Clinton people are bright, experienced, and understand the landscape, but they are at a loss because attacking Republicans won't work, attacking the media won't work, and attacking the investigators won't work.

And "getting it all out there" won't work because "it" isn't very good.

Steve Martin once foreshadowed Americans evangelical belief in the power of spin control by suggesting that Nixon could have survived Watergate if he had known how to play the banjo - just come out before the Washington press corps and play Foggy Mountain Breakdown and it all would have gone away. The confound, of course, is that Nixon couldn't play the banjo. Hillary can't either. Now, Bill on the other hand...