Why Hillary's Emails Matter

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 10:  Hillary Clinton speaks at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund Membership event to address Planned Par
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 10: Hillary Clinton speaks at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund Membership event to address Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF) members on June 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jennifer Graylock/WireImage)

Democrats, understandably worried about a Trump victory, have tended to give Hillary Clinton a free pass regarding her use of a private server while Secretary of State. Republicans, typically given to over-statement in their attacks on Democrats, have raised the specter of a security leak. As a strong supporter of Edward Snowden, the Republican criticisms do not move me, but I do consider Clinton's use of a private server profoundly disturbing, for two reasons.

First, Clinton's actions have corrupted the public record covering her term as Secretary of State. Thus, while she has released 55,000 emails from her tenure, we have no way of knowing whether this is all of them, other than her word, which in my view has proven untrustworthy, but in any event is not sufficient. In fact, other emails have surfaced, which she did not release. As a professional historian, I am alert to the profound significance of this fact.

Do we care whether Japan attacked Pearl Harbor without warning or whether, as some argue, Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered the Japanese attack in order to get Americans into the war? Do we care whether the US dropped the A-Bomb on Japan to forestall the need for an invasion or to intimidate the Soviet Union? These are the kinds of questions, which historians debate and the only way to resolve such debates, or even to maintain them in an intelligent manner, is through examining the diplomatic records of the time.

What Clinton did in corrupting that record can be likened to someone who destroyed precious artifacts of an earlier civilization. If you doubt this, consider that during World War Two, the British were so concerned to preserve public records that they shipped them to a secret location. The Nazis had the same understanding and went to considerable lengths to destroy them, because they believed that would be a blow to British identity. The records of her administration, in other words, belong to the American people as a whole, and we needed them, not in a despoiled and possibly cherry-picked form.

There is a second matter, which is equally profound. A fundamental principle of modern government is the distinction between the office and the person who occupies it. Probably the State department, for which precedent and ritual is especially important, may make more of this than other offices, although it fundamental to all public service. When Hillary entered office, there were precedents that of course were presented to her. Her claim that she didn't know the expected procedures is obviously false.

The distinction between the office and the occupant also speaks to the supposed precedent of Colin Powell. As the Inspector General's report shows, Powell worked with a public server. His problem was that the system did not allow him to make personal emails, so he procured a second, supplementary computer for his personal use. Powell understood the difference between the office and the person who temporarily occupies it, whereas Clinton did not.

Like the greater part of my readers, I do not want Donald Trump to become President, but that should not stop us from being honest about the putative Democratic nominee. Even without considering whether her actions in regard to the emails is part of a larger pattern of mendacity we need to condemn what she did in unambiguous terms. Ultimately, this is a matter of our self-respect as a people, and as a political party.