Trustworthiness remains Hillary Clinton's Achilles heel

Trustworthiness remains Hillary Clinton's Achilles heel, says Jules Witcover.

The long-awaited State Department inspector general's report on Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server produced no smoking gun. But it did unveil an even worse political vulnerability: her transparent dissembling.

After months of stonewalling and insisting that she had done nothing illegal or barred by department regulations, the former secretary of state finally took refuge in saying that what she had done was "a mistake" and that in reflection she regretted the choice she had made.

Throughout, she said, she had chosen to use the private server in her New York suburban home as a matter of convenience and never was told it was against department policy.

While the Office of Inspector General's report made no allegation of actionable wrongdoing, it did pointedly observe that, for all of her claims that she was being forthcoming, she twice "declined OIG's request for an interview," as did two key staff aides.

Her Republican adversaries are asking, and some of her incredulous allies as well, what she is afraid of. To plead that no public figure has been vetted more thoroughly than she has been is a transparently evasive defense. Meanwhile, she allows the ethical cloud over her presidential candidacy to darken and widen with each passing day.

In terms of that campaign, numerous polls continue to point to a personal quirk -- her "likability" -- along with the potentially more damaging doubts about her trustworthiness. The words are becoming twin witches taunting and bedeviling her White House aspirations.

With Donald Trump now assured the Republican presidential nomination and her own candidacy on the verge of being similarly cemented, barring Mr. Trump from the Oval Office is emerging as Ms. Clinton's best argument for voters to send her there instead.

Until recently, many Democrats had assumed that the bullyboy celebrity businessman would be easy pickings for Ms. Clinton. She had an army of female voters behind her, striving to break the last great glass ceiling in American politics. But polls are now indicating a rapidly tightening race.

Up to now, nervous Democrats have been focusing on Ms. Clinton's efforts to get past the stubborn homestretch primary efforts of rival Sen. Bernie Sanders. After the final primaries in California and four other states on June 7, the task will remain of bringing Mr. Sanders' fired-up progressive voters into her camp at the party convention and fall campaign.

Mr. Sanders, who earlier had dismissed Ms. Clinton's "damned emails" as irrelevant, still says he will concentrate on policy differences between them. In a Sunday talk show, however, he acknowledged that voters may very well have that controversy in mind when they go to the polls in November.

In any event, it will be a challenge for Hillary Clinton to make it all the way through the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in July and the fall campaign thereafter by simply continuing her posture that she has come clean on her emails.

Still hanging over her is the Obama Justice Department inquiry into whether any criminal action in the case warrants a federal indictment. It seems politically incomprehensible that a Democratic administration would indict a Democratic nominee in the heat of a presidential campaign. But just the threat could induce Ms. Clinton to be more forthright on the email matter in the weeks ahead.

Mr. Trump certainly can be counted on to hammer her on it unmercifully, even as the Democratic camp continues to demand that he stop stonewalling on releasing his own income tax returns, past and present.

This wild 2016 presidential race is coming down to wide public and press anxieties over whether the two major parties' presumptive nominees are sufficiently trustworthy to be put in charge of the single most important job in the world.

In the trappings of a winner-takes-all television game show, the viewers are being left to decide which of the suspected liars will be voted off the island on Nov. 8, leaving the survivor to deal with the ugly political residue of national disunity. Stay tuned, in the dim hope that the plot will suddenly become more worthy of the very high stakes involved.

Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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