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In Benghazi hearing, Republicans hand Clinton a gift

Hillary Clinton can see smooth sailing ahead after Republicans overplayed the Benghazi hand.

Once again the House Republicans have demonstrated their talent for wretched excess, in their effort to use the 2012 terrorist attack on Benghazi to harpoon Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Their 10-hour interrogation of the former secretary of state about her role in the episode offered further validation of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's boast that the select committee was out to drive down her poll numbers in the 2016 presidential race.

Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy led off with an opening statement that only confirmed that intent, sustained by other Republican members who badgered Ms. Clinton with questions oft-asked in earlier congressional hearings on the Benghazi tragedy.

Through it all, the former secretary played them like a violin, calmly and courteously responding at length where necessary, saying simply yes and no where she could manage, and refusing to get rattled the way she memorably did on one occasion before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2013. She temporarily lost control then, waving her arms and asking, "What difference, at this point, does it make" whether it was a planned terrorist attack or a street protest?

That response may well have come off to viewers of the nationally aired telecast then as callous or even indifferent to the loss of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Instead, this time around, Ms. Clinton cast herself as a personal friend of Stevens who had selected him and sworn him in, and who had been consumed thereafter over the tragic outcome.

"I would imagine I've thought more about what happened than all of you put together," she said at one point. "I have been racking my brain about what more could have been done or should have been done." She cited U.S. military views that rescue forces were too far away to have arrived in time to save the four victims. To the notion that more security guards, military or private, could have done so, Ms. Clinton said experts were not sure anything could have stopped the attackers.

One Republican, Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, sought to broaden the inquiry by saying Ms. Clinton as secretary of state had initiated the American policy in Libya and was "the prime mover" in the events culminating in end of the Gadhafi regime. He observed: "If Libya unraveled, you had a lot to lose. ... To admit a need for more security ... didn't fit your narrative." She denied it, calling his allegation a disservice to the officials involved.

For all the furor attending the matter of Ms. Clinton's emails on a private computer server, the Republicans were unable to make a dent. She reiterated that she had made a mistake in using it while she was head of the State Department but had turned over everything pertinent.

The very full-day length of the hearing, lasting after breaks beyond 10 p.m., gave it the appearance of an intentional ordeal imposed on the witness. But she endured it with a mixture of patience interspersed with smiles and boredom, obviously aware she was being tested, and confident she was passing the test with the public, if not with her GOP interrogators.

Coupled with the huge political gift Ms. Clinton had received the previous day from Vice President Joe Biden's withdrawal from the 2016 Democratic presidential race, the House Republicans handed her a high-visibility showcase for her political skill in bearding a lion that was out to devour her.

No doubt they, and the herd of Republican presidential aspirants vying to be her opponent next year, will continue to keep the Benghazi and email issues alive in their own campaigns. But her strongest remaining Democratic foe, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has already declared he's heard enough about her "damn emails," so in the end they may only be a general election issue, if that.

The most the Benghazi hearing may have achieved was to re-energize the Democratic front-runner for the political road and its challenges ahead, which now seem much less imposing, even in face of those amazing "Feel the Bern" crowds for Mr. Sanders.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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