A Clinton Never Forgets

The State Funeral Of Former South African President Nelson Mandela

No one should be that shocked that a political dynasty in a major party that has been at the highest levels for decades would keep tabs on their friends and enemies. We’ve all watched House of Cards. Of course, in the white-knuckled campaign of 2008, which the Clintons were hoping would be a coronation, they were hurt, bewildered and betrayed by so many Democrats who saw in Obama something they didn’t always see in the Clintons: a political vision not entirely eclipsed by calculation. And you can see why they might have wanted to keep score of the hurt and the betrayal.

But the comprehensiveness of the list, the care with which it was constructed (on a scale of one to seven, for some reason), and the rawness of the feelings behind it should remind people that the Clintons have not changed:

They carefully noted who had endorsed Hillary, who had backed Obama, and who had stayed on the sidelines—standard operating procedure for any high-end political organization. But the data went into much more nuanced detail. “We wanted to have a record of who endorsed us and who didn’t,” a member of Hillary’s campaign team said, “and of those who endorsed us, who went the extra mile and who was just kind of there. And of those who didn’t endorse us, those who understandably didn’t endorse us because they are [Congressional Black Caucus] members or Illinois members. And then, of course, those who endorsed him but really should have been with her … that burned her.”

The list’s complexity and nuance aren’t shocking. But as Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes note:

The difference is the Clintons, because of their popularity and the positions they’ve held, retain more power to reward and punish than anyone else in modern politics.

The minute they finished one campaign they were strategizing in minute detail for the next.

But that isn’t what troubles me about the story. What troubles me is the resilience of the entourage. Jake Weisberg long ago framed the Clinton circle of friends, allies, donors, ambassadors, and courtiers as a web of “Clincest” – constantly bubbling with money, networking, favors, back-scratching, threats, charm offenses and old ties. That Clincest remains. And it is a problem.

Notice, for example, the two list-makers, in Politico magazine’s excerpt from HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton. One, Kris Balderston, has been with them for two decades; the other, Adrienne Elrod, is an almost text-book example of Clincest:

Elrod, a toned 31-year-old blonde with a raspy Ozark drawl, had an even longer history with the Clintons that went back to her childhood in Siloam Springs, a town of 15,000 people in northwestern Arkansas. She had known Bill Clinton since at least the age of five. Her father, John Elrod, a prominent lawyer in Fayetteville, first befriended the future president at Arkansas Boys State, an annual civics camp for high school juniors, when they were teenagers. Like Bill Clinton, Adrienne Elrod had a twinkle in her blue eyes and a broad smile that conveyed warmth instantaneously. She had first found work in the Clinton White House after a 1996 internship there, then became a Democratic Party political operative and later held senior posts on Capitol Hill. She joined the Hillary Clinton for President outfit as a communications aide and then shifted into Balderston’s delegate-courting congressional-relations office in March. Trusted because of her deep ties to the Clinton network, Elrod helped Balderston finalize the list.

My italics. Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong or that surprising about a politician retaining loyal friends from way-back-when, a coterie of trusted advisers, truth-telling friends and shoulders to cry on, in the glare of public office. But what distinguishes the Clintons is the sheer scale of the enterprise, the meticulousness of the extended family, the way in which money is interlaced with everything, and the remarkable loyalty of the Clinton court through the huge ups and downs of their political careers.

If the Clintons get their third and fourth terms in the White House, they will bring this vast retinue with them, with all the attendant baggage. And by that I mean the paybacks for supporting Obama (man, can you imagine that long list?) and the unhealthy atmosphere of a secluded clique where an open administration should be. Those cliques can lead to insular thinking, the kind of paranoia that led Hillary Clinton into her famous gaffe of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” (which, even if true, needlessly made Matt Drudge’s and Roger Ailes’ year).

It’s what led to all the utterly unnecessary hunkering down over minor “scandals” that, in time, were shown to be largely, if not entirely, in the eye of the beholders (including mine), and could have been defused with a little more transparency and access to those outside the inner circle of flacks and hangers-on.

I should be candid here. I believe Bill Clinton was a very good president, who sabotaged himself needlessly on many occasions. I believe Hillary Clinton was a good, if not spectacular, secretary of state. I believe their public behavior after their defeat has been close to exemplary. And I sure am not going to engage in a constant stream of Clinton-baiting if she decides to run for the presidency again. At this point, she absolutely deserves a fresh look. But it would be equally wrong to forget the patterns that led to their previous acts of self-destruction or the network of friends and dubious money-makers who seem not to have gone away, but to be reassembling in very similar dynamics for the next big push. They were and can be a liability. And it seems the Clintons still don’t see it that way at all.

(Photo: Hillary Clinton, Former United States President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium on December 10, 2013 in Soweto, South Africa. By Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images.)