During her questioning of Gen. David Petraeus this week, Sen. Hillary Clinton said to the general, "You have been made the de facto spokesmen for what many of us believe to be a failed policy. Despite what I view as your rather extraordinary efforts in your testimony ... I think that the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."
Petraeus's supporters say Hillary was calling him a liar. When you read it, particularly if you focus on the second sentence, that's how it seems. But if you actually heard her say it, it sounded like she was making a compliment and then sort of taking it back. NPR correspondent David Welna heard it the same way, too, describing it as a "careful weaving of praise and skepticism."
Since everyone's made up their minds about the good general, let's talk about that careful weaving instead.
Hillary Clinton doesn't say anything by accident. This is the key difference between her and her husband. Bill is an oleaginous people pleaser, a cross between Franklin Roosevelt and the guy looking for a free drink at the end of the bar. If he sidles up to someone who loves Tito Puente, he'll be quick to say, "Oh, I've been listening to him for years!" If he meets someone who hates Tito Puente, he'll shed a single tear and bite his lip that he just couldn't get Puente's albums banned, because of that awful Republican-controlled Congress. And sometimes he'll please both parties simultaneously. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, when Bill comes to a fork in the road, he takes it. But in his eagerness, you can sometimes catch the duplicity.
With Hillary it's much harder. She plans everything. Her notion of spontaneity is changing her brand of day planner without having a meeting about it first. One can imagine her practicing every important pronouncement in front of a mirror with color-coded flashcards. "She does her homework" has to be the most bipartisan accolade of our age.
But just because Hillary is about as impulsive as a pet rock, it doesn't mean that she's as different from her husband as it seems. Both have mastered the art of having it both ways. Indeed, Clintonite "triangulation" and "Third Way" politics were always about having your cake and eating it too. For instance, Hillary has managed to be the leader of a rabidly anti-war party and the most hawkish Democrat in the field at the same time.
It's just that Bill could speak with a forked tongue on the fly. Off the cuff he said he agreed with the minority but would have voted with majority when it came to the first Gulf War. He tried pot but didn't inhale. Monica Lewinsky had sexual contact with him, but he never had sexual contact with her.
What Bill says with rakish bluster, Hillary pulls off with schoolmarmish fog.
For example, in a recent interview with Salon, Walter Shapiro asked Hillary Clinton whether she took offense to commentators using only her first name. She said that she has an "open mind" about the practice but sympathizes with feminists who complain that it's demeaning. But she also thinks it's just fine for her own campaign to refer to her relentlessly and sometimes almost exclusively as "Hillary." In one convoluted paragraph she manages to admit that she does something that is sexist for others to do, but claims to have an open mind about it.
During the YouTube-CNN Democratic debate, she was asked what a liberal is and whether she is one. In a brilliantly crafted non-answer, she explained that the word "originally meant that you were for freedom ... that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual." But, "in the last 30, 40 years it has been turned up on its head" as a word to describe "big government." That's exactly right, though she made it sound like mean-spirited conservatives slandered the word, assigning no blame to liberals themselves.
Indeed, it actually sounded like the woman who wanted to nationalize one-seventh of the U.S. economy was never in favor of big government. But rather than admit she's a liberal, she pulls the rhetorical rip cord and parachutes to safety: "I prefer the word 'progressive,'" she proclaimed, "which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century. I consider myself a modern progressive." Refusing to define that, she moved on, neglecting to mention that progressives modern and old-fashioned alike believe in big government, too.
Clinton's criticism of Petraeus was offensive on the merits, but it was interesting because Hillary failed to tell every constituency what it wanted to hear. I guess practice doesn't always make perfect.