Political Washington was consumed with a charged debate over Hillary Clinton’s legacy Wednesday, but the former secretary of state largely steered clear of politics in a speech in Beverly Hills. Clinton was in Los Angeles to accept an award at the nonpartisan Pacific Council on International Policy named for one of her predecessors, the late Warren Christopher.
Her only mention of the growing drumbeat from conservative critics—who are zeroing in on Clinton for the first time since Barack Obama pulled ahead of her in the 2008 presidential race—was oblique. “We truly still today, despite all of our partisan wrangling and the gridlock that sometimes seems to take hold, we stand up for the rights and opportunities of all people,” she said.
But Clinton’s speech, like the others she’s given since leaving the State Department in February, focused on what she believes to be her foreign policy legacy: her lifelong work on human rights and women’s issues, the U.S. pivot to Asia, and her view of American exceptionalism. Christopher, she said, “understood something America’s leaders have to understand and act on: The United States remains a beacon of freedom and opportunity precisely because the American dream has been and must remain open to all.”
Clinton joked about the portrait she installed in her office on the State Department’s seventh floor of William Seward, who ran against Abraham Lincoln and lost and “to his surprise, was asked to be secretary of state,” saying, “President Obama likes to say that he and I started out as a team of rivals and ended up as an unrivalled team.”
Critics of the White House, who kept their fire focused on other members of the administration while Clinton was at Foggy Bottom, have now turned their attention to Clinton’s role in the government’s response to the Benghazi attacks last September. During a House hearing investigating the attacks, Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz on Wednesday questioned Clinton’s previous assertion that the Obama administration “did not have a clear picture” of what was occurring on the ground in Benghazi until days later. “I find it stunning that four and a half months after the attack, Secretary Clinton still has the gall to say it wasn’t us,” Chaffetz said. Key conservative groups—from American Crossroads to the GOP organization American Rising to Citizens United, the group behind Hillary: The Movie—questioned Clinton’s role in the administration’s handling of the aftermath of attacks.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus tweeted:
Reading the news today, a lot of the Benghazi questions for Hillary to answer
— Reince Priebus (@Reince) May 9, 2013
Clinton joked Wednesday night about the personal toughness she’s learned during her years in political life. “When I was first lady, they used to say around the White House if the place was a little difficult, they would send me. I spent a lot of time with Chris and his team thinking through what that would mean.”
She ended with advice that Christopher received while he was a clerk for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas—and that she may need as long as she remains the undeniable early 2016 front-runner: “Get into the stream of history and swim as fast as you can.”