Political Hay

Hillary Rodham Queeg

Character plus power and the abuse of command.

By 8.21.07

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It's the Queeg factor, stupid.

The story of Navy Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg is one of literature and film's more compelling. Queeg was at the center of author Herman Wouk's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Caine Mutiny. Played by the legendary Humphrey Bogart in the Oscar-nominated 1954 film, the tale of the unstable captain of the old minesweeper USS Caine and his tumultuous command of the ship and its World War II-weary crew is today a classic.

It is also an instructive illumination about what happens when the symptoms that repeatedly show a human being unfit for command are deliberately ignored. If in fact New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton wins the Democratic presidential nomination, the Queeg Factor will take center stage as an issue in the 2008 presidential election.

Wouk has Lieutenant Commander Queeg taking command of the Caine in the middle of the war in the Pacific. Almost immediately the new Captain Queeg runs afoul of his crew by issuing a series of questionable orders. The first results in a tow line being cut because the Captain was too busy giving a lengthy reprimand to a sailor whose shirt was un-tucked, failing to notice his last order had the ship sailing in a circle. Confronted, he lies, accusing his crew of conspiracy. Charged to have the Caine lead a flotilla of Marines in landing craft to within 1,000 yards of a Japanese-held island, under fire from the enemy Queeg abruptly orders a yellow dye-marker dropped, hastily abandoning the Marines in their landing craft to withering enemy fire as he literally has the ship turn and flee the battle. Then, he lies about it. This is followed by a crusade to uncover the fate of a quart of missing strawberries eaten secretly by the ship's mess boys, turning the ship upside down in search of an imagined key that gave someone other than the mess boys access to the strawberries -- even after he learns the mess boys are the real culprits.

All of this is accompanied by Queeg's peculiar habit of agitatedly rolling a pair of marble-sized steel balls together, a curiosity that is particularly in evidence as he denies whatever he has just done, blaming others for the results and always accusing one or various members of his crew of plotting against him. The situation comes to a head when Queeg orders his ship into the teeth of a typhoon, then panics as the ship is on the verge of foundering. His executive officer, Lieutenant Steve Maryk, relieves him of command and saves the ship -- then faces a court martial as a result. Although the evidence piles up against Lieutenant Maryk through some clever lawyering by the Navy prosecutor, the case falls apart when Captain Queeg takes the stand and under stiff questioning by Maryk's lawyer eventually displays all of the characteristics of instability and paranoia his crew has seen up close. The case against Maryk is quietly dismissed by disturbed Navy officials, and Queeg is relieved of his command for good.

WHAT DOES ANY OF THIS HAVE to do with what Karl Rove has termed the "fatally flawed" candidacy of Senator Hillary Clinton?

One of the central lessons of The Caine Mutiny is that when a human being possesses a fatally flawed character trait that is repeatedly displayed and then, as with Queeg, matched with considerable power, there can only be one outcome -- and that outcome is never good.

Hillary Clinton is the only candidate in the 2008 race on either side who has already been in the White House for eight years. There is no speculation to be had on how she would respond under the pressure of the presidency. She has a record already, and is not shy about spinning that record either. Taking credit in this campaign for the presumed achievements of the Clinton Administration, she makes it abundantly clear that she has been there and done that.

Time spent on such inanities as Senator Clinton's cleavage is correctly dismissed by longtime Clinton aide Ann Lewis as "grossly inappropriate" and "insulting." What is not only highly appropriate and deeply relevant to the Clinton candidacy is a serious understanding of the candidate's well-documented record as the spouse of a sitting governor, presidential candidate and president. "It's just a question of time before he [Captain Queeg] goes over the line," correctly insists one of the Caine's officers after yet another incident occurs, adding that Queeg "crawls with clues" that his behavior could have fateful consequences for the ship.

And indeed, the two recent biographies of Hillary Clinton, A Woman in Charge by Watergate icon Carl Bernstein, and Her Way by New York Times investigative journalists and Pulitzer Prize winners Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta are shot through with clues that demonstrate Hillary's problem with the Queeg factor. Both books repeatedly show that when Hillary Clinton possesses even close proximity to executive power, she, like Queeg the Navy ship Captain, is unable to resist abusing her authority, then lying, stonewalling or covering-up the abuse in question, blaming others if the mood suits.

Examples.

* As controversy rose over her role in the affairs of Arkansas's Madison Guaranty Trust, Gerth and Van Natta say that "she...prevented disclosure of evidence that she had padded her legal bills, (and) had frequent business and legal dealings with state regulators who worked for Bill when he was governor..." The reason? To help her husband's "chances of winning and to preserve Hillary's reputation as one of America's top lawyers."

* During the political mess over the affairs of the White House Travel Office early in the Clintons' first year in office, Bernstein reports that Hillary Clinton's clumsy efforts to get "our people" (the President's cousin, among others) in to replace the 30-year employees resulted in a deliberate effort by the White House to stonewall and obscure her role in the episode.

* On a trip to St. Louis to meet with the traveling Pope, Hillary intervenes in a discussion between the President and his trip director over whether to take his briefcase with him when leaving Air Force One. "You don't need it. Leave it here. You always do that. Leave it. We have maybe five minutes of downtime. Just leave it." Arriving in the city the President learns the Pope will be three hours late, and angrily orders a return to the plane so he can work. Hillary is overheard whispering, "[Y]our staff always does that. They never, ever serve you well."

* Says Bernstein, quoting former Clinton White House aide Mark Fabiani: "When the New York Times threatened to run a front page story saying that she lied about having released all the Whitewater records there wasn't ever a thought about saying 'Well, she wasn't in charge of releasing the records.' Because she was in charge of it. She was the one that made the decision." And as to the Travel Office scandal? Fabiani is quoted as saying "...she was at the center of that whole effort."

* Bernstein says that Hillary, "furious that the mainstream press and even the tabloids had not gone after the supposed story of [then President George H.W.] Bush's private life...pushed after the Gennifer Flowers incident to publicize allegations."

Other examples and allegations abound, including the by now well-recognized charges of investigations into the private lives of women alleging mistreatment by Bill Clinton. It is all of a piece with Hillary Clinton's threat to former Democratic Senator Bill Bradley that she would have the White House "demonize" any opponents to her health plan in 1993. Bernstein quotes Bradley thusly, in a near-perfect summary of the Queeg Factor: "It was obviously so basic to who she is: The arrogance, the assumption that people with questions are enemies," said Bradley.

"There was a pattern," insists Fabiani. "I mean it happened everytime. It happened with Whitewater in '92. It happened with the Travel Office. It happened when (White House Deputy Counsel Vince) Foster killed himself. You know, she was the one who got people together and figured out, you know, 'How are we going to deal with this?'"

And the results were, after looking at the eight-year record of her role, quite reliably never good. Like Captain Queeg, Hillary Clinton and the presence of serious executive power simply did not mix. According to her biographers and former staff, she used this power-by-association to lie, to blame a conspiracy, or, as ex-Clinton-aide and now ABC TV host George Stephanopoulos wrote in his memoirs, to "savage" her opponents. She never hesitated to employ the resources of government to accomplish her purpose.

FORTY-TWO HUMAN BEINGS have occupied the presidency at this point in American history (Grover Cleveland twice non-consecutively.) Americans have learned the hard way about the Queeg Factor. After the 1974 departure of Richard Nixon in the shambles that was Watergate, when the nation had learned a president had maintained an enemies list, wiretapped even his own staff, and that burglaries of both the Watergate and Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office had taken place on his watch, with the President looking straight into the camera and lying, the lesson of the Queeg-factor appeared to have been learned. A look back in history, both past and recent, brought forth at-the-time warnings about Warren G. Harding's and John F. Kennedy's problems with women (both men) and corruption (Harding.) Harding's Teapot Dome scandal emerged from the historical mists to be studied anew, and revelations about JFK's shared Mafia mistress and the role of organized crime in Kennedy-sponsored plots to kill Fidel Castro surfaced for the first time. The role of the Queeg-like J. Edgar Hoover in effectively blackmailing JFK with his knowledge of the mob ties of the President's mistress also was revealed.

These stories had an effect for a time. Americans on all sides of the political divide took care to nominate and elect candidates who, regardless of their philosophy or party, had reputations of personal responsibility and integrity. From Ford and Carter to Reagan, Mondale, Bush 41, and Michael Dukakis, the campaigns revolved around issues of philosophy and competence. Colorado Senator Gary Hart's much-photographed dalliance with a young woman ended his front-running Democratic candidacy in 1987. None of the candidates who won nominations from 1976 to 1988 were ever accused of personal malfeasance or a Queeg-like abuse of power in any office they had held.

By 1992, Nixon had succeeded in what would be his last "comeback." His reputation, and doubtless the harsh memories leading to his resignation then almost 20 years distant, had softened. Onto the stage strode candidate Bill Clinton and his soon-to-be famous spouse. Almost from the start of the Clinton campaign the candidate's reputation as a relentless womanizer was out there -- yet he was elected anyway, albeit with 43% of the vote in a three-way race. To re-read the report of the House Judiciary Committee on his impeachment is to take a bath in a sea of documented evidence of the abuse of the power of the presidency. Like the Nixon tapes, it is an X-ray of the Queeg Factor at work. To wit: "The President's continued deceptions caused millions of tax dollars to be spent by not only the Office of Independent Counsel in its duly authorized investigation, but also by White House lawyers, communications employees and other government employees who were utilized to help perpetuate the President's lies and defend him from his criminal conduct."

By 1998, the fatal mixture of the Queeg Factor with inattention to Al Qaeda inevitably brought about not only the second impeachment drama in 25 years but laid the groundwork for a later serious tragedy at the hands of Osama bin Ladin.

So what is the Queeg Factor? In the words of one of Wouk's characters, it's an understanding that if a particular personality with a demonstrated record of abusing power is handed even more considerable power it is "just a question of time before he goes over the line."

Or she.

Senator Hillary Clinton's record already "crawls with clues" that she carries the Queeg Factor. This time around, however, she will not be the president's influential spouse. She will be the president -- in charge of the FBI, the Justice Department, the CIA and everything else that moves in the bureaucracy that is the government of the United States.

And you thought socialized health care was the scary issue.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.