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Hillary Clinton e-mail controversy revives memories of old White House scandals

Hillary Clinton finds herself in a controversy that is eerily reminiscent of the many that dogged her husband.Richard Drew/ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — James Carville is on TV attacking the media. A lawsuit has been filed seeking Clinton documents. Republicans are threatening congressional hearings.

It’s not 1993, but it sure feels like it.

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s exclusive use of a private e-mail account while she was secretary of state, combined with her disclosure Tuesday in a tense press conference that she deleted more than 30,000 e-mails that she deemed personal, has given Republicans a rich line of attack.

The controversy is resurrecting memories of the host of two-decade-old controversies that dogged the first couple during their time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: Whitewater, the White House travel office, the Lincoln Bedroom, Vince Foster, the Monica Lewinsky affair, and the pardon of Marc Rich to name a few.


The old political war machinery is gearing up on both sides, and Clinton’s political enemies are eager to exploit any reminder of that exhausting series of Clinton White House scandals great and small.

“There have been periods, like Whitewater and others, when questions have been raised about her trustworthiness,” said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who published a study on Clinton’s approval ratings. “This is bound to reinforce doubts people have had at various points in her long tenure in the public limelight.”

Throughout the day Wednesday, Republicans and other Clinton detractors kept pressing questions about whether Clinton and her lawyers should have been the ones to decide which e-mails to turn over to the State Department and which to delete. They pushed lingering questions about whether the e-mail server she kept at her home was secure and whether she sent any classified material via e-mail. She says that she did not.

Clinton’s defenders were quick to predict that the controversy will follow the same arc as some of the others: lots of news coverage, little actual impact.


“The American people want this election to be about them and their future,” said Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to President Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “I don’t think they’re going to have a lot of patience for arguments about the past that are just the past.”

Still, even some of Clinton’s close allies agree that a new Clinton political organization should find some new faces to defend the former first lady on the airwaves.

“There needs to be a new generation of people who can help the Clintons,” said Lanny Davis, a veteran from the 1990s Clinton wars and a self-described close friend of Hillary Rodham Clinton. “They need people other than me and James and Begala and people from the last round,” he said, referring to former aides to President Clinton, Carville and Paul Begala. Carville, for example, appeared on MSNBC Monday to play a familiar role as Clinton scandal surrogate.

“Do you remember Whitewater?” he asked. “Do you remember file-gate? Do you remember travel-gate? Do you remember pardon-gate? Do you remember Benghazi? All of this is just the same cockamamie stuff that we go through. This is never going to end. We’ve lived with this for 20 years. We’re going to live with it for the rest of the campaign.”

Begala bluntly delivered a favorite go-to response: There’s nothing to see here.

“Voters do not give a [expletive] about what e-mail Hillary used,” Begala said to a CNN contributor two days after the story broke.


But a fresh crop of Republicans is eager to make sure voters do care. Top on that list is US Representative Trey Gowdy, a third-term Republican lawmaker from South Carolina, who appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday to reiterate his plans to haul Hillary Clinton before his House Select Committee on Benghazi. Gowdy called on Clinton to hand over the server in her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., so that experts can determine whether the deleted e-mails can be recovered.

“We don’t get to grade our own papers in life,” Gowdy said on the show. “We don’t get to call our own penalties on ourselves. She doesn’t get to determine what’s a public record or private record.”

He also floated an idea: The Republican-controlled House of Representatives might try to legally seize the Clinton family server.

Republicans have overplayed their hand in attacking the Clintons in the past. After Bill Clinton admitted his infidelity with Lewinsky, and the House impeached him, Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings rose to 64 percent in a November 1998 ABC poll, according to data compiled by AEI. Democrats also picked up seats in the 1998 mid-term elections.

In the 2015 e-mail controversy, additional details promise to drip out. The State Department has said it will put the e-mails that Clinton turned over on a website, but only after a review that could take several months.

The Associated Press filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, seeking Clinton’s public and private calendars, e-mails with top staffers, and correspondence related to the May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s home in Pakistan and the federal government’s surveillance programs.


Those enduring questions also threaten to distract the Obama administration.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest fended off repeated questions at Wednesday’s regular press briefing.

“I’m not aware of her personal e-mail habits,” Earnest said. “The White House did not review the secretary’s e-mails.”

Clinton’s potential rivals for the 2016 Democratic nomination are largely mum. As one Democratic operative put it: Why get in the way of a runaway train?

Potential rival Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, said he’s “so sick” of the e-mail scandal.

“In our state, whether you used a personal e-mail or a public e-mail or a carrier pigeon, it was all a public record subject to disclosure,’’ O’Malley said.

Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com.