In the midst of our bountiful October harvest of Trump grotesqueries, the Russians and Julian Assange organized a WikiLeaks dump of private emails from the Clinton campaign. These revealed a shocking and scandalous fact about the former Secretary of State: she is a politician. Indeed, the documents represent one of the most reassuring moments of this calamitous campaign. The overwhelming impression is of the candidate’s and her staff’s competence and sanity–and something more: a refreshing sense of reality about the vagaries of politics.
The headline revelation came from one of Clinton’s paid speeches. Clinton said it was necessary for politicians to have a “public and private position” on many issues. Gotcha! And even though Clinton had difficulty defending herself on this in the second debate, she’s absolutely right. In one of his rare moments of candor earlier this year, Donald Trump agreed. He said his ludicrous tax-cut plan was an opening position that would be compromised–he might even back higher taxes–when negotiations began with Congress. This was deemed disastrous by conservative ideologues, and Trump quickly retreated from it. But he was, momentarily, speaking the truth.
Here’s how Clinton put it in that 2013 speech, and be prepared, I’m going to quote her at length: “Politics is like sausage being made. It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be. But if everybody’s watching … all of the backroom discussions and the deals … then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So, you need both a public and a private position. And finally, I think–I believe in evidence-based decisionmaking. I want to know what the facts are.” Clinton is speaking an essential, uncontroversial truth about how things work in a democracy. And yet, for much of the public–and too much of our media–her sentiments are perceived as shifty, further evidence that she can’t be trusted, as if a willingness to compromise were a sign of weakness, not a necessary strength.
As for the rest of the emails, there are the occasional screw-ups and embarrassing moments of candor, but–as with the WikiLeaks dump of the State Department’s diplomatic cables–the most striking thing about them is the careful, intelligent way in which the Clinton staff goes about the business of politics. There is substantive consternation about how to deal with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on Wall Street, a careful massaging of where to come down on Warren’s proposal for a new Glass-Steagall law to regulate banking. Clinton and her advisers believe that Sanders is being too simplistic, that they have an equally tough but more nuanced position–as indeed they did–and they worry about how to communicate that difference. Watching the deliberations unfold, I found myself thinking, Boy, Assange has done a public service. It’s good to know how policy develops in a political campaign.
Another so-called embarrassment is the contretemps between Chelsea Clinton and her father’s former top aide, Doug Band, who writes that she’s acting like a “spoiled brat.” Band left the Clinton fold and formed a private “consulting” firm called Teneo Holdings. Bill Clinton agreed to be a member of its advisory board, a very questionable position for a former President to take. Chelsea finds out in England that at least one Teneo employee is lobbying Members of Parliament “on behalf of President Clinton” to take positions favorable to Teneo clients “without my father’s knowledge … which would horrify my father.” Bill Clinton soon cuts off his relationship with Band, a wise move. (Too bad Chelsea wasn’t vetting the recently revealed, too-close-for-comfort emails between the State Department and the Clinton Foundation after the Haiti earthquake.)
Some on the left will find Clinton’s attempts to flatter and find common ground with her Wall Street audiences offensive–her willingness to take money for these speeches was a big mistake–but if you look at the content of the talks, Clinton is essentially warning the bankers about the public’s belief that they have behaved badly, while calling for more “transparency” and reform, a message her audiences may not have wanted to hear.
Here’s a final outrage: Clinton told executives at Xerox that she wanted a “moderate” Democratic Party. Indeed, she wanted “two sensible, moderate, pragmatic political parties.” Wow. How crazy is that?
This appears in the October 24, 2016 issue of TIME.