Updated at 11:05 and 11:20 am EST
Hillary Clinton is taking what could be her final public stage for a few years, today facing questions about what she knew and when she knew it about the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that claimed the life of the American ambassador.
She stands, if not in the eyes of Republicans ready to grill her today, high in the eyes of the American public:
Sixty seven percent of Americans view the soon-retiring secretary of state in a favorable light, according to an ABC News/Washington Poll released today – “numerically a new high in her long career in the public spotlight,” ABC notes.
That puts her, in context, on a higher platform than Vice President Joe Biden, viewed favorably by 48 percent.
The outgoing secretary of state also outperforms the vice president in intensity of sentiment in the poll run by Langer Research Associates. More than twice as many Americans see Clinton “strongly” favorably as those who see her strongly unfavorably – 35 versus. 14 percent - while Biden breaks even, 22 versus. 23 percent, in this measure.
Which is not a bad place to be for a politician who has served as the nation’s chief diplomat for four years, served as a senator from New York for a term and first lady in the White House for two terms — a politician widely regarded as the Democrat best positioned to make a bid for the presidency in 2016, should she decide to accept the mission.
It’s unlikely that Clinton’s appearances before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this morning and House Foreign Affairs Committee this afternoon will do anything to change that ranking in public opinion — as her successor, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, prepares for his Senate confirmation hearing tomorrow.
Senate Committee Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey today told the departing secretary, making her last major appearance before the committee (she will return tomorrow to introduce Kerry for his confirmation hearing): “You have changed the face of America abroad… the most traveled secretary in history.”
“I know you will not go gently from the world stage,” Menendez told a smiling Clinton at the start of the first hearing on Capitol Hill this morning.
And his words proved prescient.
Clinton dismissed three of the most pointed criticisms of her handling of the episode after the attack as only an outgoing secretary might address the Senate:
“What difference, at this point, does it make?” Clinton sharply asked Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, probing about what was known at the time of the circumstances surrounding the attack.
And to Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and 2008 nominee for president who has been most outspoken in his criticism of the Obama administration for its handling of the affair, Clinton calmly said: “We just have a disagreement.”
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said his problem with the Benghazi affair is that people responsible for a failure of security haven’t been fired: “I would have relieved you of your post.”
“With your leaving, you accept culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11,” Paul told Clinton, criticizing her for not seeing warning-cables beforehand. “It was a failure of leadership not to be involved. So, I think it’s good that you’re accepting responsibility, because no one else is.”
“I am the secretary of state,” she said, and the independent investigation of Benghazi was conducted impartially and outside of the political realm. “I believe in taking responsibility.”