WASHINGTON – It began as a circus but turned into a petting zoo.
It had all the trappings of history in the making.
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It was held in cavernous Longworth 1100, stately in its neoclassical majesty and Palladian symmetry, replete with faux-Ionic columns and plush, deep-blue, 30-foot tall curtains providing a regal backdrop for a panel of very stern looking committee members.
There was all the pomp and circumstance of a major event: the throng of print reporters crammed into temporary seating like sardines, the constant click of cameras, the well-known network correspondents doing live shots in the hallways, all with bated breath.
And there was a definite buzz. Something was in the air. Something big. At least, that's what everyone was anticipating.
But, after some initial fireworks, the long-awaited, much anticipated, potentially game-changing grilling of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Benghazi had the life slowly but surely drained out of it, as the hours wore on and on.
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It wasn't just the buzz that got killed. The drama steadily circled down the drain.
There were a few moments of fireworks in the early hours, but nothing of sensational substance. And most important of all, nothing that budged Clinton off her narrative.
As the hours dragged on, even the most partisan Republican likely would have found it hard to dispute that Clinton had employed a successful strategy to take the bite out of her interrogators' bark.
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In basketball, they used to call it the stall, in the days before the shot clock. Get a slight advantage, then just pass the ball back and forth until the clock wound down.
In politics, Clinton and her allies on the committee appeared to successfully employ two stalling tactics: filibuster and stonewall.
When Democratic committee members asked questions, they rarely asked questions. They gave speeches. Speeches intended to fill up as much as possible of their 10-minute allotments. Mini-filibusters.
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They asked her such hard-hitting questions as, "What can we learn from this incident?" Mercifully, they stopped short of asking her favorite color.
The stonewall appeared when Republicans grilled Clinton about security shortfalls at the diplomatic compound in Libya that led to the death of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, on Sept. 11, 2012.
Clinton had one answer she repeated over and over in a variety of ways: "It wasn't my job."
She said she left security matters to the "professionals."
That was the bottom line Clinton repeated over and over and over, although she used much flowerier language to describe how security was a job best left to security pros who wouldn't want some old cabinet secretary messing with their area of expertise.
When Republicans asked why she had claimed an anti-Muslim Internet video had triggered a protest that turned into a deadly terrorist assault, she simply insisted she never blamed the attack on the video.
She claimed she had merely warned other militants not to use the video as an excuse for further violence.
Despite a plethora of evidence to the contrary, that seemed to have a chilling effect on the line of inquiry, because there was little way Republicans could dispute what Clinton's intent was, no matter what she had said at the time.
And, within the first hour or so, Clinton had effectively given all the information she intended to, and the next nine hours of the hearing would prove to be largely an effort in futility for Republicans.
The hearing had begun promptly at 10 a.m. By 5 p.m., the hearing was on a respirator, as Clinton parried the same questions over and over again with just a few simple, set, stock answers.
And it wasn't over yet.
The day did not begin as a mere endurance contest. In fact, the air of anticipation was palpable. There was the sense of being on the cusp of an historic event, as an air of formality even returned to the 20-something cadre of print reporters.
Many of the men had become accustomed to attending hearings without jackets. Loose ties or no ties. Rolled up shirtsleeves. Not today. Every man in the press corps was in a black jacket.
This was not an easy ticket to get. Usually, reporters can enter a congressional hearing merely by flashing their credentials. This time, they had to be on the list. Just like backstage at a rock concert.
The hallway outside the hearing room was packed long before the start of the hearing. The reporters gathered and jostled outside the door like a pack of shoppers waiting for Walmart to open on Black Friday.
An aide told the phalanx of cameramen to all move back against the wall. They promptly all moved toward her ... to shoot her better?
Never had WND seen so much security at a hearing. A press aide and about four Capitol Hill police officers checked WND's identification.
More than 50 plastic chairs were provided in addition to the usual 5 large press tables.
WND was seated about two-thirds from the front of the large room, but there was no evident favoritism, as its seat was sandwiched in between those reserved for the New York Times, Washington Post, the New York Post and other major publications.
Reporters' relief at just getting into the room might have been tempered once they realized they had about as much leg room as found on the average economy flight.
The tops of everyone's laptops hammered into the backs of seats in front of every reporter, as they all banged out their stories.
Upon settling into a seat, WND noted the great view of Clinton. Well, a great view of the back of her head. And, unlike a sporting event, there was no big screen. WND logged onto CSPAN to monitor the secretary's expressions as she jousted with the committee.
One reporter sitting near WND said she had no idea what to write. She couldn't wait eight hours until the hearing ended to file her story. And, she despaired, didn't know how to summarize eight hours of a hearing, anyway. Her dilemma was echoed by sympathetic seat mates. But, by contrast, WND's Jerome Corsi filed his first draft of the hearing within the first half hour, and he kept updating it throughout the day.
Benghazi Select Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., arrived at 9:21 a.m.
He stood alone. Unmolested by the press.
He leaned against a pillar, casually, like he was waiting for a bus.
Like this was no big deal.
He didn't look apprehensive, but he didn't look particularly thrilled.
Somewhat expressionless, maybe slightly impatient, like waiting for a tardy wife to get ready.
Gowdy strolled down the aisle in front of press.
A reporter asked, "Are you excited by this?"
The chairman responded in his trademark drawl, "I don't know if that's the word for this."
He gave just a trace of a sly grin, almost a wince, and strolled on to the back of the room, where he disappeared through a door.
Conservative firebrand Rep. Louie Gohmet, R-Texas, surveyed the room. He spied someone he knew and gave him a bear hug. Then he spotted the cameras and moved on to talk to them.
Suddenly, a cackle ripped through the room.
Everyone craned a neck to look around.
It wasn't her.
By 9:50 a.m., the volume of chatter audibly diminished as the chitchat of small talk was replaced with a soft buzz of anticipation rippling through the room like a low-watt hum from a neon sign.
Another cackle. It's still not her.
At 9:53, a stern-faced Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, entered the room. Followed by Gowdy. Gohmert intercepted them. They chatted about security. Gowdy then strode briskly and purposefully to the front.
At 9:54, a complete hush fell over the room. It was like waiting for the queen. Or Marie Antoinette at the guillotine, depending on one's political perspective.
Either way, a spectacle was anticipated.
A reporter shouted out to a colleague up at the front of the room, "Get a selfie with Hillary!"
Clinton entered precisely at 10 a.m., running a gauntlet of flashes, traversing the 30 feet from the door to the witness table. Cameras followed her every step, while reporters, lined like flower girls at a wedding, held phones high above their heads, snapping away.
Gowdy's opening statement focused on the heroism of the four Americans who gave their lives serving their country while stationed in a hostile land, perhaps the one point upon which everyone could agree.
As he moved on to questioning why they were not properly protected, Clinton sat stone-faced.
Gowdy assured Clinton the investigation was not about her. It was about getting the truth. She did not react.
In the ranking Democrat's opening statement, Rep. Elijah Cumming, D-Md., claimed all the questions about Benghazi had already been answered by the more than half-dozen previous committees that investigated. Gowdy stared off into the distance.
Cummings proclaimed this committee only existed because Clinton was running for president.
Clinton smiled for the first time.
As she would so often while committee Democrats addressed her during the day, Clinton serenely rested her head on her hand, and softly nodded knowingly.
Clinton also made eye contact with Cummings.
She had avoided looking directly at Gowdy, as he read a litany of failures leading to the Benghazi tragedy.
Five minutes are usually allotted for opening statements. It was 10:25 by the time Gowdy and Cummings finished, and Clinton began.
Just as Clinton supporters had called for the nation to "move on" from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the secretary said she was testifying because she wanted to "move forward" from this tragedy.
As she went on, her statement began to sound familiar. Like an opening statement in another venue: a debate.
It seemed to morph into a foreign-policy speech about the need for America to stay engaged with the world – even if that meant sending diplomats to dangerous places.
She explained the U.S. must not be absent from unstable places. And how retreat from the world is not an option. Because aggressors rush in to fill the vacuum. President Obama might be forgiven if he thought that sounded like a criticism of his Syria policy, as Clinton has reminded voters she sought to get involved in that civil war long before the president.
She listed her accomplishments as secretary of state. Something about relations with Russia and the opening of Burma.
That was it.
Her statement lasted 18 minutes.
Clinton had not raised her voice in anger until about a hour into the hearing.
She took exception to a suggestion by Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Il., that she sold Obama on an unwise scheme to put a diplomat in harm's way with a sketchy plan for a Libya, which was in the throes of a civil war.
She objected loudly, interrupting Roskam to tell him it was a tough call, like the decision to go after Osama bin Laden.
Clinton has publicly stated she advised Obama to take the potentially risky mission to kill the al-Qaida leader. Vice President Joe Biden has contradicted that, not including her among those who told the president to green-light the mission.
Under friendly questioning by Cummings, the secretary outlined the explanation she would return to, in one form or another, time and again throughout the daylong testimony.
She said the numerous requests for increased security made by Ambassador Stevens were "taken care of by the security professionals."
"I did not see them, I did not approve them, I did not deny them," said Clinton of those requests.
She said she would not second-guess the security professionals, because that "is not the function of the secretary of state."
Later, Clinton would also blame Congress for what happened at Benghazi, stating with a steely gaze, "We didn't have the money we thought was required to protect everybody."
Given Clinton's email scandal, perhaps her most surprising admission of the day was that she didn't even have a computer in her office as secretary of state.
She said she did most of her communicating on the phone or in meetings.
Somewhere around noon, WND noticed about a dozen empty chairs in the back of the room.
Perhaps the public was not as anxious as the press to hear another seven, eight or nine hours of Clinton give the same answers in different words, over and over and over.
There were finally some fireworks, not long after, when Jordan and Clinton got into a shouting match over whether she had blamed the video for the attack. He provided new evidence she had told foreign leaders it was a terrorist attack that had nothing to do with the video, before telling the American public just the opposite.
She contended it was a very fluid situation, and they had been doing their best to try to make sense of it.
He yelled that she was thinking about politics while the attack was still underway, when she should have been thinking about saving lives.
And then Clinton did something she would do with remarkable skill for the rest of the day: She regained her composure – and kept it.
No matter how scathing the attack, and there weren't that many of them, Clinton refused to be pushed off her stride.
She remained cool, calm and collected, no matter how much her testimony was contradicted by her questioners, perhaps buoyed by a perception that her strategy was working.
And Democrats were sure helping, tossing her such softball questions as, essentially: Is diplomacy important?
Chairman Gowdy used his time to ask repeatedly why she took so much advice on Libya from her friend, Sidney Blumenthal.
Clinton appeared to effectively counter that by saying he was not an adviser; he was a friend who sometimes offered advice.
And, perhaps strangest of all, the expected fireworks between Gowdy and Clinton had not emerged.
There were fireworks. A heated shouting match. But it was between Gowdy and Cummings over whether to enter Blumenthal's testimony into the public record.
Gowdy concluded by emphatically informing the room, "If you think you've heard a lot about Sid Blumenthal so far, just wait until the next round. And with that, this committee is in recess."
As members of the media descended upon the cafeteria during the lunch break, WND asked ABC's chief White House correspondent, Jonathan Karl, if he'd ever heard a chairman toss to a break with a tease to stay tuned?
Karl laughed and said, "No! Especially a Sidney Blumenthal tease."
Other reporters overheard during the break all seemed to be in Clinton's corner.
"I think she's doing very well," said one, and they all agreed.
As promised, when the committee reconvened, Gowdy did ask Clinton more questions about Blumenthal, but the line of inquiry did not seem to go much of anywhere.
By 2:30 p.m., the reporter ranks had thinned out a bit. They may have opted to watch from the comfort of the House press gallery. Or from home.
By 7:02 p.m., Clinton was prefacing her answers with, "As I've said many times today ..."
"We did respond to a number of security requests," she emphasized.
One thing she never explained: why the late ambassador never got the additional security he requested.
And not one Republican found a way to ask the question that elicited a response to shed any light.
Follow Garth Kant @DCgarth