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Hugo Rifkind

The real lesson of the Hillary Clinton emails: most secrets are boring

Unreleased documents are never, ever as exciting as you think they will be

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

‘Gefilte fish,’ emailed Hillary Clinton to a pair of aides in March 2010, ‘where are we on this?’

That was it. Two words in the subject line, five more in the body. Nobody really knows what she was on about. Maybe it was code, maybe it was a reference to a new Israeli import duty slapped upon carp fillets from Illinois. Either way, in a 4,368-strong trove of emails sent and received by the former US Secretary of State, and just released by the State Department, this is the interesting bit. This was as good as it gets.

OK, so I exaggerate. Or rather, under-exaggerate. There’s also some stuff from David Miliband saying almost precisely what you’d expect him to having just lost the Labour leadership to Ed Miliband, and some peerless political analysis from the US journalist Sidney Blumenthal, in which he very cleverly tells her that Nick Clegg will look down on her because he went to public school, and that Ed, compared to his brother, ‘has more of a common touch’. She also watches NBC’s Parks and Recreation, but isn’t sure when it’s on.

Hillary Clinton’s emails, if you haven’t been following all this, have been a bone of contention since the 2012 attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi, which are in some way supposed to have been her fault, although I must say that, even three years on, it’s quite hard to figure out why. As this fuss has rumbled on, either way, it has emerged that Clinton used her own email system when in office rather than an official one, supposedly to avoid the public ever seeing what she wrote. And so, after months of wrangling, she’s turned over the emails that the public was never supposed to see, and now the public can see them. And they don’t really say anything.


Secret messages never do. The Guardian spent five whole years fighting for access to the ‘black spider memos’ Prince Charles sent to ministers, and then finally got them, and discovered bugger all. Three months on, I recall almost nothing that was in them, save for the way that Andy Burnham came across as an incorrigible brown-noser in his replies, and that HRH was terribly worried about the Patagonian toothfish.

Likewise, even more dimly, you might recall a bitter fight between the then education secretary Michael Gove and the Financial Times over the ‘Mrs Blurt’ emails, in which he’d used his wife’s GMail address to contact officials. This, a sort of low-rent British version of the Clinton email affair; Coupling to their Friends. Gove, anyway, thought they were private, the paper didn’t, and the Information Commissioner agreed with the paper. And then, afterwards… nothing happened. There was no story. With a few very minor exceptions, in fact, you could say the same thing about the entire catalogue of diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2011. Sound, noise and fury, and then almost nothing at all.

Strange, the visceral urge to believe that there must be, must be, must be dirt. Understood as a series of unreleased, world-changing documents, I suppose the world makes an easier sort of sense. Really, the best argument for transparency is the sheer, disappointed ennui one always feels when one eventually gets to read pretty much anything that anybody has ever tried to hide. Never get excited by a secret email scandal, is my point. They always let you down.

James Bond, new man

I’m worried about the future of James Bond. I don’t see how it’s going to work. ‘He’s very fucking lonely,’ the actor Daniel Craig told Esquire this month. ‘There’s a great sadness. He’s fucking these beautiful women but then they leave and it’s … sad. And as a man gets older it’s not a good look.’ That’s not even the half of it. The point of Bond, it always seemed to me, was that he epitomises the brutalisation of the British establishment. He is, in excelsis, the stiff upper lip. While his biography may be sketchy and disputed, he’s unquestionably the product of British public school. He has been beaten by masters and prefects who did not have his best interests at heart. He has been abandoned and possibly abused. He has slept, shivering, in unheated frosty castles far from home, and in the morning he’s been sent for a run. Orphaned or not, he comes from a people who do not show love. In essence, he is everything that is bad about the ruling class, recast as a hero.

If Bond today is 45, then he left school in 1988, and that’s all well and good. Once we have a Bond who left school in 1998, though, we have a problem. For this Bond did not have cold and indifferent parents. Rather, he had a pushy west London mum who sent him to a Montessori. At school, he didn’t just have warm showers, he also had Wi-Fi and a recording studio and banjo lessons. When Matron noticed his cold, cruel mouth, she gave him a hug, sent him off to drama therapy and put him on Xanax.

He doesn’t smoke any more, but he vapes like a fiend. Up at Oxford, the first time he invited a girl into his Aston Martin he was rusticated for sexual harassment. Before long he traded it in for a G-Wiz, wore a scarf every day, and started pretending to be a feminist in order to have any sex at all. He is not, in crux, being effectively trained in how to be a sociopath. Rather, he is being trained in how to be in Mumford & Sons. I just don’t see how it’s going to work.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.


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