Bill Clinton+Hillary Clinton

Hillary and Bill Clinton at the Midwestern Ball on Jan. 21, 1993. (AP)

By Karen Tumulty
March 10, 2015 at 3:56 PM

The circus is back in town.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has not yet even announced that she is running for president, but the spectacle of the Clinton years is unfolding again, touched off by the controversy over her practice of using a private e-mail account, rather than an official one, while she was secretary of state.

Her defense, which was simply that it was more convenient to do it that way, is unlikely to satisfy her critics or stop the questions.

Clinton’s campaign-in-waiting had long planned for Tuesday to be an intentional echo of one of her most inspirational moments — a commemoration at the United Nations of the 20th anniversary of a speech that Clinton delivered at a conference in Beijing.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is greeted by Chinese officials at Beijing’s Capital Airport on Sept. 5, 1995. (Win Macnamee/Reuters)

It was there that the then-first lady had declared that “it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights” and began to lay out the premise that would be the hallmark of her tenure as a 21st century secretary of state.

But the day ended up feeling more like a throwback to the darker side of 1990s politics, when — with just two hours to spare before her United Nations address — Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill announced that Clinton would hold a “brief press conference” after her speech.

It has been a week since news broke about Clinton’s use of a personal e-mail account — a violation of White House guidelines at the time encouraging the use of government e-mail accounts.

Clinton had no such government account and did not turn over what she said was relevant material from her personal e-mail until nearly two years after she left the State Department.

Since that violation became public, the airwaves have been filled by a familiar cast of characters who have stirred uncomfortable memories, even as they have leapt to her defense.

“Do you remember Whitewater? Do you remember Filegate? Do you remember Travelgate? Do you remember Pardongate?” former Clinton strategist James Carville asked Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC.

Clinton speaks to reporters in January 1996 as she arrives at the courthouse for a hearing on Whitewater. (Susan Biddle/The Washington Post)

For viewers old enough to remember, the details of those scandals and pseudoscandals may be hazy, but the impression lingers of a presidency that ran as a perpetual war room. Indeed, that was one of the reasons that Clinton lost in 2008, the first time she ran for president, to a younger, fresher figure who offered a chance to turn the page.

Nor was Carville the only figure having a back-to-the-future moment on cable as a result of the latest controversy.

On Fox News Sunday, former Clinton White House lawyer Lanny Davis had attempted a clumsy, legalistic rationale on her behalf, only to be asked by moderator Chris Wallace, “Do you ever get tired of cleaning up after the Clintons?”

On CNN, designated wiseman David Gergen — who had been brought into the Bill Clinton White House in 1993 to help its image — ruminated that Hillary Clinton had been “badly damaged” because she was reminding voters of “some of the worst aspects of the 1990s.”

Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Barack Obama’s secretary of state gave her a chance to reset her own image.

But the questions surrounding her e-mail account revive the impression that she has a penchant for secrecy. Meanwhile, the finances of the foundation that she runs with her husband and daughter Chelsea have also raised issues of transparency and forthrightness.

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