As Hillary Clinton contemplates a 2016 presidential run, it's clear she'll need to answer Benghazi questions in a way that neutralizes conservative attacks and avoids politicizing the issue.
In her interview with NPR Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne, the former secretary of state unveiled a Benghazi answer that might be a road test of a message to parry GOP accusations.
Speaking of the four Americans killed in the 2012 attack, Clinton said:
"I regret their loss ... just as I'm sure Secretary of State [George] Shultz [during the Reagan administration] felt about the loss of 258 Americans in Beirut in 1983 when our Marine barracks and embassy were attacked. And I know how Madeleine Albright felt when our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked and 12 Americans and hundreds of Africans were lost. These are terrible situations. And they happen to our civilian personnel, they happen to our military and intelligence personnel where bases and outposts are attacked ..."
The invocation of the names of two predecessors — Shultz, a Republican, and Albright, a Democrat who served in the Clinton administration — certainly lent a bipartisan quality to her answer.
She also clearly sought to provide the historical context so often missing from her opponents' criticism: Attacks on Americans serving in dangerous places abroad have occurred repeatedly in recent decades.
And in citing the hundreds of Americans killed in Beirut when conservative icon Ronald Reagan was president, and in Africa when her husband was president, she gives perspective to the loss of four Americans in Benghazi.
Clinton's answer to NPR builds on comments she made at congressional hearings on Benghazi in January 2013, shortly before she left office. At the hearing, Clinton also attempted to place the Benghazi attacks, which killed U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans, in a larger frame.
"Any clear-eyed examination of this manner must begin with this sobering fact: Since 1988, there have been 19 Accountability Review Boards investigating attacks on American diplomats and their facilities. Benghazi joins a long list of tragedies for our department, for other agencies, and for America. Hostages taken in Tehran in 1979, our embassy and Marine barracks bombed in Beirut in 1983, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, our embassies in East Africa in 1998, counsel and staff murdered in Jeddah in 2004, the Khost attack in 2009 and too many others.
"Since 1977, 65 American diplomatic personnel have been killed by terrorists. Now, of course, the list of attacks foiled, crises averted, and lives saved is even longer."
Those attacks took place during the Carter, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations, helping to make Clinton's point that terrorists don't seem to prefer administrations of either party. Of course, that won't keep her fiercest opponents from criticizing her.
But by reminding her audience that Benghazi was just the latest in a long line of tragic assaults on U.S. diplomats, she turns the question back on her accusers. Without saying it explicitly, she raises an implicit question meant to turn the tables on Republicans: "What makes Benghazi so special?"
With an eye toward 2016, Clinton's supporters have met to strategize on how to best defend her on the Benghazi issue. House Democrats are readying their defense of Obama and Clinton when GOP-led Benghazi hearings begin later this year. Expect other Democrats to deliver variations of Clinton's line.