Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Under fire, but not from snipers

Maybe she was hoping that the toy companies would agree to market a Hillary Clinton Action Figure. More likely, she was probably hoping that she could inflate her meager foreign policy experience by goading the electorate into swallowing a lie.

Now that Clinton has been exposed as a serial peddler of falsehoods, in her retelling of the 1996 visit she made to Bosnia as First Lady, it's worth noting why this campaign episode is important. She has based her increasingly desperate candidacy on the proposition that she is best qualified to be commander-in-chief at 3 a.m. on Day One, and that in turn hinges on the argument that she has passed some of the character tests that are requirements for command. Physical courage, for example.

Hence, her desire to make people believe - in direct contradiction to the facts, as captured on video - that she braved sniper fire in Bosnia. And it's not actually the lie that was most telling. It's her attempt to lie about the lie.

This week, Clinton has claimed that she merely "misspoke" when she said in a March 17 speech: "I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base." (Whereas, as the video clearly shows, she sauntered across the tarmac, bent down to engage a Bosnian child in conversation, with daughter Chelsea in tow, then continued to saunter.)

But in fact Clinton did not "misspeak" (as she insisted again yesterday on Pittsburgh radio); nor was it merely a case of being "sleep-deprived" (as she insisted yesterday in a chat with a Pittsburgh newspaper). Her March 17 remarks were scripted in advance, and even appeared in the text of the speech posted on the Clinton campaign website. It was clearly the campaign's intention to show her braving enemy fire.

Nor was it the first time that she sought to rewrite reality.

She also apparently "misspoke" in Texas on Feb. 29, when she told an audience: "I remember particularly a trip to Bosnia, where the welcoming ceremony had to be moved inside because of sniper fire." And maybe she was merely "sleep-deprived" in Iowa on Dec. 29, when she said that she and her entourage "ran out because they said there might be sniper fire. I don't remember anybody offering me tea on the tarmac."

On Dec. 29, she also told the Iowans that since the airport was too dangerous for a presidential visit, she was sent instead ("if a place was too dangerous, too small, or too poor, send the First Lady")...which, if true, prompts me to wonder why she decided to bring her daughter along. Are we supposed to believe that the Tuzla airport was too treacherous to risk Bill's life, but not Chelsea's?

Her last spin offering yesterday was a surrender of sorts. She said that she'd "made a mistake," and that "it proves I'm human." In a sense, she is right. Aspirants for the highest office are very human; by definition, they are often abnormally driven and self-absorbed and prone to believe whatever delusions leap off their tongues.

So Clinton is hardly the first to fit that profile. Ronald Reagan, whose World War II experiences never extended beyond the Hollywood lot, used to give speeches implying that his scripted roles were actually real. Lyndon Johnson, as a young congressman in 1942, flew once as an observer on a Pacific bombing mission, but the plane turned back within 13 minutes because of a faulty generator, having never reached its target - yet LBJ later claimed that (a) he had been under fire, (b) he had actually flown on many missions, and (c) the crews had nicknamed him Raider Johnson.

So you can rightly characterize this kind of bull-slinging as "human," but, really, it is something more. It is calculation. In the Bosnia case, it was a deliberate attempt to falsely inflate, by dint of repetition, the "experience" credentials that supposedly will inspire the superdelegates to overturn the verdict of Democratic primary voters...and inspire Barack Obama's delegates to abandon their pledges and flock to her banner.

Regarding the latter, she's clinging to that possibility as well, telling Time that "every delegate with very few exceptions is free to make up his or her mind however they choose. We talk a lot about so-called pledged delegates, but every delegate is expected to exercise independent judgment."

So-called pledged delegates...I suppose that tearing one's party apart in the service of personal ambition can also be categorized as very human.


Speaking of very human: If you're missing the Eliot Spitzer story, and the whole topic of political sex scandals, you can journey down memory lane to the scandal that changed the rules of political reporting. That would be the Gary Hart affair, two decades ago. I wrote this freelance article, in the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine.


And speaking of freelance articles, I wrote this new piece, in Obit Magazine, about the 4,000th American death an Iraq. It barely overlaps with what appeared on this blog yesterday.