Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mrs. Clinton misremembers

Gamely soldiering on on the presidential campaign trail, Hillary Clinton last week recalled a trip to Bosnia in March 1996:

“I remember landing under sniper fire,” Clinton said at George Washington University on March 17. “There was supposed to be some kind of greeting ceremony there at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

Gee! Wow! Good harrowing stuff, the kind of imagery that makes for powerful campaign moments shoring up Clinton’s claim to foreign policy experience. We can see it: Hillary Clinton as a modern Sgt. Rock, gritting her teeth in a war zone, toughing it out, coolly advancing American objectives under fire in an unfriendly part of the world.

If only it were true. Maybe it was just Hillary engaging in a bit of St. Patrick’s Day blarney. Maybe Hillary forgot what era in which she’s running for the presidency. But life in the era of YouTube makes confirmation of such dramatic claims a slam dunk. As it is, there’s ample evidence that, well, this trip to the ninth circle of hell came up about eight circles short:

Thus, Sgt. Hillary arrived (a dozen hairstyles ago) near Tuzla, Bosnia on a C-17 with her battle-hardened squad: daughter Chelsea Clinton, comedian Sinbad and singer Sheryl Crow, and immediately encountered such belligerents as the eight-year-old Bosnian girl who greeted her warmly on the tarmac.

Sinbad recalled the trip for The Sleuth, the Washington Post blog: "I think the only 'red-phone' moment was: 'Do we eat here or at the next place?'"

On the New York Times’ politics blog, The Caucus, Helene Cooper, Times diplomatic correspondent, reported on Monday that:

“I spoke with William Nash, who was the commander of U.S. troops in Bosnia and was at the Tuzla airport with Hillary Clinton. He said there was no threat of sniper fire at the airport during her visit. He said that Mrs. Clinton was gracious during her visit and took pictures with the soldiers, but “she never had her head down. There was no sniper threat that I know of.”

Longtime Democratic adviser and talking head Robert Shrum told NBC’s “Today” that “what stuns me about this is the explicitness of her recollection.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Others have been less charitable. “Who the hell makes shit up about getting shot at by snipers?” asked Reality Man, blogging at the Atlantic Web site.

Blogger Craig, also commenting on the Atlantic Web site, nailed it:

“Just wait until the footage comes in proving Clinton's claims that she:
1) Tore down the Berlin Wall
2) Traveled into space on Sputnik
3) Cornered bin Laden in the hills of Tora Bora

4) Won American Idol in 1986

5) Wrote the bestselling novel "War and Peace"
6) Personally executed Che Guevara

7) Finished second in Star Search”

No word yet on any Clinton claims to creating the Internet.

As you might expect, Team Clinton went into immediate damage-control mode. When she was asked about the discrepancy at a meeting Monday with the editorial board of the Philadelphia Daily News, Clinton sought to spin things differently. “I went to 80 countries, you know. I gave contemporaneous accounts, I wrote about a lot of this in my book. You know, I think that, a minor blip, you know, if I said something that, you know, I say a lot of things -- millions of words a day -- so if I misspoke, that was just a misstatement.”

Setting aside the misstatement in that correction of a misstatement — she talks a lot on the campaign trail but doesn’t utter “millions of words a day” — the latest Clinton gaffe suggests other errors of fact.

The Nation asked: “… if Clinton is distorting what happened in Bosnia — a key section of her foreign policy resume — what else is she fibbing about?”

◊ ◊ ◊

Well, if Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey is to be believed, Clinton stretched the truth about a 1998 trip to Northern Ireland, too.

“Hillary Clinton had no direct role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland and is a "wee bit silly" for exaggerating the part she played, according to Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former First Minister of the province,” reported Toby Harnden of The Telegraph Web site.

"I don’t know there was much she did apart from accompanying Bill [Clinton] going around," said Lord Trimble to The Telegraph.

Quoting Lord Trimble, Harnden reported that “Her recent statements about being deeply involved were merely 'the sort of thing people put in their canvassing leaflets' during elections. " 'She visited when things were happening, saw what was going on, she can certainly say it was part of her experience. I don’t want to rain on the thing for her, but being a cheerleader for something is slightly different from being a principal player.' "

Such inconvenient claims as these thoroughly deflate Clinton’s primary claim to fame: the experience she’s been touting since Day One of her campaign. They point to a growing disconnect between Clinton’s reality and everyone else’s reality. And reaction to these assertions suggests that voters already understand something that Clinton would just as soon have them forget: There’s a world of difference between breathing the morning air of the commander-in-chief and being the commander-in-chief.

With her less-than-elegant embroideries of the truth, Clinton joins such experiential fabulists as Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter whose fabrications of time and space cost him his job, and cost the Times considerable prestige as a newsgathering organization; and James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” an autobiographical work published in 2005, some of its central elements outed in January 2006 as towering fraud.

Such mental conjuring doesn’t stop with high-profile cases. It’s apparently an all–too-human failing. In a 2002 study involving undergraduates at Midwestern and California universities, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and behavioral researchers at the University of California at Irvine actually got many subjects in a research study to claim they shook hands with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland.

“There is good evidence that memories lose specificity over time and become more generalized, author Gillian Cohen writes in the book “Memory in the Real World.” “False memories can be deliberately implanted and recognition tasks show a relatively high rate of false positive responses for false memories and false details of true memories.”

Our fallible memories can have significant consequences. Juries have convicted suspects based on eyewitness testimony that turned out to be less than credible and open to the erosion of time, and the suggestion of prosecutors.

Luckily, the stakes this time aren’t quite so high — just the presidency of the United States hangs in the balance.

Well, perhaps it’s time for Clinton to take a break. Her Democratic challenger, Sen. Barack Obama, had the good sense after a trying week to take some time off, vacationing with his family in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

If Hill does go on furlough, though, maybe there’s a campaign ad in the making:

ANNOUNCER: Hey, Hillary Clinton! You’ve just had a busy week on the presidential campaign trail. What are you gonna do now?

CLINTON: I’m going to Disneyland!

Image credits: Clinton in Bosnia: Outside the Wire. Lord Trimble: © 2006 Fear Eireann; used under fair use rationale. James Frey book: Doubleday Books/Random House

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