London ~~ March 28, 2008
Hillary Clinton; fibber in chief
Her blatant deceit over Bosnia, among other lies, is about the last nail in her coffin
A good memory is needed once we have lied,” observed Pierre Corneille, the 17th-century French tragedian. He was right. The complexities involved in keeping an untruth plausible and consistent are so tortuous that to be really good at lying demands exceptional recall of what was said when and where.
But Corneille was writing before the age of YouTube. Nowadays, no amount of familiarity with memory's labyrinth will save you when there is downloadable disproof at the click of a mouse button. So Hillary Clinton discovered this week, when she was caught out in a prize fib about a trip she made to Bosnia when she was First Lady 12 years ago.
Dilating on her extensive experience of foreign affairs, the New York senator told a campaign event last week that she vividly remembered how, with the Balkans still a cauldron of war, she had flown into an airfield under sniper fire. She had had to dash, head-down from the aircraft, she told the spellbound audience, to the safety of waiting cars, and the planned traditional arrival ceremony had been hastily cancelled in the mêlée.
It sounded thrilling - like something out of a Tom Clancy novel. The problem was, it probably did come out of a Tom Clancy novel. It was pure fiction.
CBS unearthed some news video of the arrival ceremony and it was promptly disseminated on YouTube. There was Mrs Clinton, serene and smiling, strolling with her entourage from the plane, head held high, and in no evident danger from snipers, terrorists, or even the odd slightly miffed Serb. Seconds later she was being greeted in what looked very much like a traditional arrival ceremony on the tarmac where a small girl embraced her and the two chatted warmly for a while. I've been in more physical danger coming out of the car park at Heathrow.
Confronted with the incontrovertible evidence Mrs Clinton acknowledged this week that she “misspoke”. Misspeak is an Orwellian term deployed by politicians to describe what has happened when they have been caught in a barefaced lie.
The Clintons have a well-formed habit of misspeaking. Bill Clinton, of course, was always doing it. But his wife has also over the years mastered the art of misspeaking in what Mark Twain once described as an “experienced, industrious, ambitious and often quite picturesque” way.
She has misspoken on any number of occasions when the straight truth might have been very damaging: over her involvement in the various scandals of the early Clinton years. But alongside these instrumental whoppers, there have been some befuddlingly pointless little tiddlers too.
For no obvious reason she once claimed her parents named her after Sir Edmund Hillary, even though she was born more than five years before the mountaineer's ascent of Everest, when he was known by almost no one outside New Zealand.
When she ran for New York senator she claimed to have been a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees even though no one could recall her ever having expressed the slightest interest in or knowledge of the baseball team.
In fact the facility with which the Clintons misspeak is so pronounced that it is quite possible they have genuinely forgotten how to tell the plain truth. There was no real need for Mrs Clinton to make the claim about landing in sniper fire. But the compulsion to embroider, to dissemble and to dissimulate is now so entrenched in the synapses of the Clinton brain that it came to her as naturally as the truth would to a slow-witted innocent.
Someone once noted that the thing about the Clintons is that they will choose a big lie when a small lie will do, and choose a small lie when the truth will do. Most of the time they get away with it. But occasionally, an inconvenient truth, like a blue dress with DNA on it, or some forgotten news footage, shows up and damns them.
The Bosnia misspeak, unnecessary as it was, revealed much, however. It helped to expose a much bigger untruth Mrs Clinton has been peddling throughout the Democratic primary campaign - that her time in the White House means she has the necessary foreign policy experience to be president.
First Ladies don't acquire real foreign policy experience. We know that Mrs Clinton did not, as she claimed, play a large role in the Northern Ireland peace process, that she was not, as she claimed, a key voice in counsels on the Balkans, and that she did not even have security clearance in the White House for the most sensitive of conversations about national security.
So the problem with the ripping yarn about the Bosnia snipers is that it offers hard evidentiary disproof of improbable claims about her role during the White House years.
With this latest deceit stripped away, there is not much left to Mrs Clinton's disintegrating campaign for the Democratic nomination. It capped a bad week for her, a week that might have signalled the end of her hopes.
With a deft speech that was somewhat lacking in complete honesty itself, Barack Obama last week seemed to have acquitted himself quite well, for now, of the charge of being an associate of a ranting, anti-American black preacher. More important, the collapse last week of efforts to schedule a new vote in Florida and Michigan, two states whose earlier primary votes have been disqualified, was deadly to Mrs Clinton. It is now virtually impossible for her to finish ahead of Mr Obama in the delegate count when the primary season ends in early June.
That really ought to be that. After that final primary in Puerto Rico on June 1, Mr Obama will have won more states, more delegates and more popular votes than Mrs Clinton. How in those circumstances can Mrs Clinton claim a moral case for staying in the race?
Her answer is to persuade the party's super-delegates - top party leaders and elected officials who will have the casting votes - that she is more electable than Mr Obama, and that they would be doing the party a favour if they chose her over the wishes of the tens of millions of people who have voted in the primaries.
They are unlikely to be taken in. They are more likely to view it as another example of Senator Clinton's misspeaking.
Thursday March 27 2008
The Blog: Mayhill Fowler
Telling Tales About Her First Lady Travels: Where and Why Did Hillary Exaggerate?
Hillary Clinton's calendars from her years as First Lady are a window opening onto a detailed landscape of her many trips abroad and suggest several possible reasons for her consistently overstating her role, which was essentially that of First Wife, when she traveled with her husband, and Goodwill Ambassador, when she traveled without him. But Hillary Clinton, as we now know, has been mentally rewriting her official visits--rigid constructions of protocol and set-pieces carefully crafted as any dioramas--injecting them with elements of surprise, adventure, chance human interaction and meaning. Trips to more than eighty countries that are completely lacking in spontaneity and other possibility would quickly drive most people crazy. Hillary Clinton survived by telling herself more involving stories than what actually happened. And now her Bosnia tale, with added hardship and danger, has embarrassed her campaign. In this light, the most interesting sentence in Clinton's 2003 autobiography Living History is this: "During this trip I also met with a group of prominent Japanese women--the first of dozens of such meetings that I held around the world--to learn about the issues women were facing everywhere."
I held. Hillary Clinton did not hold the meeting in Japan or anywhere else. These meetings, as her foreign itineraries make clear, were arranged for her. Aware of her interest in women's issues, embassies and liaison officers with foreign governments tried to accommodate the First Lady by setting up meets-and-greets and hour-long translator-facilitated discussions with local women. She was the First Lady of the United States, the most powerful nation in the world; of course, other countries tried to please by filling Hillary's days with what they thought would interest her. The realpolitik of American might "held" the meetings. That's why women came. Over time, Hillary Clinton has succumbed to a strain of Napoleon complex. Her me-centrism has grown from the amorphousness of her position in the White House--the fact that she had no formally-vested powers--just as surely as if she had been the President herself.
Here is the July 7, 1993 schedule for that meeting with a group of Japanese women:
12:15 PM ARRIVE LUNCHEON
Hosted by Mrs. Armacost
FORMAT: 10 prominent Japanese women in attendance.
Mrs. Clinton will be greeted by Mrs. Armacost and escorted to the salon
for drinks and meet and greet.
Guests will be escorted to Dining Room for lunch.
MENU: lightly prepared lobster, veal piccata, salad, asparagus,
puff pastry and fruit.
Guests return to salon for coffee and official photo.
2:10 PM DEPART VIA FOOT Ambassador's Residence
Therefore, Ambassador Armacost's wife held the "meeting," which was really the kind of luncheon program that generations of American women have been familiar with since the advent of women's clubs in the post-Civil War era. While Mrs. Clinton was entertained, the President was talking with President Suharto of Indonesia and other leaders, for this was the G-7 Summit. The question now is whether Hillary Clinton's tendency to self-aggrandizement is a worrisome trait for a potential world leader. By raising it, I am suggesting, of course, the affirmative. A further look at Clinton's First Lady travels illuminates the issue.
If either Hillary's White House staff or later the Clinton Library had grasped the revealing level of detail in the foreign itineraries attached to the First Lady calendars, likely these insertions would have been held back as long as Senator Clinton's foreign policy experience is an issue. The "away" days on the calendars, partly because they include daily schedules arranged with time intervals as small as ten minutes, offer much more than the cautious entries for White House days. Two different mindsets are at work here: HRC's mum loyalists, with their typical notations of "closed meeting" and "no public schedule," and the loquacious itineraries, coming from outside planners, which Patti Solis Doyle without much thought to future consequence allowed to be filed away among the daily records.
What kinds of experience did Hillary Clinton gain from all those trips abroad? She grew accustomed to admiring rose gardens (every wife of every world leader seems to have one) and accepting gifts from children through interpreters. She practiced "the wave," the dressy formal photo-op and the "arrive and hold." She learned how to walk the cordons of different militaries. She perfected the proper facial expression for watching one's husband place wreaths on the graves of fallen soldiers. She grew in patience and fortitude for yet one more staged hospital tour and pass-through observation of women making crafts. She grew familiar with the quick introduction and the brief intimacy and learned how to make the most of surface human interaction. As the timelines of her itineraries reveal, she seldom had the opportunity to meet with foreign women for any meaningful length of time. Indeed the protocol of these trips was stultifying. Hillary Clinton might as well have been Lady Curzon visiting the Raj or Queen Elizabeth on annual progress.
Here is a typical afternoon hour, from the HRC trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, July 6, 1996:
4:05 PM WALK THROUGH PRIMATE SQUARE
HRC proceeds to the Primate Square.
A children's dance folk ensemble will perform.
A young girl will present HRC with a traditional doll in folk costume.
HRC stops at the Statue of Roland, a symbolic patron of the City, as well
as a symbol of pride and citizenship.
NO REMARKS REQUIRED
HRC bids farewell and departs.
NOTE: HRC will have the option to shake some hands upon her departure.
Peace Corp [sic] volunteers will be at the end of the ropeline on departure.
5:00 PM DEPART Old Town
EN ROUTE Bratislava Airport
This touch-down in Slovakia was part of a longer trip Hillary Clinton took in summer 1996 to Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia and Finland. Briefly, Mrs. Clinton traveled with fellow Wellesley grad Madeleine Albright (then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.), and perhaps for this reason Clinton sees this trip, particularly, through the lens of American foreign policy and gives herself a central place in it. In her autobiography, Clinton says, "I was asked to represent Bill in a region he thought needed U.S. encouragement and a show of solidarity." Since this sentence closes a paragraph about the expansion of NATO, the reader is left to assume that pact membership was the agenda of Hillary's trip. However, if she spoke to leaders of former Warsaw Pact countries about NATO expansion, a centerpiece of her husband's foreign policy that was questioned by many in both Congress and the press--not to mention Russia--and was therefore a difficult and fraught venture requiring caution and nuance, she had precious little time in each country for such conversation.
In Romania, Hillary Clinton had a 15-minute private meeting with President Iliescu and eight other people, including the wife of the Foreign Minister. In Poland, she met with President Kwasniewski for 15 minutes. She paid courtesy calls on the presidents of Estonia and Hungary. In Hungary, she met with Prime Minister Horn for 30 minutes. In the Czech Republic, she, along with eight others, met with Prime Minister Klaus for half an hour; then Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Klaus retired for tea while "Ambassador Albright remains with Prime Minister Klaus." In Slovakia, Mrs. Clinton's meeting with President Kovac lasted 25 minutes. Her itinerary reveals that Madeleine Albright did the heavy lifting. "The President will return to continue meeting with Ambassador Albright" (July 6, 11:55 AM). "The President will then resume a meeting with Ambassador Albright."
Clinton's autobiography presents her meeting with Slovakian Prime Minister Meciar as a dramatic and menacing encounter: "A former boxer, he sat on one end of a small couch; I sat on the other. . . . By the end of our meeting, I was wedged tightly into the corner of the couch, appalled at his bullying attitude and barely controlled rage." Clinton fails to account for the eleven other people present at "our meeting," including her own Melanne Verveer and Madeleine Albright. It's Ambassador Albright who has to put up with Meciar at length. "Ambassador Albright will meet with the Prime Minister for an additional 30 minutes after HRC departs" (3:50 PM).
Did Hillary Clinton learn anything from her First Lady experiences abroad about the making of foreign policy? Yes indeed she did. She learned that there is only one Commander-in-Chief. As Carl Bernstein amply documents in his biography of her, Hillary Clinton entered the White House thinking that her husband and she were embarking on a co-presidency. Travels abroad with the President disabused her of that delusion. President Clinton received the dinner toasts and the gun salutes; he adjusted the ribbons on wreaths at memorials and cemeteries; sometimes only he signed a book of remembrance. Mrs. Clinton's itineraries are punctuated with instructions for her to "walk behind her husband," to "follow the President," to "stand behind," to "remain behind." Although her official visits garnered her little tangible foreign policy experience, the tenor of these travels prepared Hillary Clinton very well for her Senate race. The last few months of her White House calendars are suddenly full of events in New York State--just the kind of meets-and-greets, polite discussions, luncheons, teas and walk-abouts that she had eschewed in Arkansas, partly out of necessity as a law firm partner, and then tried to avoid in Washington, but in which over the course of her First Lady travels she became well-versed.