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Tall tales on the campaign trail

It’s been called Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Walter Mitty moment. Speaking last week at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., about a trip to Bosnia she made in 1996, Clinton said: “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.”

But like the character who imagines his own heroism in James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Clinton’s dramatic account turned out to be a fantasy. We all tell tall tales from time to time, but most of us aren’t running for president. So with the stakes so high, Clinton and her campaign continued to insist for days that her description was close to the truth even as her story rapidly unraveled.

In a news conference after her speech, Clinton reaffirmed her account of running from the plane, saying she was moved into the cockpit of the C-17 cargo plane as they were flying into Tuzla Air Base. “Everyone else was told to sit on their bulletproof vests,” Clinton said. “And we came in, in an evasive maneuver. … There was no greeting ceremony, and we basically were told to run to our cars. Now, that is what happened.”

But almost immediately after her remarks, the comedian Sinbad, who made the trip with Clinton along with singer Sheryl Crow, told the Washington Post that the journey was hardly a scene out of “The Longest Day.” (Sinbad’s a Barack Obama man.) He said he made the trip as part of a USO event to cheer troops in the region — and that there was never a harrowing moment. The “scariest” part of the trip, he recalls, was picking a place to dine. “I think the only ‘red-phone’ moment was: ‘Do we eat here or at the next place?’ “

Four Pinocchios
The Washington Post’s Michael Dobbs, in his “The Fact Checker” column, soon gave Clinton a truth-telling rating of “four Pinocchios” (not a good score) for her account. He explained:

“As a reporter who visited Bosnia soon after the December 1995 Dayton Peace agreement, I can attest that the physical risks were minimal during this period, particularly at a heavily fortified U.S. Air Force base, such as Tuzla. …

“Had Hillary Clinton’s plane come ‘under sniper fire’ in March 1996, we would certainly have heard about it long before now. Numerous reporters, including the Washington Post’s John Pomfret, covered her trip. A review of nearly 100 news accounts of her visit shows that not a single newspaper or television station reported any security threat to the First Lady. ‘As a former AP wire service hack, I can safely say that it would have been in my lead had anything like that happened,’ said Pomfret.”

As every famous person knows by now, somewhere someone has video of everything you’ve said and done. In this case, that someone turned out to be CBS News, which soon produced video of Clinton’s arrival in Bosnia that contradicted her account. The video — fast becoming a YouTube favorite — shows a friendly greeting ceremony with a smiling child, but no sniper fire.

Clinton finally gave in Monday when she told the Philadelphia Daily News’ editorial board that she “misspoke” and the matter amounted to “a minor blip,” noting that “I say a lot of things — millions of words a day — so if I misspoke, that was just a misstatement.” (As noted above, everything’s recorded these days. Here’s video of the editorial board meeting.)

She continued the theme Tuesday, telling reporters: “So I made a mistake. That happens. It proves I’m human, which you know, for some people, is a revelation.”

Past missteps

Other politicians, of course, have misspoken in the past. Gerald Ford famously freed Poland in his 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter when he said, “I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union,” asserting that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” a surprise to eastern Europeans at the time.

And Reagan biographer Lou Cannon and others have pointed out that Ronald Reagan often mixed up real events with his movie roles.

Will the verbal misstep stick to Clinton and damage her campaign? Some scholars, after all, argue that Ford lost the ’76 election because of his Poland blunder. And Patrick Healy of the New York Times warns that Clinton must be “especially careful because of a belief among many Americans, unfair or not, but detected in opinion polling, that the Clintons have a mixed and sometimes tortured history with being honest and giving direct answers.”

The answer to whether her credibility will suffer a big blow may depend on whether other exaggerations come to light.

Hillary-hating bloggers and mainstream news organizations will be on the lookout. Some bloggers and reporters are looking now. The Telegraph in London, for example, has begun analyzing 11,046 pages of Clinton’s White House schedules and concluded that the material undermines her claims that she gained major foreign-policy experience as First Lady: “Despite Mrs Clinton’s claim last week that she was ‘instrumental’ in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, the schedules do not record her attending a single policy meeting in the province.”

The Telegraph noted that her visits to Northern Ireland “indicate that she went little beyond the traditional role of a president’s wife attending social events, meeting women’s groups and greeting children.”

In the meantime, the Obama campaign wants to keep the issue of Clinton’s credibility alive.

Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said Clinton’s Bosnia story “joins a growing list of instances in which Senator Clinton has exaggerated her role in foreign and domestic policymaking.”

Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson, who earlier defended his candidate’s Bosnia statements, understandably wants to talk about something else. His assessment of the controversy: “This is something that the Obama campaign wants to push ’cause they have nothing positive to say about their candidate.”

Roger Buoen, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. He can be reached at rbuoen [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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