MOST politicians lie. Most people over 50, as I know all too well, misremember things. So here is the one compelling mystery still unresolved about Hillary Clinton’s Bosnia fairy tale: Why did she keep repeating this whopper for nearly three months, well after it had been publicly debunked by journalists and eyewitnesses?
In January, after Senator Clinton first inserted the threat of “sniper fire” into her stump speech, Elizabeth Sullivan of The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that the story couldn’t be true because by the time of the first lady’s visit in March 1996, “the war was over.” Meredith Vieira asked Mrs. Clinton on the “Today” show why, if she was on the front lines, she took along a U.S.O. performer like Sinbad. Earlier this month, a week before Mrs. Clinton fatefully rearmed those snipers one time too many, Sinbad himself spoke up to The Washington Post: “I think the only ‘red phone’ moment was: Do we eat here or at the next place?”
Yet Mrs. Clinton was undeterred. She dismissed Sinbad as a “comedian” and recycled her fiction once more on St. Patrick’s Day. When Michael Dobbs fact-checked it for The Post last weekend and proclaimed it worthy of “four Pinocchios,” her campaign pushed back. The Clinton camp enforcer Howard Wolfson phoned in to “Morning Joe” on MSNBC Monday and truculently quoted a sheaf of news stories that he said supported her account. Only later that day, a full week after her speech, did he start to retreat, suggesting it was “possible” she “misspoke” in the “most recent instance” of her retelling of her excellent Bosnia adventure.
Since Mrs. Clinton had told a similar story in previous instances, this was misleading at best. It was also dishonest to characterize what she had done as misspeaking — or as a result of sleep deprivation, as the candidate herself would soon assert. The Bosnia anecdote was part of her prepared remarks, scripted and vetted with her staff. Not that it mattered anymore. The self-inflicted damage had been done. The debate about Barack Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was almost smothered in the rubble of Mrs. Clinton’s Bosnian bridge too far.
Which brings us back to our question: Why would so smart a candidate play political Russian roulette with virtually all the bullet chambers loaded?
Sometimes only a shrink can decipher why some politicians persist in flagrantly taking giant risks, all but daring others to catch them in the act (see: Spitzer, Eliot). Carl Bernstein, a sometimes admiring Hillary Clinton biographer, has called the Bosnia debacle “a watershed event” for her campaign because it revives her long history of balancing good works with “ ‘misstatements’ and elisions,” from the health-care task force fiasco onward.
But this event may be a watershed for two other reasons that have implications beyond Mrs. Clinton’s character and candidacy, spilling over into the 2008 campaign as a whole. It reveals both the continued salience of that supposedly receding issue, the Iraq war, and the accelerating power of viral politics, as exemplified by YouTube, to override the retail politics still venerated by the Beltway establishment.
What’s been lost in the furor over Mrs. Clinton’s Bosnia fairy tale is that her disastrous last recycling of it, the one that blew up in her face, kicked off her major address on the war, timed to its fifth anniversary. Still unable to escape the stain of the single most damaging stand in her public career, she felt compelled to cloak herself, however fictionally, in an American humanitarian intervention that is not synonymous with quagmire.
Perhaps she thought that by taking the huge gamble of misspeaking one more time about her narrow escape on the tarmac at Tulza, she could compensate for misvoting on Iraq. Instead, her fictionalized derring-do may have stirred national trace memories of two of the signature propaganda stunts of the war: the Rambo myth the Pentagon concocted for Pvt. Jessica Lynch and President Bush’s flyboy antics on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln during “Mission Accomplished.”
That Mrs. Clinton’s campaign kept insisting her Bosnia tale was the truth two days after The Post exposed it as utter fiction also shows the political perils of 20th-century analog arrogance in a digital age. Incredible as it seems, the professionals around Mrs. Clinton — though surely knowing her story was false — thought she could tough it out. They ignored the likelihood that a television network would broadcast the inevitable press pool video of a first lady’s foreign trip — as the CBS Evening News did on Monday night — and that this smoking gun would then become an unstoppable assault weapon once harnessed to the Web.
The Drudge Report’s link to the YouTube iteration of the CBS News piece transformed it into a cultural phenomenon reaching far beyond a third-place network news program’s nightly audience. It had more YouTube views than the inflammatory Wright sermons, more than even the promotional video of Britney Spears making her latest “comeback” on a TV sitcom. It was as this digital avalanche crashed down that Mrs. Clinton, backed into a corner, started offering the alibi of “sleep deprivation” and then tried to reignite the racial fires around Mr. Wright.
The Clinton campaign’s cluelessness about the Web has been apparent from the start, and not just in its lagging fund-raising. Witness the canned Hillary Web “chats” and “Hillcasts,” the soupy Web contest to choose a campaign song (the winner, an Air Canada advertising jingle sung by Celine Dion, was quickly dumped), and the little-watched electronic national town-hall meeting on the eve of Super Tuesday. Web surfers have rejected these stunts as the old-school infomercials they so blatantly are.
Senator Obama, for all his campaign’s Internet prowess, made his own media mistake by not getting ahead of the inevitable emergence of commercially available Wright videos on both cable TV and the Web. But he got lucky. YouTube videos of a candidate in full tilt or full humiliation, we’re learning, can outdraw videos of a candidate’s fire-breathing pastor. Both the CBS News piece on Mrs. Clinton in Bosnia and the full video of Mr. Obama’s speech on race have drawn more views than the most popular clips of a raging Mr. Wright.
But the political power of the Bosnia incident speaks at least as much to the passions aroused by the war as to the media dynamics of the Web. For all the economic anxiety roiling Americans, they have not forgotten Iraq. The anger can rise again in a flash when stoked by events on the ground or politicians at home, as it has throughout the rites surrounding the fifth anniversary of the invasion and 4,000th American combat death. This will keep happening as it becomes more apparent that the surge is a stalemate, bringing neither lower troop levels nor anything more than a fragile temporary stability to Iraq. John McCain’s apparent obliviousness to this fact remains a boon to the Democrats.
The war is certainly a bigger issue in 2008 than race. Yet it remains a persistent Beltway refrain that race will hinder Mr. Obama at every turn, no matter how often reality contradicts the thesis. Whites wouldn’t vote for a black man in states like Iowa and New Hampshire; whites wouldn’t vote for blacks in South Carolina; blacks wouldn’t vote for a black man who wasn’t black enough. The newest incessantly repeated scenario has it that Mr. Obama’s fate now all depends on a stereotypical white blue-collar male voter in the apotheosized rust belt town of Deer Hunter, Pa.
Well, Mr. Obama isn’t going to win every white vote. But two big national polls late last week, both conducted since he addressed the Wright controversy, found scant change in Mr. Obama’s support. In The Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, his white support was slightly up. As the pollster Peter Hart put it, this result was “a myth buster.” The noisy race wars have failed to stop Mr. Obama just as immigration hysteria didn’t defeat Senator McCain, the one candidate in his party who refused to pander to the Lou Dobbs brigades.
The myth that’s been busted is one that Mr. Obama talked about in his speech — the perennial given that American racial relations are doomed to stew eternally in the Jim Crow poisons that forged generations like Mr. Wright’s. Yet if you sampled much political commentary of the past two weeks, you’d think it’s still 1968, or at least 1988. The default assumptions are that the number of racists in America remains fixed, no matter what the generational turnover, and that the Wright videos will terrorize white folks just as the Willie Horton ads did when the G.O.P. took out Michael Dukakis.
But politically and culturally we’re not in the 1980s — or pre-YouTube 2004 — anymore. An unending war abroad is upstaging the old domestic racial ghosts. A new bottom-up media culture is challenging any candidate’s control of a message.
The 2008 campaign is, unsurprisingly enough, mostly of a piece with 2006, when Iraq cost Republicans the Congress. In that year’s signature race, a popular Senate incumbent, George Allen, was defeated by a war opponent in the former Confederate bastion of Virginia after being caught race-baiting in a video posted on the Web. Last week Mrs. Clinton learned the hard way that Iraq, racial gamesmanship and viral video can destroy a Democrat, too.