If you're Hillary Clinton and you've just been caught in a "whopper," the only thing to be grateful for is that it's Good Friday and people are distracted. How bad could this story be for her? When you tell the American public you faced gunfire, and it turns out all you really faced was a little girl with flowers -- well, that's as bad as it gets. When you dramatically say you made a journey that was too dangerous for the president, only to have it revealed that he made the same trip two months earlier -- and that your teenaged daughter was by your side -- that only makes it worse.
And there's video.
If they wanted to, the networks could juxtapose video of Sen. Clinton's dramatic recitation of the battle with this clip of that sweet eight-year-old on the tarmac with a bouquet. The question is: Will they want to?
Just this week Sen. Clinton said that she landed in Bosnia under "sniper fire," adding: "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." Clinton used to tell Iowa audiences: ""We used to say in the White House that if a place is too dangerous, too small or too poor, send the First Lady."
And her 16-year-old kid?
This latest deception isdocumented in detail in the Washington Post by a reporter who was there. The paper awards her statements "four Pinocchios," a rating they reserve for political misstatements they describe as "whoppers."
"Whopper" (Merriam-Webster): "An extravagant or monstrous lie."
Comedian Sinbad's now-famous response to Sen. Clinton's claims was to say, "What kind of president would say, 'Hey, man, I can't go 'cause I might get shot so I'm going to send my wife...oh, and take a guitar player and a comedian with you.'" He added, "I think the only 'red-phone' moment was: 'Do we eat here or at the next place.'"
As is often the case these days, the Clinton campaign responded to this observation by sticking to their story, and even embellishing it (in this case, with colorful details about running for cover under fire). That could turn out to have been a catastrophic mistake -- but that, as with so much in American politics, depends on the media and how they choose to handle it. They've saturated us for nearly two weeks with video of Rev. Wright, who as it turns out didn't say anything more extreme than what other candidates' spiritual advisors have said. Will this flap get the same attention? It remains to be seen.
Sen. Clinton's other honesty problem this week came with revelations that, while she claims to have been an internal NAFTA critic in the administration, she actually gave several presentations in favor of NAFTA at the time it was passed. But, to be fair, this may not be a deception. People are often called upon to advocate for decisions in public that they opposed in private. The NAFTA controversy suggests other concerns, such as: If she were such a vehement critic, and the administration backed it anyway, how important was she? And, how can she claim credit for the good deeds of her husband's administration and yet take no responsibility for its problems?
Still, Clinton's handling of the NAFTA question certainly raises concerns. Especially troubling is her campaign's work to spread rumors of Obama sending back-channel messages to the Canadians suggesting their anti-NAFTA rhetoric was all talk -- when, according to a high-level Canadian source, her campaign had done that.
But it is the Bosnia whopper that remains the high-profile, easily documented embarrassment. Will the media run with it? It's hard to tell. Despite the Clinton campaign's PR-driven argument to the contrary, press coverage has tended to favor both candidates at different times. Right now Jim Vandenhei and Mike Allen at Politico are saying that the media's pushing a false narrative in favor of Clinton in order to promote the sense of an ongoing "horse race," arguing that her chances of taking the nomination are actually far less than has been reported.
That makes sense -- not because the media's "in the tank" for Clinton or Obama, but because a protracted race serves its own interests. By that reasoning, it's very possible they'll downplay a story like this. Why? Because it could end her candidacy once and for all. That would give the media one less story to cover.
In the end, maybe one lie shouldn't matter. Perhaps this doesn't reflect on how Sen. Clinton would govern. In our political system, however, it does matter ... but only if the media choose to make it matter. Had Obama been caught in a lie of this magnitude, his campaign might well be over. Had McCain been caught in a similar lie, however, the press would probably have hidden it (the same way they edited video of his recent Al Qaeda/Iran gaffe).
For me, the real subject of this story isn't the candidate who told an outrageous lie. It's the fact that our media holds unprecedented power. They, and the decisions they make about this story, may well decide whether Sen. Clinton's candidacy will survive.
Clinton supporters have noted an update to the WaPo piece with this statement from Lissa Muscatine: "I was on the plane with then First Lady Hillary Clinton for the trip from Germany into Bosnia in 1996. We were put on a C17-- a plane capable of steep ascents and descents -- precisely because we were flying into what was considered a combat zone. We were issued flak jackets for the final leg because of possible sniper fire near Tuzla. As an additional precaution, the First Lady and Chelsea were moved to the armored cockpit for the descent into Tuzla. We were told that a welcoming ceremony on the tarmac might be canceled because of sniper fire in the hills surrounding the air strip. From Tuzla, Hillary flew to two outposts in Bosnia with gunships escorting her helicopter."
The last time I took a flight I was told what to do in "in the event of a water landing." But if I said I had survived a crash landing on water, would I be telling the truth? Hillary provided a vivid description of having to run from sniper fire. It was a complete falsehood.
From Wikipedia: "Lissa Muscatine was a speechwriter and the communications director of former First Lady Hillary Clinton. Currently, she is a speechwriter for Senator Clinton's campaign for the presidential nomination, and is one of her closest advisors ..."
It requires enormous suspension of disbelief to accept the idea that Hillary brought her 16-year-old daughter too a place that was considered "too dangerous for the president" and exposed her to live sniper fire. Do those pro-Hillary commenters really believe she did that? If so, they should be concerned about her judgment.
I continue to be astonished at the willingness of Clinton supporters to elide, obfuscate, tolerate, condone, and defend behavior from their candidate that would provoke their outrage if it came from anyone else. But that's not my central point. This is: For all the chatter about press bias for Obama, his career might be over had he been caught in this kind of misstatement. But the media wants a prolonged horse race, so Clinton will get a pass while we continue to be hammered with clips of Jeremiah Wright making statements Obama repudiated a week ago. The press is once again influencing the outcome of American elections -- and that's not democratic.