Hillary Clinton met her Waterloo at Tuzla. She’d been regaling audiences with tales of a dangerous landing under sniper fire in Tuzla 12 years ago and then running for cover. None of this occurred. When CBS provided the tape, she was forced to admit to “a misstatement.”
Now, confabulation is a fairly common psychological phenomenon. We all have internalized childhood stories so oft repeated by elders that we come to falsely “remember” the actual experience. Adult memories are less susceptible to such unconscious inventions, but past experiences embellished over time by repeated recounting can reach the point where we actually believe the elaborate trappings of our own retellings.
Clinton’s problem, however, is that a corkscrew landing under sniper fire is the kind of thing that is hard to forget and harder still for memory to invent. This is confabulation on a pathological scale.
A Clintonian scale. And that’s the problem. Barack Obama has been gaining on Hillary in part because Tuzla reminds Democrats what they had largely succeeded in banishing from consciousness: the Clintons’ rather arm’s-length relationship with truth. The great New York Times columnist William Safire once called Hillary Clinton “a congenital liar” and made it stick. And that was more than a decade before snipergate.
The revulsion at the Clintons’ lack of scruples remained latent as long as the focus was on her relatively unknown opponent, a blank slate being filled in with Tony Rezko’s shady dealings and Jeremiah Wright’s racist rants. Tuzla not only provided a distraction from Obama’s problem with the raving reverend, it created the perfect setting for the press to pronounce the Wright affair closed.
In his swoon-inducing Philadelphia speech, Obama had instructed the nation from on high that America was greatly in need of a national conversation on race — a need curiously absent before his pastor’s words sent his campaign into a tailspin — and that he, Barack Obama, was ready to lead it. Everything was now on the table, except his association with Wright. Because to “play Rev. Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election” would simply be a “distraction” from the suffering of the American people which, of course, is the work of the usual suspects: corporate outsourcing and “the special interests in Washington.”
This invitation to move on, as it were, has been widely accepted. After the speech it became an article of faith that even referencing Wright’s comments was somehow illegitimate, the new “Swift-boating.”
It is not just that Obama surrogate Rep. George Miller denounced the Clinton campaign for bringing up Wright when talking to superdelegates as trying to “work the low road.” You expect that from a campaign. Or that Andrew Sullivan called Hillary’s commenting on Wright “a new low.” You expect that from Andrew Sullivan.
But from the mainstream media? As National Review’s Byron York has pointed out, when Clinton supporter Lanny Davis said on CNN that it is “legitimate” for her to have remarked “that she personally would not put up with somebody who says that 9/11 are chickens who come home to roost” or the kind of “generic comments (Wright) made about white America,” Anderson Cooper, the show’s host and alleged moderator, interjected that since “we all know what the (Wright) comments were,” he found it “amazing” and “funny” that Davis should “feel the need to repeat them over and over again.”
Davis protested, “It’s appropriate.” Time magazine’s Joe Klein promptly smacked Davis down with “Lanny, Lanny, you’re spreading the — you’re spreading the poison right now,” and then suggested that an “honorable person” would “stay away from this stuff.”
Amazing. We’ve gone beyond moral equivalence to moral inversion. It is now dishonorable to even make note of Wright’s bigotry and ask how any man — let alone a man on the threshold of the presidency — could associate himself for 20 years with the purveyor of such hate.
Watching such a display, you get a full appreciation of Hillary’s challenge. The mainstream media are back in the tank. The Saturday Night Live skits parodying media obsequiousness toward Obama, followed closely by the revelation of the Wright tapes, temporarily forced the media to subject Obama to normal scrutiny. But after the “speech” and Tuzla, they have reverted to form as protectors of the myth of Obama.
The hagiographic treatment of a newly emerged Democratic leader is a recurring theme in American journalism. At the dawning of the age of Clinton 15 years ago, the cover of The New York Times Magazine featured a woman dressed entirely in white. The heading read: “Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Politics of Virtue.”
Inside, under the title “Saint Hillary,” the late Michael Kelly wrote a brilliantly detached, coolly ironic deconstruction of his celestial subject. Saint Obama awaits his Michael Kelly.
(c) 2008, The Washington Post Writers Group