ON DEADLINE: Hillary's Flight of Fancy
Associated Press Writer
Why wasn't the truth good enough for Hillary Rodham Clinton?
That's a question worth considering as the former first lady tries to contain damage to her credibility after getting caught exaggerating the danger of her 1996 trip to Bosnia. Two others: Is there a pattern of embellishment? And is she held to a higher standard than her rival, Barack Obama?
The answers: Yes, she's held to a higher standard and, yes, she does exaggerate her credentials. Perhaps she's driven by insecurity; Clinton must think her resume needs padding to reflect "35 years of experience" and the promise to be "ready on Day One."
Otherwise, the truth would have sufficed.
The fact is that Clinton and her entourage were warned in advance that Bosnia was hostile territory and that there had been sniper fire reported in the hills surrounding the tarmac at some point before the trip. As a journalist on the trip, the story I wrote began, "Venturing to the front lines of the Bosnia peacekeeping mission, Hillary Rodham Clinton greeted U.S. troops today and heard horror stories about the region's devastating civil war."
It continued: "Security was tight _ fighter jets accompanied her DC-17 cargo plane to Tuzla _ but officials said the first lady took no extraordinary risks on the trip."
In her biography, Clinton wrote about the reports of snipers in the hills and said she met with local children on the tarmac, adding that the gathering was cut short by security concerns. All plausible, and a mission to be proud of.
But during a speech last week on Iraq, Clinton stretched the truth to the breaking point. "I certainly do remember that trip to Bosnia and ... there was a saying around the White House that if a place was too small, too poor, or too dangerous, the president couldn't go, so send the first lady. That's where we went. I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base."
Hogwash. The truth is:
_ There was no sniper fire.
_ Nobody ducked for cover.
_ Bad weather, not security concerns, kept her husband from making the same trip a few months earlier.
Clinton and her aides stood behind the story _ which she has told more than once _ until video surfaced showing the former first lady, her daughter, Chelsea, and their entourage strolling off the plane and walking calmly across the tarmac.
"I made a mistake," she said Tuesday. "That happens. It proves I'm human, which you know, for some people, is a revelation."
To be sure, Clinton is not the first American to pad a resume. She's not even the only candidate for president to do so.
Obama has exaggerated his role in reaching a compromise in the Senate on immigration as well as his authorship of a bill to address the housing crisis. Voters need to weigh such distortions when they consider whether the freshman senator from Illinois truly is a new breed of politician.
What makes Clinton's situation unique _ and the Bosnia embellishments so damaging _ is the fact that the New York senator has built her candidacy on the illusion of experience. Any attack on her credentials is a potential Achilles heel.
As first lady, she did not attend National Security Council meetings, did not receive the presidential daily briefing on terrorism and other threats and did not have a top level security clearance. Her foreign trips were glorified goodwill tours, a collection of photo opportunities and sightseeing trips.
Still, Clinton was an exceptionally active first lady who knows more than most about what it takes to be president. So it must drive her nuts when Obama and his allies dismiss her role. Their condescension must make it harder for Clinton to accept the fact that hers was a largely ceremonial job, especially after her ill-fated attempt to overhaul the nation's health care system.
And so the best explanation for her Bosnia embellishment may be this simple, and this human: She's overcompensating.
That would explain why it wasn't good enough to say she visited Northern Ireland five times and urged the rivals to make peace. No, Clinton claims she "helped bring peace to Northern Ireland."
She didn't just urge the Macedonian government to open its borders to refugees. No, she "negotiated open borders to let fleeing refugees into safety from Kosovo."
Polls show that voters wonder about Clinton's honesty and authenticity. The Bosnia story plays to that character issue. As former Vice President Al Gore could tell her, once the media and voters start doubting a candidate's integrity, every episode that fits that narrative gets blown out of proportion.
Gore never said he invented the Internet; his mistake was to place himself more centrally than warranted at the creation of the technology. But such nuance was lost on people who voted against him in 2000.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Ron Fournier has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years. On Deadline is an occasional column.
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