Monday, March 31, 2008

Clinton Debacle on Bosnia Shows Politicians Can No Longer Ignore Power of the Internet

Former First Lady Kept Insisting She Came Under Sniper Fire in Bosnia Despite Newspaper Stories to the Contrary and Backed Off Only After Video Footage Proving her Claim to be False Was Posted on YouTube -- and Picked Up By the TV Networks

In this Monday March 25, 1996 file picture, first lady Hillary ...

It wasn't just video footage that contradicted Hillary Rodham Clinton's claim that she came under sniper fire while visiting Bosnia in 1996. In this file picture, the then-first lady kisses Emina Bicakcic, 8, from Sarajevo, who dedicated a poem to her shortly after her arrival at the Tuzla Air Base. Clinton's daughter Chelsea (left) accompanied her on their one-day visit to the U.S. troops stationed in Bosnia. After weeks of inisiting her story was true, Clinton now says she made a mistake. But the controversy raises serious issues about her credibility. (AP file photo by Doug Mills)

By Frank Rich
The New York Times

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 Clinton on NBC's “Today” show why, if she was on the front lines, she took along a USO performer like Sinbad. Earlier this month, a week before 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?”



The Bosnian girl who famously read a poem to Hillary Rodham Clinton during her 1996 visit to the war-torn country is shocked -- and her countrymen infuriated -- that the former first lady claimed to have dodged sniper fire that day.

Meanwhile, Clinton faced increasing odds Monday as a new opinion poll showed rival Barack Obama consolidating his nationwide support.

Emina Bicakcic, now 20 and studying to become a doctor, told the New York Post she stood on the tarmac at the air base in Tuzla, greeted Clinton and even had time to share the lines of verse she'd written - all without fear of attack from an unseen enemy.

"I was surprised when I heard this," Bicakcic said, referring to Clinton's assertion that she braved snipers upon landing, ducking and sprinting to military vehicles.

Other Bosnians said they had one of two reactions to Clinton's debunked action-hero account of her visit: laughter or anger. "It's an exaggeration," said former acting President Ejup Ganic, who was present during Clinton's visit. "No one was firing. There were no shots fired."

A Gallup tracking survey indicated Obama, perhaps benefiting from the Bosnia flap, widened his lead over Clinton among Democrats nationally by 52 percent to 42 percent -- his largest lead of the year so far. This marks the first time either candidate has held a double-digit lead over the other since early February, when Clinton led Obama by 11 percentage points, the polling firm pointed out.

-- AP, Agence France-Presse


Clinton Clung to Story Despite Mounting Evidence to the Contrary

Yet 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 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 Reverend Jeremiah Wright was almost smothered in the rubble of Clinton’s Bosnian bridge too far.

Debacle Triggers Questions of Clinton's Credibility on Iraq

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 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 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.

Clinton's Gaffe Now Ranks With Lynch, Bush Myths on Iraq

Perhaps she thought that by taking the huge gamble of misspeaking one more time about her narrow escape on the tarmac at Tuzla, 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 Private Jessica Lynch and President Bush’s flyboy antics on the USS Abraham Lincoln during “Mission Accomplished.”

That 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 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.

Lesson: Never Underestimate the Power of the World Wide Web

The Drudge Report’s link to the YouTube posting 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 Clinton, backed into a corner, started offering the alibi of “sleep deprivation” and then tried to reignite the racial fires around 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.

Flap Over Obama's Pastor Is Quickly Overshadowed

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 Clinton in Bosnia and the full video of Obama’s speech on race have drawn more views than the most popular clips of a raging 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.

Obsession Over Race Inside Beltway Ignores Reality of Generational Shift

The war is certainly a bigger issue in 2008 than race. Yet it remains a persistent Beltway refrain that race will hinder 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 Obama’s fate now all depends on a stereotypical white blue-collar male voter in the apotheosized rust-belt town of Deer Hunter, Pennsynvania.

Well, 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 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 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 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 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.

For 'Netizens,' The War Is Still the Number One Issue

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 GOP 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.

# # #

Volume III, Number 23
Guest Commentary Copyright 2008, The New York Times Company.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.



Anonymous said...

I cringe everytime I see Chelsea. The product of ill-love.
Hey, Chelsea! If you would've snapped that reply to my question of how you got through your daddy's fooling around with other women, I would've told you to shut the fuck up! My taxes give me the right to , no demand the right to know that my money isn't there just to support a loser who shoots his load on muliple womens dresses and onto the Whitehouse carpet. You people aren't royalty, you know.

Somebody shoulda' asked you what the cleaning bill was?