“The first casualty when war comes is truth.” – Hiram W. Johnson, U.S. Senator
The former FLOTUS, Secretary of State and U.S. Senator and leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2016 Hillary Clinton and Brian Williams, intrepid reporter and anchor for NBC’s Nightly News, ignored Johnson’s timeless admonition when it came to telling brief encounters with warfare. When caught, as Clinton was back in 1996 and Williams for his rendition of a 2003 experience in the war with Iraq this week, both resorted to “mis”-words to explain: Clinton “misspoke” and Williams “misremembered.”
The American public may not buy into their explanations. But why should it matter that the potential next president was tripped up by her tongue and a national media figure betrayed by his memory? Because perhaps they weren’t, and their use of euphemisms for telling tall tales, aka lying, have by now become the norm in much of our political life and in journalism. We may expect from figures in these two areas what we used to expect primarily from used car salesmen: a playful “misspeaking” or “misremembering” about the products or services they’re convincing us to buy.
Hillary Clinton’s story about coming under sniper fire while, as First Lady, she deplaned in Tuzla in 1996 was exposed as fiction by television cameras at the scene and accounts from members of her entourage and American military personnel stationed in the area when the event came up during her 2008 campaign in the Democratic primaries. (“Hillary Clinton calls Bosnia sniper story a mistake,” Reuters, March 25, 2008) Clinton admitted quickly that “I did misspeak the other day,” but to some her original story remained a “tall tale” (Christopher Hitchens, for one).
What did she suggest, or pretend, that “misspeaking” means? She hoped that the public would see her “misspeaking” as speaking unclearly or misleadingly, but without intent to do so. Instead, her “mistake” was viewed as the failure to tell the whole truth. She flew to Tuzla and got off the plane, that was the truthful part of her story, the rest (the dash across the tarmac to the car as bullets whizzed by overhead) was invention.
Her husband’s predecessor in the White House invented and misspoke. When George W. Bush said, in 2004, that “They (our enemies) never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people –and neither do we,” most listeners and readers immediately recognized it as “misspeaking.” He lied about the war in Iraq, and eventually those lies could not be explained as “mistakes” or “misinterpretations.” Journalists and their audiences eventually figured that out, although a tad too late for the harm he spoke of to be prevented.
Why Brian Williams, covering that war the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team running the country sold successfully, is not so evident. He was close to the shooting war, but the Chinook helicopter he rode in was not hit, as he insisted as late as March 20, 2013 to David Letterman, that “two of the four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in.” The helicopter he was in was 30 to 60 minutes behind the ones that were hit, and the details of William’s invention are detailed in the excellent story that revealed the “misremembered” event: “NBC’s Brian Williams recants Iraq story after soldiers protest,” by Travis J. Tritten in Stars and Stripes on February 4.
When Williams told his tale to Letterman, the late night host could muster a “No kidding!” and gave Williams a chance to come clean and refresh his faulty memory. We don’t know why he made up the tale, and his explanation – it was a “bungled attempt” to honor the soldiers who helped protect him – is unlikely to convince even the TV-personality struck.
Cormac McKeown, an editor of the Collins English Dictionary, summed up what the tales woven by Clinton and Williams tell us. Both tried to redefine telling the truth because “misspeaking” and “misremembering” are euphemisms “for not telling the truth. It’s the language of bamboozling, which US politicians and the US military love and get away with.”
US journalism, you too? Or, can it return to its old tradition of exposing that language for what it is and does?
With a Clinton vs. Bush contests in the making for 2016, journalists should take to heart the observation of one of their greats, of H. L. Mencken:
“The men (and women) the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men (and women) they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”