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March 31, 2008

Now Our Love Has Died/This Is Why I Cry Lie

When I first heard about Hillary Clinton's story about being shot at in Bosnia I assumed she wasn't just making it up—that in fact she had been shot at somewhere, but was misremembering specifically where it had happened. That's not because she doesn't lie constantly; like most politicians, she does. But I believed smart politicians—and she's certainly one of the smarter ones—generally don't lie in this particular way, especially when they don't have to. As I.F. Stone once explained:

Now, governments lie. But they don't like to lie literally, because a literal, flat, obvious lie tends to be caught.

So what they do is, they become masters of the disingenuous statement, of phrasing something in such a way that the honest, normal, unwary reader gets one impression, what he's supposed to get.

Then three months later he discovers it's not true and goes back to complain. And they say, well, that's not what we said -- look at it carefully. And you look at it carefully and sure enough, it was really doubletalk and didn't say exactly what they said.

But boy, was I wrong. She just completely made this up. But why?

I suspect the answer is that I.F. Stone wasn't quite right. Certainly in big speeches, in written documents, etc., American politicians have generally preferred to mislead rather than flatly lie. But in more casual settings, they've probably told out-and-out lies frequently. What's changed now is they can't away with it as easily, and, at sixty years old, Clinton is having a hard time making an adjustment to a new world.

Think if she had been running for president twenty years ago or even ten. Who would have heard her speech making the Bosnia claim? Probably just the people in the room and a few reporters, and even if one of them suspected it wasn't right, they would likely not have her precise wording. She would be out the door with most people just getting the impression she wanted them to get.

And even if someone had recorded it, it would be a huge amount of work to fact check it, even for a reporter. How exactly were you going to find the video of her arriving in Bosnia for that day, even if you were sure it existed?

And even if someone had found that video, who could they have told about it? All their readers for Portland's weekly alternative paper? Unless they worked for the New York Times and could get it page one, from Clinton's perspective, who cares? And even on the front page of the Times, they couldn't have shown the damning video.

And even if the whole thing had ended up on page one of the New York Times, before long most people would have forgotten it. It would exist only on library microfilm and in decaying individual memories. Again, from Clinton's perspective, who cares?

Here's a famous explanation of this reasoning from Peter Teeley, then George H.W. Bush's press secretary, in a New York Times story in October, 1984:

"You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it," [Teeley] continued. If reporters then document that a candidate spoke untruthfully, "so what?"

He said, "Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000."

But now every part of the equation has changed, and the lying risk/reward ratio has increased tremendously. It appears that Clinton, who came of political age in an era in which Teeley was correct, hasn't quite learned this yet.

And the truth is, I can't even get that mad at Clinton here. Human beings lie constantly, to themselves and to others, for a million different reasons. Clinton was just being human. The only politicians' lies that I get mad about are the ones that get the rest of us killed. Clinton's told quite a few of those; let's concentrate on them.

ALSO: In all seriousness, I would vote enthusiastically for Hillary Clinton if, after being caught, she'd said: "Yes, I lied about that. I lied because I really want to be president and fly around in helicopters. And the same thing is true for all my opponents and the lies they tell. You want the truth, America? YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!!"

BUT THERE'S A HAPPY ENDING: According to Behind the Times, the reporter who wrote that story about Peter Teeley at some pointed gained a reputation within the New York Times for being "difficult." She later left the paper and committed suicide. Teeley himself appears to still live in leafy Bethesda, Maryland, in a house about a mile from where I grew up.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at March 31, 2008 04:21 PM

hillary's persistence in lying about this - as described in frank rich's column - goes beyond the "old fashioned" meme you suggest to the pathological - she'd been warned people thought she was stretching things, and persisted in stretching them some more

the daffodils are blooming now in montgomery county, by the way

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at March 31, 2008 05:08 PM

I have a serious question; I'm not being glib at all. Why do people say that Hillary is intelligent? Everyone says this, but why?

Posted by: anonymous at March 31, 2008 05:12 PM

1. Because Hillary can read and understand a policy or legal or legislative document. W can't. Ronnie couldn't. Underlings summarize them on 3x5 cards and decisions are made from those. It's called leadership in the USA, president-or-CEO-wise.
2.The lies of omission are far worse than the lies committed. We don't hear about them at all, or maybe 20 years later.
3. Hardly anybody can stand the truth. The last guy I knew of who could was Nietzsche, and he ended up as looney as a German can get.

Posted by: donescobar at March 31, 2008 05:42 PM

"the Portland's weekly alternative paper," eh, Jon?

Posted by: darrelplant at March 31, 2008 06:07 PM

"the Portland's weekly alternative paper," eh, Jon?

I said it, meant it, and I'll say it again: the Portland's weekly alternative paper.

I won't back down!

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at March 31, 2008 06:11 PM

Magnetic Fields. Ah, what a wistful song.

Posted by: Dennis Perrin at March 31, 2008 06:29 PM

Reading legal documents is NOT that hard a deal. Its the researching previous decisions that are used for arguement. ONE MUST know how to read and use a Legal Reporter.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 31, 2008 07:42 PM

I'm just glad Hillary ain't into Ukranian Girls, that cum on the first try.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 31, 2008 10:21 PM

you dumb cunts, let me explain it to. Clinton probably came to believe she had been under sniper fire, retelling herself the story about how brave and tough she is.

speaking of tough, I am planning a summer holiday in Dagestan. It's not so bad-ass as Chechnya, it's neighbor, but it's a rough place. But man, living in Brooklyn circa 1990, in the heart of the 'to, now that required guts.

Posted by: xyz at April 1, 2008 01:44 AM