Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Liars, Liars Everywhere....

Is anybody else tired of the silly accusations that are launched back and forth between Clinton and Obama supporters? With every mistake of memory, large or small, cast as an evil lie that totally disqualifies the candidate for office? Take this example from the latest of the tiresome streams of anti-Obama screeds on TalkLeft. In 1996, twelve years ago, Obama scrawled a few notes on a questionnaire about his political positions. An aide completed the questionnaire and returned it. Somebody apparently asked Obama about the differences in his opinions as expressed on the questionnaire and those expressed in public, and the difference was attributed to the aide's submitting the questionnaire without review. So we get, "Ah hah! If we take the least consistent interpretation of his notes, and insist that the only way a 12-year-old memory of a forgettable moment can deviate from the truth is due to intentional deception, Obama is a liar!"

Wow. How compelling.

A lot of this "he's a liar" stuff is being kicked up in response to Hillary Clinton's rather amazing story of her trip to Bosnia. That inspired my earlier post on the vagaries of memory, although it was not meant as a perfect defense. When memory departs from historical fact, you're not "lying" when you misremember. CWD commented that he wouldn't much care for a politician whose memory was quite that malleable, particularly in relation to dramatic moments experienced as an adult. That's a fair position to take, although peripheral to my point about memory.

In the Obama example, he may be lying. Perhaps he did review the answers before they were submitted. Perhaps at the start of his career he did take a slightly different position on issues of gun control and the death penalty, whether out of personal belief or political expediency, and his needs or views have changed. Perhaps an aide really did misunderstand his scrawls, then completed and returned the questionnaire in a manner not entirely consistent with Obama's views. If Obama's being dishonest, it's a pretty standard version of dishonesty for a politician - shading or moving away from past political positions that may harm the present campaign. But he may also be telling the truth, or recounting the story as he remembers it.

In a lot of these cases, conception seems to matter more than reality. In some contexts, the preconception of the opposing candidate leads to an exaggerated response to a "lie" (real or perceived). In other contexts, the response to the "lie" is a deliberate effort to try to shift popular perceptions against a candidate - classic, Karl Rove style gotcha politics. To see both in action, let's turn to the inimitable Christopher Hitchens. March 5, before the Bosnia blowup:
Hugh Hewitt: 20 seconds, who’s going to be the next president of the United States?

Christopher Hitchens: Hillary Clinton.

Hugh Hewitt: Oh…because of yesterday?

Christopher Hitchens: No, no, I’ve feared it for a long time, and there’s something horrible and undefeatable about people who have no life except the worship of power.

Hugh Hewitt: The Mummy is back.

Christopher Hitchens: …people who don’t want the meeting to end, the people who just are unstoppable, who only have one focus, no humanity, no character, nothing but the worship of money and power. They win in the end.

Hugh Hewitt: Mordor. Christopher Hitchens, a pleasure. Thank you for joining us from Vanity Fair.
Hitchens is entirely consistent here - he's been bashing the Clintons pretty much since day one. The Bosnia claims are a useful tool, but get jammed into his pre-existing narrative. So now we get,
The first [form of lying] involves what seems to be most obvious in the present case: the putting forward of a bogus or misleading account of events. But the second, and often the more serious, means that the liar in question has also attempted to bury or to obscure something that actually is true. Let us examine how Sen. Clinton has managed to commit both of these offenses to veracity and decency and how in doing so she has rivaled, if not indeed surpassed, the disbarred and perjured hack who is her husband and tutor.
(Is Hitchens "the thinking man's Ann Coulter"? Some smart people seem to like him, despite his preference for invective over honest debate.)

Hitchens argues that landing in a war zone under fire is unforgettable, then makes the leap of illogic that since he can't forget his own experience landing under fire it is impossible for somebody to believe it has occurred when it has not. He then goes on to suggest that Hillary Clinton was the driving force behind the delayed U.S. military intervention in Bosnia, because intervention would supposedly overshadow her healthcare initiative.

Hitchens assures us, that's exactly the way he remembers it. I'm sure it is. But he needs to consider that he views his memories through his prism of Clinton-hatred. If he doesn't realize that, perhaps he believes that his childish name-calling serves as a clarion call. If he does, this is just strongly worded political advocacy. Maybe he's just preaching to the choir.

To me, though, this also raises questions about Hitchens, as it appears that despite the Iraq debacle he still perceives military intervention as a humanitarian obligation. He reinvents history, sometimes quite literally, to advance a particular agenda. The Iraq war had to be fought for humanitarian reasons, and every flaw in its planning, execution, and in the subsequent occupation should be ignored - if everything had been done "correctly" it really would have been "candy, flowers, and democracy breaking out all over." You can't let such mundane things as reality interfere with your good intentions. There was no reason good enough for Bill Clinton to not immediately intercede in Bosnia, as to Hitchens no such reason can possibly exist.

Through his Clinton-hating prism, he attributes failure to the most vain and petty of motives, and to the extent that other interpretations may exist he is happy to disregard political, practical and diplomatic realities. And when confronted with reality, rather than dealing with the facts he bristles and responds with a series of condescending insults and bromides.

Doesn't that make him a pretty good example of everything he claims to hate about the Clintons? His worship of power is more acceptable, because he wishes to direct that power at causes he perceives as righteous as opposed to selfish?

An honest case can be made that Hillary Clinton's memory raises serious questions about her candidacy. But that doesn't justify anti-Obama "your candidate's a liar, too" exaggerations, nor does it justify pushing the story into overdrive (hyperdrive) to advance an almost conspiratorial anti-Clinton agenda.


  1. Of course Hitchens hates (Bill) Clinton. Have you ever met two narcissists who were in disagreement as to their core beliefs, but got alone? Clinton's narcissism seems at best borderline; Hitchens' seems to be full-blown.

  2. Right, I still don't understand why everyone expects presidential candidates to have these absurdly accurate memories. Talking up your own role in something, or smudging the details, is evidence of routine memory loss, not lying.

  3. You can try and make out that this is a "memory" issue all you want, but it's not -- it's about veracity.

    The Clintons haven't got any.

    Hillary is trying to make out that shaking hands as the President's wife on the tarmac in Tuzla somehow qualified her as a foreign policy expert.

    Almost as if she recognized the speciousness of that claim, she tried to slip in a whopper that she did so under sniper fire -- a patent absurdity. You are either under fire, or you are not. There is no mistaking either condition.

    Hitchens is hard to bear because, underneath all the venom, he's right.

  4. No, Hitchens is hard to bear because he relies on bluster, insults and condescension whenever he is called upon to address an issue. His displays of erudition aren't offered to educate, or even to directly support his points; they're offered to obfuscate. He may not know much about the Arab world, but if called on it he'll start blathering about how we've been at war with Islam for a century, and have the cites to "prove it". On every major issue relating to the Iraq war, he's been 100% wrong.

    At least half of his adherents would go apoplectic if they realized that behind the facade of the war-loving Clinton hater lurks a gasp... socialist who still openly deplores the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Seriously - he's significantly to the left of "Hanoi Jane" Fonda on Vietnam.

  5. Like G.W. Bush, Hitchens seems to adhere to a manichean worldview. If so, that may help explain not only his bluster, but why he seems so self-satisfied when he insults somebody he disagrees with. (After all, he's 100% right, and they're 100% (contemptibly) wrong.)