Hillary Clinton and John McCain were caught telling whopping lies, each grotesque in its own way and transparent in its falsity, but one of the senators got away with it and the other didn't.
In serial retellings, Sen. Clinton magnified a lovely ceremony on a Bosnian airstrip in 1996 into a harrowing dash under sniper fire. In Iraq to puff the war and his experience, Sen. McCain kept telling people that al Qaeda operatives in Iraq were being trained in Iran until his friend Joseph Lieberman stepped forward to whisper that he ought to correct it to say that Iran supported some insurgents but not al Qaeda.
Both claimed to have merely misspoken — that unfortunate verb that ought to live in infamy — although the mendacity of both candidates was clearly purposeful. They just got caught. For McCain, the only fallout was that it might have merely heightened concerns about his age. As Fox News described it, the old war hero had not lied but simply had “a senior moment.” For Clinton, critics across the spectrum questioned her fitness to be president.
The disparate treatment of two tall tales and the politicians who uttered them, unrelenting on one hand and forgiving on the other, is a metaphor for the political season. The vast and cacophonous media, whatever its great diversity, is driven largely by the same set of impulses. It is tough on Clinton and forgiving of McCain, and I suspect that it is partly because Clinton from her arrival in Washington cultivated an aura of piety and McCain owned up to being deeply flawed. He had to.
What made both fibs puzzling is that Clinton's was so easily disputable and that everyone in his immediate audience knew McCain's story was untrue. The Associated Press, knowing he was wrong, helpfully omitted McCain's reference to al Qaeda.
So why did they fib?
All of us have embroidered on salient moments in our past to inflate our courage, wit, goodness or mere good luck. Like Clinton's story of the Tuzla tarmac, stories always get better by retelling. But we are not in a race for president where every word is scrutinized, records of every public event are amply recorded and personal honesty in our leaders is the one principle that people can repair to in conflicted times.
On the other hand, there were ample precedents to encourage her, including the serial lies of the Bush administration. Who cannot remember — well, most Americans probably — Bush repeatedly saying many months after the invasion of Iraq that he had finally directed the invasion only after Saddam Hussein refused to allow United Nations inspectors into Iraq? Bush had to warn the inspectors to leave Iraq, where they were not finding WMD, so that the bombing could begin, but the discrepancy was barely acknowledged in the news.
John McCain's tale of the Iran-al Qaeda conspiracy was treated as a harmless gaffe at most, but it ought to be more troubling than Clinton's resume-polishing fib. It suggests either an appalling naivete about the gravest foreign-policy issue of our time or else a guile that is too dangerous to permit in the leader of the free world.
Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's band of Sunni terrorists, had two mortal hatreds in the Middle East: Shiite Muslims and the secular regime of Saddam Hussein. Although no one has been able to connect bin Laden's group to the roving gangs that call themselves al Qaeda in Iraq, the Iraq thugs are bent on the same thing, the destruction of the U.S.-backed Shiite rulers in Baghdad. If you don't know that the Iraqi war is altogether sectarian, among Shia and Sunnis and rival cliques of the two sects, and that Iran is Shia, you know nothing about the war. Iran is, beyond doubt, supporting Shia militias in Iraq but it has no brief for Sunnis.
So when McCain said “I'm sorry” and corrected himself couldn't he have been sincere, making it indeed a senior moment? It beggars reason. He had said it three times in two days, and before Lieberman corrected him he had begun to defend it to a reporter who had challenged him.
Also, the flat linkage of Iran and al Qaeda during his Iraq junket only codified what McCain had been carefully insinuating for more than a year. McCain's justification for continuing a large troop presence in Iraq is that, if we leave, al Qaeda will overthrow the Shia government and take power and strengthen our adversary Iran. It never made sense that an al Qaeda takeover, which no American intelligence believes is even remotely possible, would strengthen its enemy, Shia Iran.
But McCain has repeatedly conflated Iran and al Qaeda and linked their destinies to U.S. military dominance in the country because he knows that Iran and al Qaeda are fearful words to Americans. Bush subtly linked them in 2002 and 2003 to gain popular support for the invasion. In a foreign-policy address last September McCain said Democrats refused to consider the consequences of “selling us out in Iraq,” which he said would result in victory for al Qaeda and Iran. One thing is for sure: With or without U.S. troops, Iran will see to it that al Qaeda, or any Sunni client, does not claim power in Iraq again.
It would be nice to have a president whose word we can trust implicitly, but even better to have one who will not mislead us into endless war from ignorance or vanity.