The Truth of the Matter

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published April 17, 2008, issue of April 25, 2008.
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Harvard’s motto is “Veritas” — truth. The motto of Brandeis is “Truth Unto Its Innermost Parts”; Yale’s is “Lux et Veritas,” light and truth (and the same for the University of Indiana); and Johns Hopkins goes with “Veritas Vos Liberabit,” the truth shall make you free.

My favorite, however, is the motto of Harry Potter’s alma mater, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: “Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus” — never tickle a sleeping dragon. Superior advice.

But let’s stay with truth, which there are so very many ways to mangle. There are simple mistakes, errors, gaffes, slips and blunders. So when Stephen Hadley said a half-dozen times or so on “Meet the Press” the other day “Nepal” when he meant to say “Tibet,” no one accused him of lying. It was no more than a peculiar blunder, less an instance of “mangling” the truth, more like tripping over it.

Next we come to spin, of which there are many forms. One example: Referring to Barack Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama.” There’s nothing false about such a reference, but here the truth becomes a lie, for the reference is intended to suggest that Obama is a Muslim — which 10% of Americans appear to believe — and not just any old Muslim, but one of dreaded name.

Spin can be entirely benign, as in calling the janitor a “custodial supervisor” or malign, as in naming legislation or government programs in a misleading way, as (for one lonely example) the Bush administration’s proposed “Clear Skies Act,” which in fact rolled back some of the protections of the Clean Air Act. Spin is an effort to manipulate opinion, whether by cherry-picking facts, employing superficially innocent euphemisms or misdirecting people’s attention.

Thus, there are now ballot initiatives in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma that would end affirmative action in those states. In Colorado, the effort is called the “Colorado Civil Rights Initiative.” Its promoters reportedly approached people in the Denver metro area by asking them whether they were “against discrimination.” Those who answered “yes” were asked to sign a petition that they were told would legally end discrimination in their state — when in fact the purpose was to end existing affirmative action programs and policies.

Then there’s embellishment, often in the form of exaggeration or hyperbole, whether to make the story more piquant or the teller more heroic. Yet sometimes what passes for relatively innocent embellishment is in fact nothing less than a lie.

A lie is not an instance of “misspeaking,” which is the typical defense against accusations of embellishment. We have just now a precise example — to wit, Hillary Clinton on the tarmac in Bosnia in 1996.

Some truths are self-evident, and one such is that when you are the target of sniper fire, you remember it very, very well. The fact that you are in what was once a war zone and that you’ve been warned that there still may be hostile activity in the vicinity does not lead you to hear sniper fire when you deplane. The only thing that leads you to hear sniper fire is sniper fire.

So the Clinton story cannot have been a mistaken remembrance or a mere boast. On three different occasions, her tall tale was, “I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.” In fact, as we all now know, a video of the occasion quite clearly shows a large and quite unremarkable welcome, with press, the president of Bosnia, sundry other dignitaries and an 8-year old girl.

Caught on tape, Clinton twisted this way and that with corrections, claiming in one interview that she misspoke because she was sleep deprived — a theme to which her husband unaccountably returned just the other day: “Hillary, one time late at night when she was exhausted, misstated — and immediately apologized for it — what happened to her in Bosnia in 1995 [sic].”

Well, it was three times, not one; it wasn’t late at night — the most recent episode was mid-morning on St. Patrick’s Day — she didn’t immediately apologize; and it was 1996.

“And you woulda thought,” the former president continued, “that she’d robbed a bank the way they [the press] carried on about this. And some of them, when they’re 60, they’ll forget something when they’re tired at 11 at night, too.” This of the woman who wants us to believe that she is the best person to answer the emergency phone call to the president’s bedroom at 3 a.m.

What seized Bill Clinton and prompted him to wade so clumsily into the tar pit we cannot know, any more than we can fathom Hillary Clinton’s naiveté in thinking her lie would not be found out. Whatever the motive, his words, as had his wife’s earlier, merely compounded the original sin; call it an obstruction of truth.

To add chutzpah to prevarication, we have Hillary Clinton’s appearance as a guest on the “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno on April 3. “It’s so great to be here,” she quipped. “I was worried I wasn’t going to make it. I was pinned down by sniper fire… I was thinking about it because obviously I’ve been so privileged to represent our country in gosh, more than 80 other countries, lots of war zones and all the rest of it. I wrote about this in my book, and obviously I just had a lapse.”

Not funny, nor even cute. “Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus” — don’t ever quip to a sleeping dragon. And, in an election season, when the dragon is ever-vigilant, stick with truth. Veritas.


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