To Mrs. Clinton, winning matters, honesty doesn't

It was just my imagination, once again, running away with me. - the Temptations, 1971

In a way, it's unfair to single out Hillary Clinton for lying.


They all do it, after all. Eight years ago, John McCain, conductor on the Straight Talk Express, swore he saw nothing wrong with South Carolina flying the Confederate battle flag atop its statehouse. He later acknowledged this was a lie. Last week, Saint Barack Obama called for passage of legislation "I put forward with my colleague Chris Dodd" to help homeowners threatened by foreclosure. The Washington Post says Mr. Obama's co-authorship of the bill came as news to Senator Dodd.

Most of us, I suspect, consider such fibs the political equivalent of white lies: unavoidable, but of no lasting significance. Besides, if you disqualified liars from the presidency, you'd have to do without a president for a while.


But even by that forgiving standard, Mrs. Clinton's lie stands out. If you missed it: She's been telling audiences, as a way of burnishing her foreign policy credentials, how she had to dodge bullets when she went to Bosnia as first lady in 1996. "I remember landing under sniper fire," she said. "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."

It's a story that's thrilling, hair-raising ... everything but true. The comedian Sinbad, who was with Mrs. Clinton on that trip, disputed her account, but she - incredibly - stuck with it. She did not stop telling the untruth until reporters who were on the trip called her on it and produced video showing Mrs. Clinton and daughter Chelsea stepping calmly off a military transport and accepting a little girl's greeting. No gunfire, no running for her life.

She now says she "misspoke." It's a benign characterization of a troubling fact: the gap between Mrs. Clinton and truth has become suddenly vast. And that raises manifold questions.

Chief among them is the one people asked of her husband Bill and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer under different circumstances: What in the world was she thinking? Did she forget her arrival was viewed by witnesses, many with cameras? Did it not occur to her that if the first lady of the United States came under sniper fire, it would be newsworthy, something we'd all remember?

So bald and bold is the lie that it leaves me wondering if maybe she honestly remembers it that way. Science has shown we're all susceptible to false memory; it's not unheard of for a person to believe she's had an experience she has not, especially after years of telling and embellishing a story.

As it happens, the events Mrs. Clinton recalls did occur - just not to her. The Post reminds us that Sen. Olympia J. Snowe came under fire on a visit to Bosnia six months before Mrs. Clinton got there. So perhaps Mrs. Clinton has transferred the memory?

I know I'm reaching. Granted, someone might innocently misappropriate someone else's memory of something trivial, even something relatively important.

But it requires a 6-year-old's credulity to believe a woman would not accurately recall whether she and her daughter came under sniper fire.


As I've said before in this space, there's a question I've always wanted to ask a presidential candidate: What would you not do to win?

The answer, I think, would say more about character than all the slogans and 30-second spots in the world.

I'm curious to hear how Mrs. Clinton would respond. Because if anything has distinguished her campaign this year, it's how nakedly she wants this job. They all want it, of course. You've got to want it badly to spend months slogging through truck stop cafes and Rotary Club meetings shaking hands and kissing babies. There's nothing wrong with wanting it badly. This past week suggests, however, that there's something scary about wanting it too much.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears weekly in The Sun. His e-mail is