THE BLOG

Hillary's Psychic Reality

05/02/2008 06:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

During the Democratic debate in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton gave the following gloss on her Bosnia fairytale: "I can tell you that I may be a lot of things but I'm not dumb... On a couple of occasions in the last weeks, I just said some things that weren't in keeping with what I knew to be the case ...on a few occasions I was not as accurate as I have been in the past... So I will either try to get more sleep...or have somebody who is there as a reminder to me. "

Huh?

Ordinarily, saying things that aren't in keeping with what one knows to be the case is called "lying". And what's dumb got to do with it? No one ever accused Hillary of being dumb. And dumb couldn't explain her Bosnia remarks anyhow.

Yet bizarrely enough, the press didn't seem to notice or comment on the utter absurdity of her remarks. Either they were accepted as some kind of apology or they were relegated to the ever-expanding swamp of campaign "gaffes" and "silliness."

In any case, the Bosnia story has now been overshadowed -- most recently by the lunatic performances of Reverend Wright. But whether or not Reverend Wright is a nut-job is not remotely the same order of question as whether snipers were shooting at Hillary Clinton. Everyone senses this, even if they can't articulate it.

It is truly unsettling to watch someone lie so effortlessly and with such seeming sincerity. To recap: Hillary, sporting a big festive shamrock scarf, looked straight at the audience and in a remarkably relaxed way recalled an incident where she had landed in Bosnia under sniper fire. She described a situation so dangerous that the greeting ceremony at the airport had to be canceled and claimed that she'd run to her vehicle with her head down in order to make a quick getaway. She even had an accompanying hand gesture conveying her dramatic dash for dear life.

There were no obvious tells that Hillary was bluffing. She chuckled a little as she described her narrow escape -- a curious affect given the gravity of the situation, but people do react in different ways to trauma. Overall, it was a pretty smooth performance. If there were any pangs of conscience they were not visible.

As political lies go, it was an outlier. Hillary didn't impulsively lie because she was caught off-guard. She didn't lie because the truth would be damaging to her political career or painful to her family. She didn't lie to win over a political base. She didn't lie to distance herself from an event that suggested some improper conduct or an unsavory person that could tarnish her reputation. She didn't lie because she was promoting behavior in the public sphere that she was not abiding by in her personal life. She didn't lie to cover up a mistake that had been made.

Hillary's lie was different. She lied with no need to do so. And she made the story up out of whole cloth. It wasn't as if one bullet was fired at her and she exaggerated the incident. There was no sniper fire - never, ever. It was the sort of lie a child might tell playing make-believe. In an article in Huffington Post, Nora Ephron confessed that she'd "lost hours trying to figure out why" Hillary told such "a big lie".

But let's say she was motivated by political gain. Some have suggested the story was meant to embellish her foreign policy experience. But dodging sniper fire doesn't really speak to foreign policy expertise; it speaks more to issues of character like bravery and patriotism. Maybe it was supposed to suggest that Hillary could be a better match for John McCain because she too had put herself in harms' way for her country.

Of course, as a political calculation, this would have been crazy. Considering the probability of getting caught, the risks of telling this lie far outweighed any conceivable political gain. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointed out her story had "been publicly debunked by journalists and eyewitnesses" for months. "Why would so smart a candidate play political Russian roulette with virtually all the bullet chambers loaded?"

Wouldn't it have entered her mind that if she was found out it would be seen as an insult to anyone who'd seen real action? One GOP ad with grainy footage of McCain limping home from Vietnam contrasted with Hillary's cheerful tale of coming under sniper fire in Bosnia, and the race would be over.

Hillary may have gambled that her audience wanted to believe her. Or she may have figured the story was so tall that the public would never dream she'd made it up. Whatever her thought process, Hillary appeared unfazed by the possibility of detection. Guilt, fear of humiliation, or any other negative repercussions did not appear to inhibit her. Apparently, there was no little voice in her head, helping her to distinguish between right and wrong. Christopher Hitchens concluded that Hillary may be "someone who lies without conscience or reflection".

When Hillary's lie was exposed, she attempted to diminish it. She said she "misspoke" because of sleep deprivation. Then she said she "misspoke" because, after all, she spouts "millions of words a day". But Hillary couldn't have "misspoke" She'd repeated the story on several occasions. Perhaps she was saying that she continually "misspoke". But if she continually "misspoke", surely Chelsea, who had accompanied her to Bosnia, would have pointed this out. (Psst, Mom, nobody was shooting at us).

Maybe there was nothing Hillary could say, but a little remorse would have been nice. Instead she seemed irritated: "So I made a mistake. That happens. It proves I'm human which you know for some people is a revelation". In other words, we were to blame for holding her to too high a standard of truth.

When it became apparent that people weren't willing to dismiss Hillary's Bosnia "misstatement" so quickly, she attempted to make light of it. Appearing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, she joked: "I was so worried I wasn't going to make it [here]. I was pinned down by sniper fire at a Burbank airport." She referred to the Bosnia flap as "a mismatch of words and actions", and since, after all, she'd got it right in her book, she'd "obviously had a lapse".

The Hillary camp must have realized the story wasn't completely dead, because Bill Clinton brought it up again. In a bizarrely misguided attempt to minimize its impact he revived the story in a version of his own : "There was a lot of fulminating because Hillary one time late at night when she was exhausted misstated and immediately apologized for it, what happened to her in Bosnia in 1995... You woulda thought, you know that she'd robbed a bank the way they carried on about this. And some of them when they're 60, they'll forget something when they're tired at 11:00 at night too".

Of course, it wasn't one time. It wasn't late at night. She wasn't exhausted because she said it three different times. And she didn't apologize immediately (or even close to immediately). It also begged the question: If Hillary could be gaga at 11:00 pm, what would she be like when the phone rings at 3:00 am?

When President Clinton's story backfired, Hillary's campaign tried to paint Bill as the storyteller and his wife as the authority. At a rally in Indiana, Bill said: "Hillary called me and said, 'You don't remember this. You weren't there, let me handle it'''. Now let me get this straight: Hillary was there, so Hillary ought to know, except it turned out that Hillary didn't know, so Bill makes up a story to explain the story that Hillary made up even though she was there.

There are two possibilities: Hillary may be a pathological liar. Or, more persuasive to me, Hillary believed what she was saying and her description of her Bosnia trip was a true representation of her psychic reality and not external reality. In her internal world, Hillary may feel as though she's always being shot at by sniper fire and that she's heroically managed to stay alive.

This theory makes sense of Hillary's recklessness. It didn't feel reckless to Hillary to repeat this lie over and over again, and she paid no heed to those who contradicted her, because in her mind, she was telling the truth. Only when confronted with undeniable evidence of external reality -- actual footage from her Bosnia trip - did she admit (possibly to herself as well as the public) that her version of events was not true.

It also explains Hillary's reaction when exposed. She was angry because she was forced to abandon her psychic reality for external reality. For her, this was tantamount to giving up the truth in exchange for mere facts. When she said "It proves I'm human which you know for some people is a revelation", she may well have been reminding herself.

While most of her explanations have made no sense, when Hillary told Leno that she'd had "a lapse", she was right on. She'd had an actual lapse in mental functioning. Fantasy took over from reality. Reporters and pundits were already starting to question whether Hillary believed her own story. Hitchens wondered whether "she was subject to an illusory past". Melinda Henneberger, writing in Slate, said, she could only conclude that Hillary must have believed the lie because she could not imagine any other reason why "any presidential candidate would knowingly cook up such a doozy of a drama about dodging a sniper's bullets in Bosnia -- given that she was accompanied on this trip by a planeload of reporters". Henneberger concluded that this was more disturbing than if she had lied and "ought to be a deal breaker".

This may explain why Hillary's explanation in the Pennsylvania debate was so bizarre: "I can tell you that I may be a lot of things but I'm not dumb." She wanted to shift her problem into the domain of IQ rather than raising a question about her psychic functioning. If people began to question her grasp of reality, she'd be history.

The sensed of a shared reality is fundamental to the functioning of the world. In the same way that delusions and hallucinations are so disturbing, or that contradicting a child's perceptions is so traumatic, so Hillary's story constituted a jarring attack on our sense of common reality.

In the course of Hillary's campaign, a number of features have repeatedly emerged that are also elements of her Bosnia tale. 1) Hillary is both hero and victim; 2) facts are of no consequence; 3) And there are no witnesses or observers to the facts. This last point is always startling. For example, Hillary's explanation of her vote on the war made Nora Ephron wonder if Hillary thought we "weren't alive at the time."

On the tarmac in Bosnia, Hillary is the victim for being shot at and the hero for braving a war zone. And she's apparently having a negative hallucination that nobody else was there. The irony, of course, is that when the Bosnia story was discovered, it reinforced Hillary's psychic reality: Once again she felt she was being sniped at (this time by journalists). And that she had to heroically fight on and escape this near-death experience. Which it now seems she has.

For those who think Hillary won't go all the way to the convention in Denver, think again. Hillary sees herself as the victim in this primary campaign -- blaming the press, or the Democratic rules of proportional representation, or the caucus system, or whatever else she comes up with between now and August. She considers herself a heroic fighter for the good of the country; she ignores all the merely factual evidence that she is losing by every measure; and she imagines that nobody is there to notice.