Hillary Clinton, Misspeaker

When we said the Bosnia sniper flap was our favorite subplot of this campaign, we weren’t expecting it to become the actual plot. But thanks to Hillary Clinton’s wildly inexpert handling of the controversy, it’s now dominating the news to the point of obscuring her substantive policy speeches .

After Sinbad disputed Clinton’s account of landing amid sniper fire in war-torn Bosnia in 1996, Clinton could have acknowledged her mistake and changed the subject. But instead, she doubled down, dismissing Sinbad as “a comedian” and ratcheting up the detail in her accounts of the trip: “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport,” she said at a March 17 campaign event, “but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.” That’s when the noncomedians pounced. Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post , Michael Hirsh of Newsweek , and CBS News all presented evidence that Clinton’s story had gone from dubious to plainly untrue. The bloody weapon was video footage of Clinton cheerily greeting a small Bosnian girl on the tarmac.

Yesterday, Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson said that Hillary “misspoke” in her March 17 speech. Clinton herself used the same word yesterday in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News . She elaborated: I was also told that the greeting ceremony had been moved away from the tarmac but that there was this 8-year-old girl and, I can’t, I can’t rush by her, I’ve got to at least greet her – so I greeted her, I took her stuff and then I left.”

One problem with the “misspoke” explanation is that she’s been repeating the same story for weeks. In fact, coupled with anecdotes about pushing for peace in Northern Ireland and women’s rights in China, it’s been a focal point of her claims to foreign-policy experience. The other problem is that she’s been given ample opportunity to revise her story. When Sinbad challenged her account, she declined. When Dobbs ran a “Fact Checker” piece questioning her account, surrogates emerged to unconvincingly defend her. Only when the footage explicitly disproving her story emerged did she back off. And even then, it wasn’t that she embellished or misled people. It was that she “misspoke.” If someone wanted to chronicle instances of Clinton refusing to acknowledge mistakes starting, of course, with her Iraq war vote the Bosnia flap could be its own chapter.

The Post had a great piece yesterday about how both candidates have exaggerated their records at times. But there’s a big difference between taking extra credit for a bill you didn’t really work on—something Obama is apparently known for in the Senate—and retelling a repeatedly discredited story. Plus, the rule for politicians is the same as for memoir fabulists: When confronted, fess up. By waiting for incontrovertible evidence to present itself, Clinton only dragged out her own flaying—and gave voters reason to suspect her other claims, as well.