Pick Your Poison

The last two weeks of the Democratic nominating contest have been dominated by two controversies, neither of which have risen to the level of a scandal, but both of which exhibited the potential to tarnish their victims indelibly. Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s anti-American rants http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqPUXjFYh38 provided Barack Obama with the worst two weeks of his candidacy. And, Hillary Clinton suffered the split-screen analysis of her claims about landing in Bosnia under fire, claims that were demonstrably false. Who will pay the greater price? Until the revelations of Rev. Wright’s frequently extreme pulpit orations hit the news, there was some question about whether or not Barack could take a punch. His Senate race in 2004 was a cakewalk: his primary opponent imploded and his general election opponent was Alan Keyes. Obama’s emergence as the frontrunner this year seemed effortless. So, this was Obama’s first crisis. How did he do? He gave one of the outstanding political speeches of the era. He walked the thin line between distancing himself from his pastor’s remarks and disowning a longtime friend. Some people, no doubt, were looking for a reason to oppose Obama without appearing racist, and they now have that reason, but they would have found something anyway: some people are simply not ready to vote for a black man, but I wonder if they were going to vote for any Democrat. Most importantly, he put the issue of Wright’s histrionics behind him. If the Republicans try and bring it up again in September, it will be old news. In short, Barack’s deft handling of his first confrontation with serious incoming fire put me in mind of Machiavelli’s famous dictum: "If you strike at the Prince, make sure you kill him." They struck at the Prince. They did not kill him. He emerges from his controversy stronger than before. Meanwhile, Hillary’s claims about the dangers attendant upon her arrival in Bosnia in 1996 did not ring true. If it was so dangerous, why did she bring her daughter? But, her personal memory of the event seemed particular and precise, detailed and specific. Even her detractors would admit that Sen. Clinton is nothing if not detailed and specific. But, what if the details are completely, demonstrably false? How do you fight that? It is unclear yet what legs the story will have but you can bet that enterprising reporters are scouring her speeches and old videos for similar untrue claims. Hillary’s truth-telling problem may fade, but it might not. In the 2000 election, Al Gore got dogged with charges that he claimed to invent the internet, that he had discovered the pollution problems at Love Canal, that he and Tipper were the models for the movie "Love Story." These charges were all false as Vanity Fair’s enterprising reporter Evgenia Peretz conclusively demonstrated but that mere fact did not prevent them from being repeated again and again. They fed the narrative that Gore was self-centered, convinced he was the smartest kid in the room. Hillary’s problem is that she has been claiming her eight years as First Lady prepared her uniquely to get the 3 a.m. call from the National Security Advisor, and she referenced her trip to Bosnia in this context. If the press uncovers even one more similar instance of her fabricating her resume, she is toast. Even without another instance, there is a political lesson to be learned here. Politicians can get away with big lies but never with little ones. Republicans can say that deficits don’t matter. That is not true, but it is impossible to craft a 30-second television spot that explains why it is untrue. Pro-choice Democrats argue that the fetus is not human life, even though it is not an acorn destined to become an oak tree, but you can’t devise a commercial to highlight the falsity of that claim either. But, when you say you were ducking because of sniper fire when the video shows you walking down the airplane ramp smiling, with your child at your side, and getting a bouquet of flowers from an eight year-old, you look like a liar. Michael Sean Winters

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