Paul Greenberg

It happens. Or rather it didn't happen. How many of us can remember an event, often full of emotional overtones, that didn't happen? It's a common enough experience to have a name: false memory.

Just how that false memory forms and is reinforced over the years can be left to the psychologists to explain in detail. Maybe first we exaggerate what happened, then elaborate the imagined memory with each retelling, especially to ourselves. And before we know it, we've fully incorporated the event into our dramatic life story. Our ever-absorbent psyches could put any ordinary screenplay to shame.

Maybe that's what happened with Hillary Clinton and her exciting tale about landing under sniper fire at Tuzla Air Base in Bosnia back in '96, and how she and her brave platoon "ran with our heads down" to take cover. Exciting stuff. She told the story, not for the first time, in a speech at George Washington University to back up her credentials as the kind of leader you'd want answering that red telephone at 3 a.m. (Every time the Clinton campaign ran that commercial, John McCain must have jumped another 10 points in the polls.)

It turns out that others on that now famous trip to Tuzla didn't remember it that way. Not at all. And the news footage shows Mrs. Clinton walking in stately fashion down the rear ramp of an Air Force C-17 with 16-year-old Chelsea at her side, their heads held high, to meet the reception committee on the tarmac. First Lady and First Daughter would be accompanied by comedian Sinbad and singer Sheryl Crowe. It all had the look of the usual ceremonial visit, including a photo of Mrs. Clinton kissing the cutest little girl, and the usual unidentified suits in the background. Not exactly heavy combat.

Or as Barack Obama would say in his understated way, it was just Hillary Clinton exaggerating her foreign policy experience. To lift a phrase from the immortal Gilbert of Gilbert-and-Sullivan comic-opera fame, Sen. Clinton was adding "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."

Hillary Clinton finally admitted, in a meeting with the editorial writers at the Philadelphia Daily News, that she'd "misspoke." Who says the lady has no sense of understatement?

Hey, we all make mistakes. Call it the Walter Mitty syndrome. For who isn't the daring hero of his own life story, or in this case the heroine of hers? We just hope hubby's tendency to prevaricate hasn't proved contagious. Remember all those churches in Hot Springs that were being set afire by the Ku Klux Klan when Bill Clinton was growing up there? And his tainted testimony under oath just about ended his administration prematurely. Remembering things that didn't happen, or denying things that did, can have serious consequences.

I'd be inclined to give the current Clinton running for president of the United States the benefit of the doubt, and assume it was just her memory playing tricks, except.

Except that Hillary Clinton's tall tales may be part of a pattern. Remember her elaborate account of how she'd learned the stock tables at her daddy's knee in suburban Chicago, and made that 10,000 percent profit on cattle futures thanks to her own expertise? It was all a lot of hooey on the hoof, but she told the tale with such star power that she won an award from TV Guide in 1994 for that year's "best performance in a drama Š or press conference," and deservedly so.

Her version of how she reaped a tidy little fortune through her industry, frugality and faith in the American Way made a nice counterpoint to her husband's habit of denouncing the 1980s as "a Gilded Age of greed and selfishness, of irresponsibility and excess, and of neglect." It also contrasted nicely with her own, earlier dismissal of the Reagan Years as being about "acquiring - acquiring wealth, power, privilege." Explaining her own acquisitions, she took a different, Horatio Alger tack:

"I was raised by a father who had me reading the stock tables when I was a little girl, and I started doing that with my daughter when she was a little girl. I don't think you'll ever find anything that my husband or I said that in any way condemns the importance of making good investments and saving, or that in any way undermines what is the heart and soul of the American economy, which is risk-taking and investing in the future."

Brava! Bravissima!

When she told her tall tale on television in the beautifully crafted performance that TV Guide rightly honored, she did it with a virtuosa's mastery of every nuance, displaying a range of emotions that would have made Bette Davis look one-dimensional. It wasn't just what she said that impressed but the stage setting, the costuming (the ladylike pinkish suit, the perfect hair), the delicate pose, just the right sight lines with the Lincoln portrait in the background, the tonal modulation that no American politician would master until eloquent young Barack Obama came alongŠ.

Talk about a tour de force, when her presentation was over, you had to keep from standing up and yelling not only Author! Author! but Designer! Designer! What a show that was. Not since Loretta Young and her twirling petticoats has innocence been so perfectly depicted.

Maybe too perfectly. Only when the magic began to wear off, which didn't take long for anybody who'd followed her career in low finance, did it occur that Hillary Clinton's superb memory was matched only by her superber forgettery, in this case about just who had arranged her profits in the futures market.

You'd think, just out of sheer gratitude, the lady (in question) might have thrown in a good word for Robert L. "Red" Bone, who knew how to play games with the market as well as anybody in the business. (He was once suspended from trading for three years, and his firm fined $250,000, for it.) But giving ol' Red any credit might have spoiled the effect.

Now it's landing under fire at Tuzla a la John Wayne. What an exciting life Miss Hillary lives, at least in her own mind. As if her real life saga weren't dramatic enough. Which may be the most puzzling thing about both Clintons' tendency to, uh, exaggerate. There's no reason to. It's almost as if it were a compulsion. And talk about the audacity of hope, they act as nobody's ever going to question their stories, or just google Hillary Clinton, Tuzla, 1996.

"What is truly amazing," a friend e-mails, "is that these Ivy League-educated, smart people don't seem to think anyone else has enough smarts to go back and check whether or not these statements are true. In this day and age of Google, where virtually anyone can check virtually anything, as well as more archives by news organizations, what is truly surprising here is their underestimation of other people's intelligence. Maybe this is a typical character flaw of those who feel like they are smarter than everyone else."

Maybe, or maybe the Clintons' melodramatic flair is just an overblown case of the human propensity to star in our own drama, complete with heroic if fictive details. Or maybe it has to do with being a politician and having to do a little self-promotion every election. Call it an occupational hazard.

The Clinton Syndrome is scarcely limited to the Clintons - or to Ivy Leaguers or smart people. Maybe false memory isn't part of just the Clinton condition but the human condition. And we can all learn something from seeing it in deceptive action. This latest episode should say something cautionary about our own erring selves - especially to us more dramatic types, the sort of misfits drawn to journalism and other forms of storytelling.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.