There’s an emerging consensus among some political gabbers that Brian Williams’ long-running misrepresentations about his time in Iraq does serious damage to a major national figure.
The twist: The figure being skewered is not the embattled NBC anchorman but Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Why would misstatements by Williams — that a helicopter he rode in a dozen years ago in Iraq came under enemy fire — damage the once and likely future presidential candidate?
Because the former secretary of state and frontrunner-in-waiting for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination had her own Williams-esque flight of war-zone “misspeak.”
Clinton’s error came in the thick of her 2008 run for the presidency, when she claimed in a speech that she and her party once ducked sniper fire on an airport tarmac in Bosnia. It wasn’t true.
The NBC anchor’s career-threatening failure on the Iraq story now has commentators, particularly on the political right, saying Clinton should be in just as much trouble.
At least one seasoned hand in Clintonworld theorizes, though, that Hillary’s 2008 campaign trail plotz will not ultimately be as damaging as Williams’ meltdown. Here’s why: Williams has told the tale of the attack on a U.S. military helicopter many times over the years since he embedded with the Army during the 2003 Iraqi invasion. His problem is that he has expanded and embellished the alleged brush with danger many times.
According to reporting led by the military journal Stars & Stripes, aviators on the scene at the time said the copter carrying Williams was an hour behind another Chinook forced to land, after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
In multiple retellings over the years, though, the NBC anchor has gone from saying he was “on the ground” when he learned about the RPG threat to suggesting the copter immediately in front of his took the hit to saying his own chopper was battered by both the RPG and AK-47 fire.
Williams told Stars & Stripes he “misremembered” the incident and that he doesn’t “know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” An on-air apology Wednesday night has done little to quell the furor.
Flashing back a couple of campaign seasons, NBC News was among the outlets that hit hardest when Hillary Clinton got her own war story wrong. Though Williams was on the periphery of that reporting, his network reported Clinton’s flub and how it took her a week to correct it.
When first learning of Williams’ own veracity problem this week, one former Clinton aide said he was “chagrined,” thinking, “This will bring back something from that campaign, and those parallels will be drawn as if what she did was exactly like what Brian Williams did.”
Clinton had said during a March 2008 speech that, while visiting Bosnia in 1996 as first lady, she remembered “landing under sniper fire.” A greeting ceremony had to be cancelled, she said, as her party “ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”
Videotape instead showed Clinton, her daughter Chelsea and their entourage simply striding across a tarmac with smiles and greeting a retinue of well-wishers.
The Clinton hand, who spoke on condition of anonymity, argued that Clinton’s failure was less egregious than Williams’ for several reasons. It came during a campaign that was a dozen years after her Bosnia visit, while the anchorman’s suggestions that he was close to the rocket attack commenced just two years later.
In addition, the Clintonista noted, the presidential candidate only briefly “dug in her heels” on her account, correcting herself within the week. Clinton at one point blamed the exhaustion of the campaign trail for getting it wrong. She soon joked to Jay Leno about her “lapse,” telling the latenight host that she almost didn’t make it to his show because she was “pinned down by sniper fire.”
Williams, in unfortunate contrast, continued to misreport his episode in the Iraqi desert for more than a decade, the onetime Clinton aide said. “He fabricated it and then he kept repeating it,” the aide said. “That’s a lot different.”
Commentators at the time of the Clinton episode were a lot less forgiving. Then-New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that Clinton’s Bosnian “fairy tale” exposed her dishonesty, particularly her insistence that she had only “misspoken.”
The Clinton loyalist said, however, that the collateral damage she is suffering today might actually have an unexpected benefit.
“The issue was going to come back eventually, one way or another,” he said. “This means the story won’t have a lot of impact during the campaign, because all the attention to it will be burned up over the next few days.”
“When it comes up later,” he concluded, “she will be able to say, ‘We have already been through all of that.’ “
A Clinton spokesman was not immediately available for comment.