Hillary: Made-Up Memories?

Is it possible that Hillary Clinton really thought she risked her life disembarking from a plane and running for cover "under sniper fire" at the heavily fortified U.S. Air Force base at Tuzla? Clinton has been telling the story of her visit to Bosnia in 1996 for many years, gradually adding embellishment and changing details. Perhaps she may have actually come to believe it.

The Tuzla story, which has been buzzing under the radar for some time, now threatens to cause real problems for the New York senator. YouTube mashups juxtaposing Clinton's recounting of the dangers she faced with newsreels of her kissing a Bosnian child during a photo-op have become hits. The Washington Post reported that one such video had received more than 100,000 views. After weeks of keeping Sen. Barack Obama on the defensive over his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Clinton now finds herself at the center of a growing firestorm.

On a conference call yesterday with reporters, Clinton aides Howard Wolfson and Phil Singer tried to steer the conversation to controversial comments made by two Obama surrogates, Gordon Fischer and retired Gen. Merrill McPeak. Reporters showed relatively little interest in this topic and instead homed in on Clinton's Tuzla mythmaking. Andrea Mitchell of NBC News asked Wolfson to explain the discrepancy between Clinton's recollections of her Bosnia visit and the video clips and photographs showing no sniper fire, no running and no apparent tension (though some news stories from the time mentioned security precautions taken). Wolfson, after blaming the Obama campaign for hyping the controversy, finally allowed that "it is possible in the most recent instance in which she discussed this that she misspoke in regard to the exit from the plane." The candidate herself, in a meeting with editors of the Philadelphia Daily News, offered a less dramatic description of the event and said, "So I misspoke."

Clinton did more than misspeak; she told a richly detailed anecdote as part of a major address on foreign policy. And it was not the first time she has mentioned the snipers. In fact, the seeds of the Bosnian peril myth may have been planted years ago.

At the time, Clinton emphasized that her trip was the first time a First Lady had ventured into hostile territory to visit U.S. troops since Eleanor Roosevelt had done so during World War II. "To be here on the ground is something I wanted to do so that maybe people back home would see it—not through the eyes of the secretary of the army or someone in a position in the military—but like Eleanor Roosevelt … to visit the troops to say thank you," she told U.S. troops in Bosnia. As the London Times reported, the trip was seen as an effort by Clinton to "improve her tarnished image" and deflect attention from the persistent inquiry into Whitewater, the Clintons' land deal. But while the White House noted the historic nature of a First Lady venturing into a country beset by warfare, there are no contemporaneous reports of Hillary Clinton recounting sniper fire, truncated ceremonies, or running for cover.

The snipers appear in Clinton's 2003 biography "Living History," but they hardly seem to present much danger: "Due to reports of snipers in the hills around the airstrip, we were forced to cut short an event on the tarmac with the local children, though we did have time to meet them and their teachers … One eight-year-old girl gave me a copy of a poem she had written entitled 'Peace.' Chelsea and I presented the school supplies we had brought, along with letters from seventh-grade children … whose parents and teachers had initiated a pen pal program." The biography also emphasizes that her plane made a "near perpendicular" landing to avoid possible enemy fire.

On the campaign trail the Bosnian tarmac anecdote has grown more dramatic. In Dubuque, Iowa, in December, Clinton reportedly asserted that the area was considered too dangerous for her husband to visit. "I was the first high-profile American to go," Clinton told Iowan voters, according to a Wall Street Journal account. Clinton added even more oomph during a late-February foreign policy address in Waco, Texas. Attempting to draw a contrast with Senator Obama's inexperience with foreign policy matters, the New York senator boasted of having traveled to more than 80 countries and recounted the trip to Bosnia, recalling that a welcoming ceremony "had to be moved inside because of sniper fire."

This account started to raise eyebrows. On March 11, Sinbad (who was along for the trip) questioned Clinton's memory. The comedian was quoted in the Washington Post cracking that "the only red phone moment was, 'Do we eat here or the next place?'"

Six days later, on March 17, Clinton made what the campaign billed as a major foreign policy address at George Washington University. She opened her speech by saying, "I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base." Afterward she dismissed Sinbad's comments in a press conference with reporters, saying he "is a comedian" and recalled "flying over the countryside with bulletproof everything on, like we do in Iraq." She elaborated, according to news accounts of the press conference, by saying, "Part of the reason we were in the C-17 is because part of it is armored … I was moved up into the cockpit. Everyone else was told to sit on their bulletproof vests. There was no greeting ceremony, and we were basically told to run to our cars. Now, that is what happened."

That clearly is not what happened, but it raises the question of whether Clinton actually remembers it that way. Clinton's conjured combat memories recall the imaginings of actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan, who spent World War II making war movies on Hollywood lots but decades later spoke as if the roles he had played were real. On separate occasions, according to biographers, Reagan gave others the impression that he had been at Normandy and at the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Reagan reportedly later told an associate, "Maybe I had seen too many war movies, the heroics of which I sometimes confused with real life."