When the footage surfaced showing that Hillary Clinton, contrary to what she had been claiming in campaign speeches, had not been obliged to duck and run from sniper fire during her visit to Bosnia in 1996 but, rather, had listened smilingly as a little girl recited a poem about peace, the former First Lady, now the junior senator from New York and a candidate for President, explained, “I misspoke.”
When the man whom Clinton still hopes to run against in November charged that Iranian agents are “taking Al Qaeda into Iran, training them, and sending them back”—even though Shiite Iran and Sunni Al Qaeda have no use for each other—his campaign had an identical explanation: “John McCain misspoke.”
Along with its various derivatives, “misspeak” has become one of the signature verbal workhorses of this interminable political season, right up there with “narrative,” “Day One,” and “hope.” It carries the suggestion that, while the politician’s perfectly functioning brain has dispatched the correct signals, the mouth has somehow received and transmitted them in altered form. “Misspeak” is a powerful word, a magical word. It is a word that is apparently thought capable, in its contemporary political usage, of isolating a palpable, possibly toxic untruth, sealing it up in an airtight bag, and disposing of it harmlessly.
Such a feat of modern hygiene is impressive in a word of such ancient origins. The Oxford English Dictionary finds it in Chaucer (“I me repente / If I mis spak”), but the hoary examples involve meanings that are either obsolete (to calumniate) or irrelevant to the present case (to mispronounce or speak incorrectly, a specialty of George W. “Misunderestimated” Bush). The last item in Oxford’s half-column entry, however, gets us where Senators Clinton and McCain want us to go:
"3.b. refl. To fail to convey the meaning one intends by one’s words."
This use of “misspeak” is of American origin. Oxford’s first example (“I believe he misspoke himself”) is drawn from, aptly, the Congressional Record, 1894; its second (“The President misspoke himself”) is from Richard Nixon’s iconic press secretary, Ron Zeigler, in 1973, annus mirabilis of the Classical period of American misspeaking.
It is certainly true that Clinton and McCain failed to convey their intended meanings, which were, in the broadest sense, “I have put myself in harm’s way for my country” and “I’m a majorly knowledgeable expert on the Middle East,” respectively. But even considering their statements in a narrower, non-meta sense, you have to wonder. It is a fact, now established by videotape evidence and eyewitness testimony, that there was no sniper fire—no unusual danger of any kind—near that Bosnian tarmac. So what was Clinton thinking when, not once but several times, she said that there was? Was she lying, as many of her critics maintain? That seems improbable. More likely, she just misremembered. Her Bosnian jaunt took her into a still not completely stable area that had lately been a war zone. The military plane carrying her descended at a steep angle. For the landing, she was summoned to the armored cockpit, just in case. She was surrounded by nervous, gun-toting soldiers. She was having a radically new experience; no doubt she was nervous herself. Couldn’t she have felt under fire, with mundane tricks of memory doing the rest?
Clinton’s misspeak, or whatever it was, had no policy implications, but it fit nicely into a “narrative” left over from the scandals, real and (mostly) fake, of the Clinton Administration: “travelgate,” the Rose Law Firm billing records, the “secret” health-care task force, William Safire’s “congenital liar” sideswipe. The trap is similar to the one sprung on Gary Hart in the 1984 campaign, when reporters seized on the “signature thing” (Hart kept changing his signature, eventually settling on a modish caps-and-small-caps slant) and the “name thing” (he had changed his name from Hartpence), because they were convinced that Hart was “Gatsbyesque.” But Clinton’s sniper falsehood also fit into a newer, truer story, a story of ruthlessness: her “3 A.M.” ad; her suggestion that her Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, is, unlike her and McCain, unqualified to be President; her remark that Obama is not a Muslim “as far as I know”; her use of an interview with, of all people, Richard Mellon Scaife, who spent millions in the nineteen-nineties manufacturing smears against her and her husband, to fan the embers of the controversy over Obama’s pastor; and more.
And McCain’s gaffe? Well, saying “Iraq” when you mean to say “Iran,” or vice versa, is a fairly common mistake. Consider this exchange from last week’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s questioning of Ryan Crocker, the American Ambassador in Baghdad:
OBAMA: Do we feel confident that the Iraqi government is directing these—this aid to these special groups? Do we feel confident about that, or do we think that they’re just tacitly tolerating it? Do you have some sense of that?
CROCKER: There’s no question in our minds that the Iranian government, and in particular the Quds Force, is—this is a conscious, carefully worked-out policy.
It was so obvious that Obama meant “the Iranian government” when he said “the Iraqi government” that Crocker didn’t bother to interrupt the flow by correcting him. (This was a genuine misspeak.) The McCain mistake was different. It’s easy to say one word when you mean to say another, nearly identical word, but it’s impossible to repeatedly misspeak an entire anecdote—or, as in McCain’s case, an entire strategic reality. This wasn’t the first time McCain said that Iran was arming Al Qaeda; it was, by one count, the fifth. His spokesman put out a press release saying that the candidate had “immediately corrected himself,” but that wasn’t true, either; it was McCain’s sidekick, Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut sort-of Democrat, who corrected him, in a whispered aside.
Unlike Clinton’s, McCain’s error did have policy implications. This was not, as some have suggested, a “senior moment.” McCain knows perfectly well that Shiites are not Sunnis, that the enmity of the two branches of Islam fuels Iraq’s self-immolation, and that Iran’s Shiite mullahs and Iraq’s Sunni terrorists are not cohorts in the same legion. But his rhetorical conflation of them, if one assumes that it is not done in bad faith, is of a piece with his apparent conviction that the Iraq war is very like the Second World War, the Korean War, or Vietnam: a war against a unified, tightly organized enemy—a war destined to end, if ever, in a clear-cut victory (or an equally clear-cut defeat), a war with the aim of bringing about a postwar settlement under which American troops can be stationed indefinitely in the former battle zone as more or less welcome guests of a stable host government. That’s not misspeaking. It’s misthinking—and, in both senses, it’s misleading.