The Swill from Bill

Political lies are intriguing things.

Sometimes they are just a panicky attempt to keep a floundering career afloat: I am not a crook. I did not have sex with that woman.

Sometimes they are a short-term means to a longer-term end that may or may not pan out: LBJ lying about the Gulf of Tonkin incident to get America into Vietnam, or George W. Bush lying about weapons of mass destruction to launch an Iraq invasion he figured the American public would end up applauding.

Sometimes, though, they are downright perplexing.

Bill Clinton, campaigning on behalf of his wife in Indiana on Thursday, told one whopper after another while defending Hillary's own well-publicised bunch of baloney regarding her trip to Bosnia in 1996 -- the one where she repeatedly confused being hugged by an eight-year-old girl with the terror of coming under sniper fire, then claimed the reason she muddled up the two very different experiences was because she was sleep-deprived.

Others have already deconstructed the latest swill from Bill with admirable thoroughness, but here's a few reasons why the whole thing makes no sense.

One, why bring up the Bosnia incident at all when it has been nothing but trouble for the Hillary campaign for the past three weeks?

Two, why lie so obviously about it? It would be one thing if Bill were trying to spin the facts in his wife's favor, but his little rant about everyone being out to get her was off in the realm of pure fantasy. His contention that Hillary misspoke, once, late at night? Demonstrably false. His contention that she "quickly apologized"? Demonstrably false.

For me, the most telling falsehood was one of the more seemingly innocent: placing the incident in 1995 instead of 1996. That may seem like a little thing, but in 1995 the Bosnian war was still raging, while in 1996 the country has changed from a civil war theater to an international peace-keeping theater. I was in Bosnia in 1996 and it was perfectly safe for foreign visitors, dignitaries or not.

What to make of all this? The easiest, but not necessarily most productive, reaction is moral condemnation. We can dismiss Clinton, just as Harry Truman memorably dismissed Richard Nixon, as a "no-good, lying bastard" who can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time even when there's no particular reason to.

That, though, doesn't get at the heart of the psychology at work here. Bill isn't just scuppering his wife's -- admittedly fast-dwindling -- chances of staying in the nomination race. He's also fouling up his own reputation and the legacy of his eight years in the White House, causing consternation not only among once-loyal Democratic supporters but also overseas, where he is still remembered fondly as that rare American president who actually understands what he is talking about and can string more than one grammatically correct sentence together at a time.

I've seen and heard any number of pop-psych explanations: that, deep down, Bill doesn't want his wife to be president, or that he is just naturally reckless, to the point of self-destruction. For me, though, the key to understanding him comes back to the Balkans in the 1990s -- not the Clintons' experiences there, but my own. It remains the part of the world where I have been lied to most often and most brazenly, by political leaders who just didn't seem to care how transparent their lies were.

The deputy prime minister of Albania once tried to argue, for example, that six thousand people swarming around the president in the main square of the capital city did not constitute a demonstration. The president was merely out taking a walk, he said with an entirely straight face, and a crowd of citizens spontaneously chose to follow him.

My conclusion then, as now, is that this was a show of power, a special kind of lying for intimidatory effect. The subtext was: I am so important that I can tell you any pile of crap I want and you'll have to show me that you accept it.

I sense a similar arrogance in Clinton now. The difference, of course, is that he is not currently in power, merely trying to reattain it, which gives his lies an additional layer of deep insecurity. The subtext I hear from him is this: I'm Bill Clinton, so you have to take whatever I tell you, and by the way you've got to vote for my wife, out of fear if not out of respect.

We started hearing that undertone to his speeches back in January, in Nevada and South Carolina, and it has become only more pronounced -- and more paranoid -- as Hillary's lock on the nomination has slowly loosened and started to slither away.

In other words, it's not that he secretly wants Hillary to fail, but rather the exactly opposite. He feels uniquely confident in his own gifts and status and simply cannot believe he can end up on the losing side. Ironically -- and sadly -- he is now as far from removed from the "reality-based community" as the Bush White House. The biggest loser in all this won't be Hillary, who has her own reasons for falling short in the nomination race, but rather Bill himself.