Earlier this afternoon, Sen. Hillary Clinton came to the Daily News and Inquirer building here in Philadelphia -- where she's seeklng the Daily News editorial board endorsement -- and I had a chance to ask her about a controversy that's increasingly dogged her campaign the last few days: Whether she misrepresented the danger of her March 1996 trip to a U.S. military base in Bosnia in an effort to boost her foreign policy credentials.
Clinton acknowleged today for the first time that it was a "misstatement" when she said in a major prepared foreign policy speech last week that "I remember landing under sniper fire" but also tried to brush off the entire issue as "a minor blip." She also gave a revised account of her airplane landing and her tarmac greeting at the Tuzla Air Force base 12 years ago -- seeking to explain a picture re-published this weekend in the Washington Post showing her and daughter Chelsea calmly greeting an 8-year-old girl.
In her speech last week at George Washington University, Clinton maintained "[t]here was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base. Today, she told our group at the Daily News that she was informed that we "had to meet this 8-year-old girl," so "I took her stuff and left."
The dispute is hardly a trivial one because the New York senator has tried to stress that foreign policy experience is why voters in Pennsylvania's April 22 primary should chose her over Sen. Barack Obama, the overall leader in delegates and primary votes. And she has placed the Bosnia trip front and center, to the extent that her account of her visit there led off last week's televised speech. Here's what she said then:
In the week since that remark, which echoed other recent statements about her trip, several journalists - most notably Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post -- have found holes in what Sen. Clinton said. In particular, Dobbs said none of more than 100 contemporaneous accounts mentioned sniper fire and that the Associated Press reporter on the trip had no recollection of any weapons fire. Dobbs also reported that CBS news footage shows the then-First Lady walking calmly from the C-17 transport plane as well as a number of dignitaries -- in addition to the 8-year-old Emina Bicakcic, a Muslim girl who read a poem in English -- waiting there.
A follow-up by the Post's Dobbs quotes a Clinton speechwriter, Lisa Muscatine, as defending her former boss -- stating the C-17 was chosen for its ability to make quick landings and that members of the Clinton party were issued flak jackets before arriving at Tuzla.
This afternoon, in the session with Daily News editorial writers and reporters (and some Inquirer staffers as well) in a conference room at the Daily News and Inquirer Building, I asked the presidential candidate about these discrepancies and also showed her a copy of the photo -- at the top of this post -- of her on the tarmac that day.
She was quick to answer, jumping in before I was fully finished with the question. Here's here response in its entirety:
I followed-up, noting that the episode has raised questions about her credibility on foreign policy. She responded:
The Clinton campaign is clearly eager to put this controversy to rest before it drags down her Pennsylvania campaign. As the session broke up, campaign press secretary Jay Carson made a beeline to me to offer additional background, explaining that the senator didn't want to completely blow off the ceremony but that she was also in a hurry to get indoors. Within about 20 minutes, Carson emailed me press acconts from the time of the 1996 visit, including one from the Washington Post that said her trip was "the first time since [Eleanor] Roosevelt that a first lady has voyaged to a potential combat zone."