Nietzsche, in one of his disconcertingly piercing aperçus, wrote: “‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains adamant. At last—my memory yields.”
Hillary Clinton seemed to reverse the Nietzschean order of things when she “misspoke”: “I cannot have done that,” said her memory. “I must have done that,” said her pride, and remained adamant. At last—her memory yielded.
Was she lying? A journalist called and asked my opinion as a doctor (faith in doctors remains strong in some quarters). I said that the question might be unanswerable. Lying, by definition, is knowingly saying what is untrue; but the human mind is a subtle instrument, quite capable of uttering untruths by mechanisms other than lying. Sometimes we cannot distinguish among the possibilities.
Of course, if one could show that, immediately before misspeaking, Clinton had told her closest friend (if such existed) that she planned to tell an untruth in public about her time in Sarajevo in order to boost her image as a stateswoman, we should justifiably conclude that she was lying in a straightforwardly crooked way. But she is an intelligent woman and, if she intended to deceive, she surely would have realized that her lie would soon wind up exposed.
So perhaps she just fashioned a flattering narrative for herself and others, composed of genuine memories and ill-remembered film clips. It isn’t such a far cry, after all, from wearing a flak jacket to being shot at; why would she have had to wear such a garment unless her life genuinely was in danger?
The more interesting question is whether it would be better if she had lied than if she had fantasized. Personally, I come down on the side of lying. First, lying is a natural human propensity. If someone said that he had never lied in his life, we immediately would brand him a liar. Second, unless we are Kant, we all think that lying is sometimes morally justifiable. Clinton might have thought that lying on this occasion was warranted, given how much good she planned to do as president. She would be wrong, of course: but which of us has never been wrong or succumbed to temptation? If her tall tale was a sin, it was venial rather than mortal.
Suppose, on the other hand, that she really thought that she had been under fire in Sarajevo. Being under fire is not like the details of a trivial conversation you had five years ago: it is not easily forgotten. If she were not lying, therefore, it would mean that her inability to distinguish truth from fiction would be almost total. This is a far more dangerous quality in a potential president than mere lying.
I suspect (though I cannot prove) that Clinton shares with the former prime minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, that modern psychopathological symptom: the delusion of honesty. A delusional belief is impervious to reason or evidence. In societies like Britain and the United States, once steeped in Judeo-Christian culture, such convictions become common when a belief in Original Sin finds itself replaced by a belief in Original Virtue—particularly one’s own.