Poor Brian Williams. The NBC newsman is being pummeled for having said he was aboard a military helicopter when it was shot down in Iraq in 2003. He has apologized, saying he had been in a different helicopter, behind the one that had been fired upon and, as The New York Times reported, had inadvertently “conflated” the two. The paper wrote, “The explanation earned him not only widespread criticism on radio and TV talk shows, but widespread ridicule on Twitter, under the hashtag ‘#BrianWilliamsMisremembers.’
Similarly, Hilary Clinton was ridiculed after she acknowledged having “misspoken” when she described running across a tarmac to avoid sniper fire upon landing in Bosnia when she was first lady in 1996.
I like Brian Williams and not just because he grew up in New Jersey as I did. And I like Hilary Clinton. I sympathize with both of them for finding themselves lost in conflation. I understand how it can happen. You’re close by a scary event, you realize it could have been you experiencing it and not the people who actually did experience it, and over time you internalize the details so that it becomes, in your mind, something that really happened to you. That’s not the same as lying. As a public figure, you’d have to know that other people were there, and if you were lying, they’d know it. Why would you put yourself in that position?
After more than half a century together, Ed and I share many stories of things we experienced jointly. Frequently, he “misremembers” the details of one event or another. Sometimes I correct him and sometimes I let it go. What difference does it make? And I’m sure he does the same with me when I “misremember” things.
The difference with Brian Williams and Hilary Clinton and other public figures is just that: They are public figures. And they have staffs. Were their staff members so cowed that one could not have taken the boss aside and pointed out the “misremembering” before it became fodder for late night comics?
The last time we were together with both our daughters and their husbands, our older daughter told a story of how she had been destined to be left-handed but that I, being left-handed myself, was determined to try to prevent that, placing items in her right hand and not the left. I had to tell that daughter that that story was not hers; it was her sister’s. I did indeed try to encourage both daughters to have an easier time in life by being right-handed. And the older daughter went along with it. But every time I placed an item in her younger sister’s hand, she’d move it to her left. After many months of this, I gave up. But the older daughter, having heard that story her entire life, had conflated it to be about her. No big deal; it happens. “I’m sorry,” I told that daughter, “but I was there and that’s what I remember.”
But who knows. Maybe I’m the one who “misremembered.”