World·Analysis

Hillary Clinton's 'difficult relationship with the truth' dogs her campaign

Hillary Clinton continues to struggle for support among suspicious American voters who automatically link her to various past and current scandals and continue to have nagging doubts, or at least questions, about her honesty.

Democratic presidential candidate says she has 'always, always' tried to tell the truth

Hillary Clinton struggles for the support of suspicious American voters who continue to have nagging doubts about her honesty. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

In an interview with CBS's Scott Pelley about six months ago, Hillary Clinton was asked point blank if she has always told the truth. 

She wouldn't say definitively yes, wouldn't say definitively no, just that she doesn't "believe" she's ever lied, doesn't "believe" she ever will and that when it comes to being honest, she has "always tried" to — "always, always."

It certainly wasn't the answer to satisfy the concerns of those suspicious American voters who automatically link her to various past and current scandals and continue to have nagging doubts, or at least questions, about her honesty.

And the irony, of course, is that it was the type of equivocation — or "wiggle room," as Pelley suggested — that has helped the Democratic presidential candidate forge a reputation throughout her public life that she's not one to be trusted. 

She has always had, at least since her Arkansas years, a "difficult relationship with the truth," Carl Bernstein wrote in his biography A Woman In Charge. Her autobiography Living History is an example of "how she has often chosen to obfuscate, omit, and avoid," he wrote.

And with little more than two months left before the election, she's facing those very same accusations, this time concerning her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.

Suffered a concussion

Despite the FBI clearing Clinton of any criminal wrongdoing, it's a controversy that continues to dog her. And the release Friday of an FBI report on Clinton's interview with investigators, in which she said she could not recall getting any briefings on how to handle classified information because she had suffered a concussion, only serves to remind voters of the scandal.

It may also explain why she hasn't had a news conference in 275 days and few one-on-one interviews.

Clinton has always had, at least since her Arkansas years, 'a difficult relationship with the truth,' Carl Bernstein wrote in his Clinton biography. (Chris Keane/Reuters)

Her interview with Fox News Sunday earlier this month was pounded on by fact-checkers, who slammed her comments regarding her email scandal. For example, she told Chris Wallace that FBI director James Comey corroborated that she had been truthful with the American public.

In fact, Comey had only said the FBI had no basis to conclude she lied to the agency. Asked in a congressional hearing whether she had lied to the public, he said: "That's a question I'm not qualified to answer."

She's also been criticized for saying she handed all work-related emails over to the State Department. That was later contradicted by the FBI director, who said, in fact, several thousand were not turned over.  

Yet there's an added twist — some of those released emails show Clinton Foundation donors met with Clinton when she was secretary of state, raising questions about whether those individuals were granted special access because of their donations or any kind of quid pro quo relationship.

This ties in to the email scandal because, as her critics allege, it rebuts her claim that she had a private email server strictly for convenience. Instead, some suggest, its purpose was for concealment, to protect emails about Clinton Foundation business.
According to PolitiFact, Clinton has a better 'accuracy rating' than Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Evan Vucci/ Associated Press)

It all adds up to a narrative that Clinton has been struggling to shake off.

She and her defenders are quick to dismiss the accusations. Honest mistakes may have been made, they say, but there was no criminal intent, no smoking gun, no evidence that any special favours were handed out and, ultimately, no charges have been laid.

Indeed, when it comes to trustworthiness, the fact-checking website PolitiFact reveals that in comparing the "accuracy record" of Clinton and Trump, who repeatedly refers to his opponent as "crooked Hillary," Clinton fares much better. 

'I would even say secretive'

"I see a lot of polling that shows that people say that Clinton is dishonest," said Angie Drobnic Holan, PolitiFact editor. "I think to be more precise, what members of the public are picking up on is that she's guarded and I would even say secretive."

Like many people, says Jeff Gerth, former New York Times reporter and co-author of Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, she's reluctant to admit she's made a mistake. But she's also loath to correct inaccurate information that she or her subordinates have put out.

"I don't think it's unfair to raise questions about her issues or challenges with trustworthiness and forthrightness, which is clearly something that has been an albatross for her in her current campaign and has been an issue for her for some time," Gerth said.

It was the late New York Times columnist William Safire, in his controversial yet often cited 1996 column Blizzard of Lies, who proclaimed the then first lady was a "congenital liar."

He came to that conclusion based on a series of scandals:

  • Clinton's cattle futures trades, which netted her a 10,000 per cent profit.
  • Accusations she ordered the firing of the White House travel staff to put in people with ties to her and her husband (Travelgate).
  • The disappearance and then unexpected discovery of copies of records from her law firm related to her role in a failed savings and loan venture (part of the Whitewater scandal).

Sexist element

Gerth noted that while she was never charged with a crime in any of the scandals, there were a number of cases where the independent counsel investigating found she had made factually incorrect and false statements.

"It's not that there's nothing there, it's also not the huge hurricane her critics are sometimes willing to paint."

McGill history professor Gil Troy, author of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady, said he does believe there is a sexist element when it comes to criticizing Clinton for her dishonesty. He said he believes she's held to a higher standard than her husband and Trump, whose lies may be tolerated as a kind of adolescent boy roguishness. 

"The whole conversation would be different if she didn't lie," he said. "But she also lies. And she lies about her lies."

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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