Belmont Club

Somewhere in time

Hillary Clinton’s memory failed her again. The Secretary of State claimed she mis-spoke after her claim to have stayed at the ruined hotel in Belfast was debunked by British newspapers. “Mrs Clinton told assembled politicians at Stormont: ‘When Bill and I first came to Belfast we stayed at the Europa Hotel … even though then there were sections boarded up because of damage from bombs.'” The trouble with that is it could not have happened. The Times Online reports:

The Europa, where most journalists covering the decades-long conflict stayed, was famed as Europe’s most bombed hotel, earning the moniker “the Hardboard Hotel”.

However, the last Provisional IRA bomb to damage the Europa was detonated in 1993, two years before President Clinton and his wife checked in for the night.

The last time the Europa underwent renovations because of bomb blast damage was in January 1994, 22 months before the presidential entourage booked 110 rooms at the hotel.

Memory, even in honest people, can be a tricky thing. “Eyewitness identification evidence is the leading cause of wrongful conviction in the United States” according to Wikipedia. Cornelius Ryan had the opportunity to interview veterans shortly after the Second World War and came away with the belief that human memory was an unreliable source.

At the 1967 National Colloquium on Oral History, Forrest Pogue, the biographer of General George C. Marshall, described the combat interview program that was started by the army in 1943. In this project a team of army historians was assembled to interview soldiers just coming off the line, tapping into a level of memory not dissimilar to that studied by Elizabeth Loftus, who asks people about their memories fairly recently after presenting them with the material to be remembered. What was exciting to me about the army interview project was that it clearly made possible the opportunity to examine in the archives of the history of World War II documents with an unusual immediacy, documents that would include the perceptions of ordinary combat soldiers. At this same colloquium, however, Cornelius Ryan, author of The Longest Day, the story of the D-Day invasion, offered some criticism of the interview process. He had read these army combat interviews, and he also claims to have conducted six thousand interviews of his own, and this is what he said about them:

I discovered that interviewing is not reliable. I never found one man who landed on Omaha Beach who could tell me whether the water was hot or cold. I never found one man who landed on Omaha Beach who could tell me the exact time when some incident occurred. . . . Gathering the material after was very, very difficult indeed, and it did not lend itself to total accuracy.

This raises the possibility that Hillary may actually believe she visited the hotel in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. Perhaps she enlarged on the story of her visit until she came to believe it herself. Possibly her knowledge of the narrative of events led her to place herself in it. She knew the story and from there it was a small step to become of the characters. For whatever reason, whether out of dishonesty or a memory malfunction, Hillary Clinton “mis-spoke”. After John Kennedy was assassinated, his lionization as a martyr caused a retrospective change in memory.

John F. Kennedy’s assassination not only reshaped Americans’ subsequent views of him but even changed how they remembered their earlier perceptions. Although Kennedy was elected with just 49.7% of the vote in the fall of 1960, almost two-thirds of all Americans remembered voting for him when they were asked about it in the aftermath of his assassination.

Memory has been described as our own personal Time Machine. It lets us go back into the past, not necessarily as it was, but as we remember it. And the distinction is sometimes essential. Occasionally a science fiction writer stands this proposition on its head and posits situations where it is the memories make us. We do not make them. A tide of memory spits out our present consciousness and seize us like prisoners. Keith Laumer’s A Trace of Memory uses this theme. It describes a man haunted by an ancient recollection which contains his destiny. I think that Hillary’s problem is probably different from that depicted by Keith Laumer. Her destiny is falsely remembered in her memory. If she changed her present regard for herself, it’s possible that her recollections would likewise change.

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