In the campaign season of 1996, much like the campaign season of 2012, the incumbent Democratic president postured as the gifted leader who had brought stability to the world.
For Bill Clinton, the party line was “peace and prosperity.” For Barack Obama, as he claimed on Sept. 6, the line was putting al-Qaida “on the path to defeat.”
In the midst of their triumphant marches to a second inaugural, however, each of the candidates received a rather disturbing reality check.
Obama’s came on Sept. 11 at the hands of al-Qaida’s Benghazi franchise. Clinton got his on the night of July 17, 1996, with the shoot-down of TWA 800, perpetrator still unknown.
Knowing the media had their backs, both presidents responded in similar fashion: deny, obfuscate and kick the investigatory can down the road until after the election.
One central figure appeared in each drama, Hillary Clinton. She stood by Obama’s side in the Rose Garden on Sept. 12 as he spun reality into confection.
She, Bill and Sandy Berger holed up in the White House family quarters, assessing their narrative options throughout that long night of July 17, 1996.
On that fateful night, TWA Flight 800, with 230 people on board, exploded just 10 miles off the coast of Long Island. FAA air traffic controllers saw an unknown object “merge” with the doomed 747 seconds before it exploded and rushed the tape to the White House.
Hundreds of people saw what the controllers did from the ground. FBI witness No. 73, an aviation buff, watched a “red streak” with a “light gray smoke trail” move up toward the airliner, and then go “past the right side and above the aircraft before arcking [sic] back down toward the aircrafts [sic] right wing.” She even reported the actual breakup sequence before the authorities figured it out on their own.
High-school principal Joseph Delgado told the FBI that he had seen an object like “a firework” ascend “fairly quick,” then “slow” and “wiggle” then “speed up” and get “lost.” Then he saw a second object that “glimmered” in the sky, higher than the first, then a red dot move up to that object, then a puff of smoke, then another puff, then a “firebox.” He drew a precise image of the same.
Mike Wire, a no-nonsense millwright and U.S. Army vet, watched events unfold from the Beach Lane Bridge in Westhampton on Long Island. Wire had seen a white light traveling skyward from the ground at approximately a 40-degree angle, sparkling and zigzagging before culminating in a massive fireball.
In a confidential taped interview with historian Taylor Branch on Aug. 2 of that year, Clinton laid the blame for the presumed missile attack on Iran. “They want war,” he told Branch. Clinton may have been lying, but he did not want to mess with Iran, at least not right before an election he already had in the bag.
To control the post-crash narrative, the White House allowed the FBI to talk only to the New York Times. Four weeks after the disaster, the Times would report, “Now that investigators say they think the center fuel tank did not explode, they say the only good explanations remaining are that a bomb or a missile brought down the plane.”
A missile attack was too obvious and ominous. So a week later, likely under White House pressure, and without any new evidence, the FBI shifted its story-line fully away from a missile to a bomb. The Times would interview exactly none of the 270 FBI eyewitnesses to a likely missile strike.
In mid-September, two months after the crash, the FBI shifted the narrative once again from a bomb to a center fuel tank explosion, a possibility that had been ruled out a month earlier. The other media unquestioningly followed the Times. They too had a president to re-elect.
As each week passed, the Clintons had to be stunned that so obvious a truth remained so thoroughly ignored. To sustain the lie, however, insiders had to tell more lies still.
The FBI would fabricate a second interview with Witness No. 73 that never took place.
The CIA – the CIA? – would fabricate a second interview with Mike Wire that also never took place. NTSB insiders would lie outright about what Joseph Delgado saw, but the election came and went without anyone even knowing who these people were.
In 1996, however, there was no Internet, no Facebook, no YouTube. Fox News came on line only later that year. It would have been impossible for the Clinton White House to pull this off in 2012. America would have seen videos of the shoot-down online before the White House could control the information flow.
In 2012, Obama had the advantage of geography. No helpful citizens fixed their smart-phone cameras on the destruction of the American consulate in Benghazi.
Obama had the disadvantage, however, of serving in a fully interactive age. Unlike Clinton’s, Obama’s attempt to push the Benghazi investigation past the election has seemed obvious and amateurish.