Hillary Clinton’s Half-Truth about Trying to Enlist in the Marines
Policy + Politics

Hillary Clinton’s Half-Truth about Trying to Enlist in the Marines

Carlos Barria

What is it about running for president that makes candidates tell tall tales about their experience with the military? It seems that the further away a candidate was from actual military service, the more he struggles to brandish his resume.

Billionaire Republican candidate Donald Trump, for example, never served a day in his life in the military. But he insists that his time as a student at an elite military college prep boarding school gave him great insight into how the military works.

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In an excerpt from a forthcoming book that was shared with The New York Times, the 69-year-old Trump said that his five years at the New York Military Academy provided him with “more training militarily than a lot of guys that go into the military.”

So it’s not altogether surprising that Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, 68, another child of the Vietnam War era, recently dredged up an old story about trying to enlist with the Marines in 1975 in Arkansas.

Clinton has been under a microscope ever since the email scandal, so even a half-truth about wanting to join the Marines reinforces perceptions about her being “untrustworthy.”

Recounting that moment during a campaign breakfast in Manchester, N.H. November 10, Clinton told the group, “He looked me and goes, ‘Um, how old are you?’ And I said, ‘Well I am 26, I will be 27.’ And he goes, ‘Well, that is kind of old for us.’ And then he says to me, and this is what gets me, ‘Maybe the dogs will take you,’ meaning the Army.”

Clinton may have evoked some laughs and knowing glances from some in that New Hampshire audience. But as it turns out Clinton has told this story before – and each time it has been greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism.  While few doubt that the incident ever occurred, the circumstances surrounding her visit – and her motives for going there in the first place – have long been a cause of disagreement.

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According to an account by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, Clinton first told the story publicly in 1994 while addressing a lunch on Capitol Hill honoring military women, about 17 months after her husband Bill Clinton was sworn in as president.

But the then First Lady’s original account was a little different: “You’re too old, you can’t see and you’re a woman,” Clinton said she was told by the recruiting officer. “Maybe the dogs would take you,” she recalled although she may have mangled the military slang “dogfaces.” “I decided maybe I’ll look for another way to serve my country.”

The first to raise questions about the truthfulness of Clinton’s account was columnist Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, who covered the speech.  Dowd noted that at the time of the alleged recruitment center incident, Hillary Rodham was an “up-and-coming political star” and a Yale law school graduate who had worked on the anti-war presidential campaign of Eugene J. McCarthy and George McGovern.

Why would an anti-war activist want to join the Marines?

Why would she want to sign up for the Marines when she was planning to be married that year and to Bill Clinton, who was being widely touted for Arkansas Attorney General, Dowd asked?

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Some journalists and other skeptics howled with laughter at the story, while others speculated that Clinton might have had an ulterior motive, such as testing how the Marines’ would respond to a women applicant at a time when women were still fighting for their civil rights. But that didn’t make much sense. Women have been part of the Marines since 1918, and were deployed to Korea in the 1950s. At the height of the Vietnam War, there were about 2,700 women serving in the Marines, according to Kessler’s account.

Precisely what happened at the recruiting center four decades ago remains murky to this day – although more than likely, something did happen.

When Clinton first told this story in 1994, a Marine spokesperson issued the following statement:  “We won’t attempt to dispute the first lady’s recollection, but if she was ill-treated by a Marine recruiter in 1975, it certainly is unfortunate, unprofessional and a mistake we regret.”

When he asked her about the incident in 2007 for a profile he was writing for The New Republic, Michael Crowley wrote, “At this her eyes narrowed and she threw me a glare of mistrust.”

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“I have very deep and quite broad relationships with people in the military,” she told Crowley. As for why she decided to visit the recruiting center in the first place, Clinton replied dismissively, “I can’t tell you . . .  You go look at it.”

In reaching a verdict, Kessler concludes that for all the reasons raised by Dowd and others, the circumstances of the event are in question. “She pitches it as a matter of public service, but her friends suggest it was something different,” he wrote. “So at this point Clinton’s story is worthy of Two Pinocchios, subject to change if more information becomes available.”