Surely all of us know by know what happened Friday afternoon. Hillary Clinton repeated a comment she made in March regarding how anything could happen in the month of June that would remove Obama from the Democratic nomination contest. The example she used then and yesterday was the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968. She made the comment during a private interview with the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, North Dakota.
I let the comment go when I first read it at CNN/Time in March, assuming that she would quickly regret it. Also, I assumed that she would quickly realize the incredible implications of such a remark. It is unthinkable that a Democratic candidate for President of the United States would publicly comment that a possible route to the nomination would be the death (or murder!) of her opponent. It's the kind of comment that suggests that Clinton has spent a little time thinking or wondering about it. I dare not say she fantasized or hoped for it. She has not and will not.
We live in a nation that enjoys a high degree of freedom of expression. Surely, Hillary Clinton has the right to talk about RFK's assassination, and how it derailed a charismatic, star candidate, who looked poised to win the nomination and excite the nation. She herself is in a desperate, must-win situation. She must somehow derail a similar candidate, who has more momentum, more campaign cash, and more votes than RFK ever did, in a 50-state primary system (which didn't exist in 1968).
However, presidential candidates do not have the luxury of being able to say whatever they want in public. And the potential assassination of an American political candidate or elected official is one of them. Imagine if a Senator or Congressman had made such a comment about George W. Bush. She or he could have said, "He's in the final days of his second term. He's probably home free. But anything can happen between now and January 20th. He wouldn't be the first president to assume he was going to live-out his tenure. Lincoln was assassinated early in his second term. So was McKinley. We could have a late second-term event. It's not impossible." I would assume that hypothetical politician would be censured for such a remark.
There are certain topics that American politicians cannot touch. One of them is the assassination of a rival or colleague. It just cannot be touched, ever.
But why is that? After all, Hillary Clinton was only repeating a historical fact. Hillary was only stating the truth. And the truth is that the only way she can win the Democratic nomination is if Obama becomes seriously ill, dies, or quits the race. That's the truth. And besides, she was talking about RFK, not Obama. Right?
Wrong. It's all about context. Clinton was being asked why she was being hounded by party insiders and Obama supporters to quit the race. She was asked why people are trying to push her out. Her response was that it made no sense, especially when other races were not resolved at this point on the calendar. She raised two examples. First, she said that her husband didn't secure the nomination in 1992 until the California primary in June. (Her interviewer seemed to verify that answer, but it is in fact inaccurate. While Jerry Brown did not drop-out of the race until June, Bill Clinton secured the 1992 Democratic nomination in April.) Second, she brought up the 1968 race, which was just heating-up in June when New York Senator Bobby Kennedy won California.
And she could have said just that, and it would have been fine. But no. She said something else:
We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.
When I first saw this, I froze as soon as the words "Bobby Kennedy" left her mouth. I thought, 'where on earth is she going with this?' I still don't know. She had nothing to gain by mentioning it. And I don't think she was trying to impress the interviewer with her knowledge of 20th Century US history.
I will say again, she wasn't openly expressing a wish to see Obama die. I do think she is wishing Obama to quit or otherwise go away. But the way it came out. Why? Why, when there are so many other historic examples to draw from? The 1984 Democratic nomination was very close. The 1988 race wasn't settled until July 4th, when Jackson and Dukhakis brokered a deal to make nice. The 1976 race was extremely close as well. Why 1968? Why 'assassination'? Why?
She said something no American politician should ever talk about, unless it is a remembrance, an anniversary, or a part of a history lecture. Surely there will be members of Congress who will mark the 40th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's death with a few words on the Senate or House floor. But in the context of a political race, the mentioning of an assassination as an example of how the race can dramatically change late in the calendar, is completely unacceptable. This is because political assassination is one of this nation's darkest and most traumatic legacies (along with the Civil War, reconstruction, racism, and our involvement in Vietnam). Speaking about an American assassination as if it were a possibility to level a political contest is totally beyond the pale. It has no place in our national discourse, particularly among the candidates involved in the political race in question. And that's because any of the three candidates in the race could themselves become a victim of an assassin's bullet. It's a possibility we don't treat lightly and don't talk about in public. Rational Americans don't wish it on even their most hated politicians or political enemies. Most Americans don't even think about it.
And yet, there was Hillary Clinton, speculating why she was being pressured to leave the race. And in her verbal thoughts, she mentioned the assassination of RFK as an example of why she should remain in this race. Because, who knows, something awful could happen to Senator Obama. It was a cold, brutal, and utterly disgusting moment. It is right here:
And then there is Keith Olbermann's passionate, and very angry response less than 5 hours later. Perhaps this was a bit too harsh. But I trust Keith to be a rational man. And as this Saturday rolled on, I found myself becoming just as angry as Keith did Friday night. Here's Keith telling his viewers, "This, Senator, is TOO MUCH."
Asked if her continuing fight for the nomination against Senator Obama hurts the Democratic party, Sen. Hillary Clinton replied, "I don't. Because again, I've been around long enough. You know, my husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know, I just don't understand it. You know, there's lots of speculation about why it is. “
The comments were recorded and we showed them to you earlier and they are online as we speak.
She actually said those words.
Those words, Senator?
You actually invoked the nightmare of political assassination.
You actually invoked the specter of an inspirational leader, at the seeming moment of triumph, for himself and a battered nation yearning to breathe free, silenced forever.
You actually used the word "assassination" in the middle of a campaign with a loud undertone of racial hatred - and gender hatred - and political hatred.
You actually used the word "assassination" in a time when there is a fear, unspoken but vivid and terrible, that our again-troubled land and fractured political landscape might target a black man running for president.
Or a white man.
Or a white woman!
You actually used those words, in this America, Senator, while running against an African-American against whom the death threats started the moment he declared his campaign?
You actually used those words, in this America, Senator, while running to break your "greatest glass ceiling" and claiming there are people who would do anything to stop you?
Senator - never mind the implications of using the word "assassination" in any connection to Senator Obama...
What about you?
You cannot say this!
The references, said her spokesperson, were not, in any way, weighted.
The allusions, said Mo Uh-leathee, are, "...historical examples of the nominating process going well into the summer and any reading into it beyond that would be inaccurate and outrageous."
There is no inaccuracy.
Not for a moment does any rational person believe Senator Clinton is actually hoping for the worst of all political calamities.
Yet the outrage belongs, not to Senator Clinton or her supporters, but to every other American.
Firstly, she has previously bordered on the remarks she made today...
Then swerved back from them and the awful skid they represented.
She said, in an off-camera interview with Time on March 6, "Primary contests used to last a lot longer. We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A. My husband didn't wrap up the nomination in 1992 until June, also in California. Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual. We will see how it unfolds as we go forward over the next three to four months."
In retrospect, we failed her when we did not call her out, for that remark, dry and only disturbing, in a magazine's pages. But somebody obviously warned her of the danger of that rhetoric:
After the Indiana primary, on May 7, she told supporters at a Washington hotel:
"Sometimes you gotta calm people down a little bit. But if you look at successful presidential campaigns, my husband did not get the nomination until June of 1992. I remember tragically when Senator Kennedy won California near the end of that process."
And at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on the same day, she referenced it again:
"You know, I remember very well what happened in the California primary in 1968 as, you know, Senator Kennedy won that primary."
On March 6th she had said "assassinated."
By May 7 she had avoided it. Today... she went back to an awful well. There is no good time to recall the awful events of June 5th, 1968, of Senator Bobby Kennedy, happy and alive - perhaps, for the first time since his own brother's death in Dallas in 1963... Galvanized to try to lead this nation back from one of its darkest eras... Only to fall victim to the same surge that took that brother, and Martin Luther King... There is no good time to recall this. But certainly to invoke it, two weeks before the exact 40th anniversary of the assassination, is an insensitive and heartless thing.
And certainly to invoke it, three days after the awful diagnosis, and heart-breaking prognosis, for Senator Ted Kennedy, is just as insensitive, and just as heartless. And both actions, open a door wide into the soul of somebody who seeks the highest office in this country, and through that door shows something not merely troubling, but frightening. And politically inexplicable.
What, Senator, do you suppose would happen if you withdrew from the campaign, and Senator Obama formally became the presumptive nominee, and then suddenly left the scene? It doesn't even have to be the “dark curse upon the land” you mentioned today, Senator. Nor even an issue of health. He could simply change his mind... Or there could unfold that perfect-storm scandal your people have often referenced, even predicted. Maybe he could get a better offer from some other, wiser, country. What happens then, Senator? You are not allowed back into the race? Your delegates and your support vanish? The Democrats don't run anybody for President?
What happens, of course, is what happened when the Democrats' vice presidential choice, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, had to withdraw from the ticket, in 1972 after it proved he had not been forthcoming about previous mental health treatments. George McGovern simply got another vice president.
Senator, as late as the late summer of 1864 the Republicans were talking about having a second convention, to withdraw Abraham Lincoln's re-nomination and choose somebody else because until Sherman took Atlanta in September it looked like Lincoln was going to lose to George McClellan.
You could theoretically suspend your campaign, Senator.
There's plenty of time and plenty of historical precedent, Senator, in case you want to come back in, if something bad should happen to Senator Obama. Nothing serious, mind you.
It's just like you said, "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."
Since those awful words in Sioux Falls, and after the condescending, buck-passing statement from her spokesperson, Senator Clinton has made something akin to an apology, without any evident recognition of the true trauma she has inflicted.
"I was discussing the Democratic primary history, and in the course of that discussion mentioned the campaigns both my husband and Senator Kennedy waged California in June in 1992 and 1968," she said in Brandon, South Dakota. "I was referencing those to make the point that we have had nomination primary contests that go into June. That's a historic fact.
"The Kennedys have been much on my mind the last days because of Senator Kennedy. I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation, particularly for the Kennedy family was in any way offensive, I certainly had no intention of that whatsoever."
"My view is that we have to look to the past and to our leaders who have inspired us and give us a lot to live up to and I'm honored to hold Senator Kennedy's seat in the United States Senate in the state of New York and have the highest regard for the entire Kennedy family. Thanks. Not a word about the inappropriateness of referencing assassination.
Not a word about the inappropriateness of implying - whether it was intended or not - that she was hanging around waiting for somebody to try something terrible.
Not a word about Senator Obama.
Not a word about Senator McCain.
Not: I'm sorry...
Not: I apologize...
Not: I blew it...
Not: please forgive me.
God knows, Senator, in this campaign, this nation has had to forgive you, early and often...
And despite your now traditional position of the offended victim, the nation has forgiven you.
We have forgiven you your insistence that there have been widespread calls for you to end your campaign, when such calls had been few. We have forgiven you your misspeaking about Martin Luther King's relative importance to the Civil Rights movement.
We have forgiven you your misspeaking about your under-fire landing in Bosnia.
We have forgiven you insisting Michigan's vote wouldn't count and then claiming those who would not count it were Un-Democratic.
We have forgiven you pledging to not campaign in Florida and thus disenfranchise voters there, and then claim those who stuck to those rules were as wrong as those who defended slavery or denied women the vote.
We have forgiven you the photos of Osama Bin Laden in an anti-Obama ad...
We have forgiven you fawning over the fairness of Fox News while they were still calling you a murderer.
We have forgiven you accepting Richard Mellon Scaife's endorsement and then laughing as you described his "deathbed conversion."
We have forgiven you quoting the electoral predictions of Boss Karl Rove.
We have forgiven you the 3 a.m. Phone Call commercial.
We have forgiven you President Clinton's disparaging comparison of the Obama candidacy to Jesse Jackson's.
We have forgiven you Geraldine Ferraro's national radio interview suggesting Obama would not still be in the race had he been a white man.
We have forgiven you the dozen changing metrics and the endless self-contradictions of your insistence that your nomination is mathematically probable rather than a statistical impossibility.
We have forgiven you your declaration of some primary states as counting and some as not.
We have forgiven you exploiting Jeremiah Wright in front of the editorial board of the lunatic-fringe Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
We have forgiven you exploiting William Ayers in front of the debate on ABC.
We have forgiven you for boasting of your "support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans"...
We have even forgiven you repeatedly praising Senator McCain at Senator Obama's expense, and your own expense, and the Democratic ticket's expense.
But Senator, we cannot forgive you this.
"You know, my husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."
We cannot forgive you this -- not because it is crass and low and unfeeling and brutal.
This is unforgivable, because this nation's deepest shame, its most enduring horror, its most terrifying legacy, is political assassination.
Martin Luther King.
And, but for the grace of the universe or the luck of the draw, Reagan, Ford, Truman, Nixon, Andrew Jackson, both Roosevelts, even George Wallace.
The politics of this nation is steeped enough in blood, Senator Clinton, you cannot and must not invoke that imagery! Anywhere! At any time!
And to not appreciate, immediately - to still not appreciate tonight - just what you have done... is to reveal an incomprehension of the America you seek to lead.
This, Senator, is too much.
Because a senator - a politician - a person - who can let hang in mid-air the prospect that she might just be sticking around in part, just in case the other guy gets shot - has no business being, and no capacity to be, the President of the United States.
Good night and good luck.
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