Analysis: Clinton's latest off-key remark

May 24, 2008 8:23:20 PM PDT
Long hours, hard work and scant hope of succeeding may be the cause of Hillary Rodham Clinton's latest case of political tone-deafness.

For all her talents, the former first lady does not seem to be able to match her husband's track record of near-perfect political pitch, as many have observed. She has sounded more than one jarring note during her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Whatever the cause, Clinton's reference Friday to the June 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy as she attempted to explain her reasons for remaining in the race struck some who heard it as a veiled reference to rival Barack Obama.

Plenty of voters, black and white, worry that Obama faces extra risks to his safety as the first black candidate to have a realistic possibility of being elected president. Even the vaguest suggestion that threats to Obama's safety are a reason for Clinton to continue her candidacy against overwhelming odds was bound to rile the New York senator's critics.

Certainly that's the way Obama's campaign initially appeared to interpret her remark to a South Dakota newspaper, the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.

"Senator Clinton's statement before the Argus Leader editorial board was unfortunate and has no place in this campaign," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement Friday.

On Saturday while campaigning in Puerto Rico, Obama seemed inclined to excuse Clinton's remark as a simple misstep.

"I have learned that when you are campaigning for as many months as Senator Clinton and I have been campaigning, sometimes you get careless in terms of the statements that you make and I think that is what happened here. Senator Clinton says that she did not intend any offense by it and I will take her at her word on that," Obama told Radio Isla Puerto Rico.

Except for Clinton, Obama was the first presidential candidate to receive Secret Service protection in the 2008 race. That happened in May 2007, which was the earliest such security measures ever been taken for a candidate. Clinton has had continued Secret Service protection since she left the White House.

In her interview with the newspaper, Clinton mentioned the assassination when asked why some were calling for her to end her campaign in the face of ever-dwindling odds.

The woman who holds the New York Senate seat once held by Kennedy said she didn't understand why, given the history of primaries, some Democrats were calling for her to quit.

"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, I don't understand it."

In fury unleashed by her remark, Clinton said she regretted any offense she might have caused.

She got an important vote of support from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who said he had heard her make similar statements in the past.

"I understand how highly charged the atmosphere is, but I think it is a mistake for people to take offense," said Kennedy, who had previously endorsed Clinton for president.

His father, the front-runner for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, had just delivered a victory speech in the California primary when he was gunned down while making his way out of a Los Angeles hotel. Many members of Clinton's generation can still remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of his slaying.

"I'm outraged to think we could be cavalier or unthinking in even bringing this up," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a New York-based civil rights activist and former presidential candidate.

Sharpton said he spoke to Clinton Saturday morning and was convinced that she meant no harm by the comment. But, he added, "We have not gotten to the point where we can talk about these assassinations like they don't mean anything today."

Sharpton noted that former Republican candidate Mike Huckabee had joked recently about someone aiming a gun at Obama. Sharpton said bringing up that issue, even in passing, might indirectly encourage some deranged person considering violence.

Yet the assassination reference wasn't Clinton's only mistake. In the same breath, she maintained that her husband had not wrapped up the nomination until June. In truth, he did so in March with the Illinois primary. While California made his victory a mathematical fact, the outcome had not been in doubt for months.

She also struck discordant notes in January when she said Martin Luther King's dream of racial equality was realized only when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and after her victory in the West Virginia primary earlier this month when she noted she was beating Obama among "working, hardworking Americans, white Americans."

In the current tempest over what Clinton said ? and what she meant ? the calendar may be the real culprit. She made a similar remark about the 1968 Kennedy assassination in March that received little notice then, probably because there were still plenty of state contests left and more uncertainty as to who would come out ahead.

Now, the longer the nomination race goes on, the more people are asking Clinton why she continues to campaign.

She insists she can win, but the mathematical explanations for how that can happen grow more fanciful by the week.

And without any clear explanation of how she can win, mentioning the Robert Kennedy assassination to some ears sounds like the last, desperate scenario of someone unwilling to admit defeat.