POLITICS

Hillary Clinton's Assassination Gaffe: Bad Idea In January, Worse Idea Now

06/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is there a better time to drop a gigantic campaign gaffe than on a Friday before the first holiday weekend of summer? No — but if it's really big, it won't matter. Such was the case with Hillary Clinton's bewildering statement Friday to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader expressing confusion at calls for her to leave the race, since primary fights had stretched into June before:

"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. I don't understand it."

The statement invoking Kennedy's assassination touched a nerve when it was picked up by the New York Post and then blared across the Drudge Report, understood to invoke the spectre of another potential assassination in this campaign. Considering that fears for the safety of Barack Obama have been circulating among black supporters for some time, and that threats have reportedly been received, the statement was widely held to have been a reference to him, conscious or unconscious on Clinton's part.

As political sites started buzzing and cablers went nuts, the Clinton campaign issued a statement from the one person who ought to have been able to quell the furor: Robert Kennedy Jr..

"It is clear from the context that Hillary was invoking a familiar political circumstance in order to support her decision to stay in the race through June. I have heard her make this reference before, also citing her husband's 1992 race, both of which were hard fought through June. I understand how highly charged the atmosphere is, but I think it is a mistake for people to take offense."

You know the rest: It did not quell the furor, nor did a statement by Obama supporter Dick Durbin asserting confidence that "the last thing in the world she'd ever want is to wish misfortune on anybody....[it was] a careless remark, and we'll leave it at that." The tabloids plastered it across their front pages (NY Post: "She Said What?";The NYDaily News: "Hil's Killer Gaffe"; Newsday: "What The Hill?"). Keith Olbermann dedicated yet another agitated Special Comment to the matter. There was outrage, scorn, mockery, and even pity. Oh, and she also got the facts wrong re: her husband. It was another very bad day in the Clinton campaign.

So: Is all the furor worth it? Answer: Yes. On a number of points. First and foremost, it was a boneheaded thing to day — at any time, but particularly now. Even the people who assume she is pushing some sort of secret wish-fulfillment agenda are scratching their heads as to why she'd actually say it that way. Especially after a long campaign of having her gaffes hyper-amplified at every turn (remember 60 Minutes?) She definitely wasn't going to squeak this one by. But also, she already had her chance to make a bizarro assassination-as-part-of-the-process comment back when she pointed out that JFK hadn't passed civil rights legislation, LBJ had. The same reaction bubbled up then, but more muted (it was early, it was the first time) — between now and then we've had the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's death, and, more recently, the sad news about Ted Kennedy's health reopening this national sadness. All which underscores the fact that it was an absolutely moronic thing to say — and if it was calculated, then it was even worse.

By now many outlets are pointing out that Clinton has made similar comments before — to Time managing editor Rick Stengel on March 6th (almost to the word), as well as her JFK/LBJ comment back in January. The lack of response may have lulled her into thinking the analogy would fly; alas, all it takes for something like this to flare into a major issue is for someone to notice. When someone finally does, watch out — even on a holiday weekend.

NB: For a great summation of how the remark took hold and why, exactly, the New York Post broke the story far away from the traveling campaign press gaggle in Sioux Falls, see the WSJ's 'Washington Wire' here: "The fact that it did become big news is illustrative of journalistic competition in the Internet age. The entire pack of reporters sent to watch Clinton's every move had somehow gotten beat, and forced into following a New York Post reporter who was nowhere near the campaign, but who, apparently, had a much-better Internet connection."

Last January:
Clinton's Civil Rights Lesson
[The Caucus]

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