As I watched the non-stop weekend coverage of Hillary Clinton's recent comments referencing the RFK assassination I couldn't help being reminded of the O.J. Simpson verdict. Just as those notorious split screens on every single television network in 1995 argued that there were two vantage points in America: one through which Black Americans viewed American justice and one through which White Americans did, Assassination-gate appeared to unveil two different vantage points as well. Only these were not split strictly along racial lines. Instead they were split between those who have come to expect the very worst from the Clinton campaign and those who are still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
As numerous commentators noted, one feels compelled to believe that Senator Clinton was merely referencing a timeline with her remarks, because believing the alternative would be so horrific that it is almost unthinkable. But yet there are plenty of people who do think it. No not that the Senator actually goes to bed each night praying that something horrible happens to Obama (at least not to his health) but that she may actually go to bed each night thinking what every single one of us has on occasion: "If only 'she' wasn't standing in my way, he'd be taking me to prom instead" or "If only 'he' wasn't standing in my way I'd be valedictorian."
But as Sen. Clinton learned the hard way it's a very fine line between coming across as the humorously persistent Tracy Flick from the film Election and the terrifyingly obsessed Glenn Close from "Fatal Attraction." A few months ago there was enough goodwill left that more people would have been likely to assume the former. But thanks to a few questionable missteps and misstatements on the campaign trail (including the infamous "hard-working white Americans" comment), to quote my marketing professor: "the brand simply doesn't have enough goodwill left in the bank to make an emergency withdrawal."
Which brings me back to O.J.
As uncomfortable as it is to admit, race does play a role, albeit a much more subtle one, in how these remarks were heard and interpreted. I had some white friends -- who do not consider themselves Clinton cheerleaders -- who simply heard "another stupid Clinton comment" but not much beyond that. Then I had a black friend who has been a Clinton loyalist who described the comments as "heartbreaking."
The reality is if Barack Obama were not a black candidate, it is possible that the comments might not have sparked such a firestorm, but he is a black candidate -- the most high profile in our nation's history and as such the increased threat to his safety is a very real reality Americans must contend with. Though not a subject discussed at length, it is public knowledge that Obama was granted secret service protection earlier than any presidential candidate in our nation's history. And though we don't like to dwell on some of the ugly truths of our country's past, there is good reason to worry. We all know the horrible fates that befell Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but largely forgotten are the dangers faced by lesser-known African-Americans in leadership positions.
Vernon Jordan, best known for being one of former president Clinton's closest confidantes, was the victim of a shooting at the hands of a racist spree killer who targeted minorities, while he served as head of the National Urban League. He survived. Al Sharpton, self-proclaimed activist and former presidential candidate was the victim of a stabbing that was believed to be racially motivated as well. He survived.
With all due respect to Sharpton and Jordan, their power and national profiles, while arguably significant, are not on par with that of a president. This means if their lives have been in danger, being overly sensitive to the potential dangers facing Barack Obama does not make one overly sensitive at all. It makes one a realist, and this more than anything is what prompted the highly charged reaction to Clinton's comments. She also probably wasn't helped by the timing of her remarks, which came on the heels of an equally ill-advised "joke" by former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee about Obama ducking from gunfire. Not to mention a cover published by the Roswell Beacon depicting Obama as a sniper target that sparked such outrage that the paper ultimately removed it from its site.
I wish I could say that everyone overreacted to Sen. Clinton's remarks. I wish I could say that we live in a world in which it was silly to hear her comments and immediately assume the worst. But the fact that just last night I sat on a television panel with a pundit so ill-informed about the realities of our nation's history that he actually alleged that Obama's security detail is possibly "just for show," tells me otherwise. The motives behind Senator Clinton's comments may not have been ugly. But they force us to consider some ugly possibilities about our country. That is why they struck such a chord.
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more