Defeat amnesia: More on Hillary Clinton comments in 2008

More on Hillary Clinton in 2008–

The previous blog (Friday, April 15) was a reminder of Senator Hillary Clinton’s 2008 comments on assassination. Specifically, she instanced as the reason for her staying in the 2008 race the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968. As a parallel to the effect of that tragic event on the 1968 race, she said that her husband had won his race in 1992 in June.

Below is some of the discussion–just some of it–stemming from Clinton’s repeated remark. The commentary quoted below, while trenchant,  is only the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, as I wrote previously, Clinton had actually made the same reference several times before on the campaign trail. It was her using the explicit word “assassination” in a conversation with a newspaper’s editorial board that had such impact in May, 2008.

There are a few concerns here. One is the series of shifting and implausible explanations Clinton gave for her remarks; see below. Another is her not apologizing to the other candidates–Senators Barack Obama and John McCain–who had a vested interest in the remarks. (She rushed to apologize to the Kennedys.) There is a strong concern about a presidential candidate’s referring to assassination in a heated race; see below. And last, there is the strong possibility that many newer voters this year have never been informed about the character Clinton displayed as candidate in 2008.

From transcripts

May 23, 2008: Fox News Network: FOX SPECIAL REPORT WITH BRIT HUME 6:00 p.m. EST:


SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) NEW YORK: 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.”

Clinton then apologized–to the Kennedy family–for her remarks:

“I was referencing those to make the point that we have had nominations, primary contests that go into June. That’s historic fact, and I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation, and particularly for the Kennedy family, was in any way offensive. I certainly had no intention of that whatsoever.


“BAIER: The first video there was Hillary Clinton talking to a South Dakota newspaper editorial board, where, as you heard, she mentioned the assassination in 1968.

The second video, an apology late this afternoon, scrambling before cameras, after the Barack Obama campaign put out this quote:

“Senator Clinton’s statement before the editorial board was unfortunate and has no place in this campaign,” Bill Burton, campaign spokesman.”

I am not always a fan of the political coverage on Fox. But this was one occasion when Fox News commentators got it right:

“KRAUTHAMMER: It was an amazing gaffe. She has spoken in the past about how about in ’68 and ’92 the campaigns have gone on long into June, but she had never uttered the word “assassination.” And the reason is that you don’t in presidential campaigns.

We all worry about it, and we worry about it in particular when you have the first African-American candidate who can be the president.

And that’s not a paranoid fascinating. You remember that Colin Powell was on a wave of support in 1996, and thinking of running. According to Bob Woodward, his wife Alma had said that he could not run, and, in fact, Woodward writes that she had said she would leave him if he ran for one reason–she thought he would be assassinated.

We have a history of that in our country. It was obviously on the Powells’ mind, and it is in the back of people’s minds today. And you worry about it. Whenever you see a presidential candidate wade into a crowd, everybody worries about it.

But for her to say the word is astonishing. I have to attribute it to fatigue, exhaustion, because raising it in this context is really toxic. She had to come out and apologize immediately. But I think it resonates.

BAIER: There are people out there, obviously, Nina, who will say she has said this line a million times. Today she used the assassination. Why?”

Note the point made by Bret Baier in passing–that Clinton had made the same reference often before. (This time, she made it unavoidably explicit.) The suggestion is borne out in further commentary:

“NINA EASTON, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, “FORTUNE MAGAZINE”: There are some people who are speculating that she did this purposely, which is, I think, insane, because it was so politically stupid, why would she do that?

I think probably what it was was a bit of a curtain raiser for us on her private conversations, as in things could happen. This is why she’ll stay in this race and why her husband Bill is encouraging her to stay in the race, because things could happen.

But I agree with Charles, the idea of mentioning the word “assassination.” We know that Barack Obama has been subject to threats. He has been under secret service protection for more than a year now because of that.

It’s a troubling kind of link to make, and it probably doesn’t help her standing with the Obama campaign.”

On May 23, 2008, from a different place on the political spectrum, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann hosted similar perspectives:

“KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST (voice over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

At Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for the first time, Senator Hillary Clinton actually invokes the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 as a reason for her not to drop out of the race with Senator Obama.


SEN. HILLARY CLINTON,  (D-NY) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 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.


OLBERMANN: Why in the name of all that all of us hold dear, would anybody ever say anything like this? Can she in good conscious continue in the race for president after having said anything like this? Is her political career at an end?

An official statement from Senator Clinton`s campaign: “She was simply referencing her husband in 1992 and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 as historic examples of the nominating contest going well into the summer. Any, any reading into it beyond that is inaccurate.”

Howard Fineman on the extraordinary statement and its ramifications for Senator Clinton and her presidential bid. Jonathan Alter on why — even if it were appropriate – she would say it, since it`s not like the sudden retirement or incapacity of a candidate, would mean the Democrats would simply not run anybody.

And a Special Comment: This time Senator Clinton, you have gone too far.”

Olbermann makes a good point on the lack of internal logic in Clinton’s comment: hypothetically anything could happen, but the hypothetical event would not necessarily change everything. The historical event in 2008 was that no presidential candidate before had done what Clinton did.

“OLBERMANN: Obviously, the operative word here is assassination. She used it at least once before, as a historical marker to time two months ago, but all the references since to, even timing — to even Robert Kennedy`s death had avoided that word. That word is a third rail word in American politics, is it not?

FINEMAN: It sure is. And it shocked her today and shocked the world of the campaign. I`ve been on the phone and blackberrying (ph) with leaders on both camps and elsewhere. And you saw Hillary Clinton in that supermarket there looking kind of dazed herself. I think she realized that she had done something here that`s going to be very hard to repair.

Even though David Axelrod, the leader of the Obama campaign told me in similar words, he said, “Look, I assume she didn`t mean anything here. You know, it`s too dark a thought to think otherwise.”

As pointed out in Friday’s post, Clinton’s examples (1968 and 1992) were not good examples in the first place. If Hillary Clinton was going to defend long primary seasons, she had better examples:

“She could have cited 1984 or 1988, Mike Dukakis, she could have even talk about Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford battling it out to the floor of the convention in Kansas City in 1976. And she`s got something on her mind there that, I think, has troubled a lot of people somehow.”

Olbermann was among commentators (and others) who noticed that Clinton addressed her apology of sorts to the Kennedys, not to Obama or to the public:

“OLBERMANN: She also apologized for it when she did, an apology might be too strong a term. She expressed her regrets, specifically to the Kennedy family, but not to Senator Obama,  not to Senator McCain, who was another candidate in this race while this term is out there. Does that not seem to have left even the regret`s part of the job sort of half done?

FINEMAN: Well, it was a double pass there, Keith. She not only didn`t actually apologize to the Kennedy family, she said, “If somebody is upset about it, then I`m sorry.” And, of course, she completely avoided the main subject here, which is the notion that she somehow even inadvertently or somehow subconsciously in some weird way, was bringing up the possibility that there might be some cataclysmic change – you know, event in the campaign here like that.

So, she didn`t – she seems constitutionally incapable of just saying — I screwed up. And her sort of lead footedness about this here is being observed by all the people who are still undecided about whom to back.”

Clinton in 2008

Again, aside from the graver issues, there is that off-the-mark choice of 1968 and 1992 in the first place. The horse race was different then:

“OLBERMANN: Yes. Howard made a great point. The other practical political issue in this, the invoking of the assassination of RFK in June as a landmark, as a fixed time in the process, or even her husband clinching in June of 1992 — it`s apples and oranges historically, isn`t it? Because in `92, the Iowa caucuses were on the 10th of February; in 1968, New Hampshire was March 12th. June then is not June now.

ALTER: Right. The other thing that`s really important to understand is the first part of her answer where she referred to her husband, that somehow, like he didn`t clinch the nomination until June of 1992 is preposterous. He had had the nomination wrapped up for weeks by that point. Now, because California didn`t vote until June, as a technical matter, he wasn`t over the top, but the race was long since over.”

RFK in 1968

Olbermann’s special comment was forceful. Here, in part:

“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 man 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?”

Moving back rightward on the spectrum, on May 25, 2008, Fox News’ Chris Wallace addressed Clinton’s comments. Wallace interviewed Terry McAuliffe, chair of the Clinton campaign, who of course denied that there was anything dark in Clinton’s line of thought. Here in part:

“MR. WALLACE: I want to ask you a couple of questions, then I’m going to get off this.

When Governor Huckabee made a bad joke at the NRA about someone pointing a gun at Obama, he immediately apologized and he personally called Obama to say he was sorry. Has Senator Clinton personally called Obama?

MCAULIFFE: No, and nor should she. Let’s be very clear. I will say this again.

This has nothing to do with Senator Obama. This was all about Hillary Clinton, her campaign, Chris, and her timeline.

WALLACE: But given the fact that people have been so offended, wouldn’t it make sense for her simply to call and say, hey, listen, if this caused you any heartburn, I’m sorry?

MCAULIFFE: Chris, I don’t why you’re saying everyone’s offended. The press corps, it’s a quiet weekend, everybody got overhyped, they had a big weekend talking about it.

But you know what I’ve got to tell you? Chris, out in Puerto Rico and South Dakota where I just was last week, and Montana, this is not what they’re talking about. They’re talking about $4-a-gallon gas. They’re not going away for Memorial Day weekend. They’re talking about having —

WALLACE: I’ll tell you somebody who was offended. Charlie Rangel — one of your big supporters, one of the people who helped get Hillary Clinton into politics running for the Senate from New York — said it was one of the dumbest remarks he’d ever heard. So there are a lot of people who were offended.”

Wallace, often well prepared for interviews, can actually produce follow-up questions. In this case, he pointed to an obvious inconsistency in Clinton’s saying that she mentioned Robert Kennedy because she was thinking of Ted Kennedy (whose brain cancer had just been announced). Chronology is key:

“MR. WALLACE: Last question. Senator Clinton explained her reference to the Kennedy assassination by saying that the family is on her mind because of Ted Kennedy’s recent illness.

But as you point out, more than two months ago, here’s what she told Time Magazine: Primary contests used to last a lot longer. We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A.

So it’s not true that she started thinking about this and it was on her mind because of Ted Kennedy’s illness.”

McAuliffe gamely, if less than coherently, did his best to shore up Clinton’s explanation:

“MCAULIFFE: Maybe, obviously, in this context. She has had thousands of interviews since she talked in March to Time Magazine. Thousands and thousands. Maybe on this one editorial board she was [back ?] because she was thinking about Senator Kennedy and the brain cancer and all of that issue.”

On May 27, 2008, MSNBC’s Hardball, addressed the topic.

“Let`s take a look right now at what Senator Clinton said.


SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 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.


MATTHEWS: You know, Senator Clinton has said in her defense, which is quite right, to make a defense in this case, she said that her comments were taken out of context. I would suggest that she didn`t say them in context. They came out to the public in the context of the following, unintended or not — the Ted Kennedy health problem right now, which everybody cares about, the fact that everyone cares about the safety of Barack Obama and worries about it, the fact that some of us fell a sort of deja vu about 1968 all the time, just in general, atmospheric times (ph), not about an assassination, the sense that Barack Obama is staying in the race for some outside event — not Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton — for some outside event, obviously not this tragedy, but something like another Jeremiah Wright story. There`s a lot of context. And then the horrendous joke by Huckabee last week where he talked about — week before last — where he talked about a noise at an NRA convention, he thinking — let`s say, comically, that it must have been Barack Obama falling off his chair because he saw somebody with a gun, as if that could ever be funny.

After quoting Clinton’s explanation and apology to the Kennedy family, Matthews continued,

“Roger, Jim Clyburn jumped on this. Of course, he said it was beyond the pale. His office put out that statement. The AP story went out that night, the Associated Press, Senator Hillary Clinton referred Friday to the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 — in the 1968 campaign as a reason she should continue to campaign despite increasingly long odds.”

It wasn`t the Barack Obama campaign that went after her, it was the people trying to figure out what she was talking about.”

Regardless of political affiliation, on-air discussion of the Clinton comments mainly stayed appropriate and thoughtful. On Hardball:

“ROGER SIMON, POLITICO.COM: The first rule about talking about political assassination is you never talk about political assassination. I mean, I accept her at her word that she didn`t mean to say any of this, but you just don`t go there. We all have lived in times when a president, or most of us, has been assassinated, when a senator has been assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. There were what, two attempts on the lifes of — on the life of Gerald Ford. It was no — and it was widely reported that Colin Powell did not run for the presidency because his wife was so worried about his physical safety.

We all know why Barack Obama has Secret Service and the other candidates don`t. Hillary Clinton has it because she`s a first lady, former first lady. You don`t go there. Especially if you`re searching for a reason to stay in the race, you don`t want anyone to think it`s because you think something terrible will happen to your chief opponent.

MATTHEWS: Chrystia Freeland, your sense of this story. Does it have a scar (ph) factor here?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, “FINANCIAL TIMES”: Yes, I think it does. I mean, I think that Roger is right that Hillary Clinton certainly misspoke. But in misspeaking, she broke an unwritten and really important political rule. I think the reason it had so much resonance is it`s really logical to believe that a big reason why Hillary Clinton is staying in the race is she is waiting for some unknown event to befall Barack Obama,  surely not a tragic one, more like a Reverend Wright turbocharged type event.

But I think that`s. . .


If it might be argued that the Hillary Clinton of 2016 differs from that of 2008, it is far more apparent that the Chris Matthews of 2016 is different from the Matthews of 2008. Would that we had that earlier Matthews back. He’s starting to look better, in hindsight.

Referencing the horse race

Clinton’s using 1968 as example was the more problematic in being factually wrong on its own terms. The Democratic primary race in 1968 did not go on for very long:

“MATTHEWS: I`d like to go back to the real veracity of what she said because she said that her campaign`s running into June. And I`m often reminded of being on the boardwalk in Cape May one time, watching a Stanley Cup playoff in the summertime, because sometimes, these things do go too long, including sports playoffs.

But the only reason I would have the problem with it right up front is the fact of it. Bobby Kennedy didn`t begin his campaign in 1968 — I`m reading this wonderful book (INAUDIBLE) plug this book, “The Last Campaign” by Thurston Clark [ph]. It`s a heck of a book. You know, it`s a really good book. But it points out again it was a very short campaign. It began in March of `68. And of course, he was assassinated in June.

Bill Clinton`s race was over by March of `92.


MATTHEWS: Why is she claiming these as examples or precedents for staying all the way through June, if she needs them? Why does she need a precedent?

TODD: I don`t know . . .

MATTHEWS: Nobody`s telling her to leave the race. Next week is the end of the primaries. What`s the rush?”

Matthews is basically right: there was no onslaught of advice to Clinton to drop out of the race anyway. She had no need to harp on “June.” Commentator Chuck Todd also noted the oddity of the choice:

“TODD: Well, she`s using the wrong — I mean, if she would use `84, `76 with Reagan…


TODD: … or `84 with Gary Hart and Mondale, those would be much more factually correct, where the June primaries actually meant something. But I actually think what we`re seeing here is she made a mistake. You know, this idea that somehow she`s staying in the race because something could happen as far as Senator Obama,  when it comes to maybe a scandal or something like that . . .”

June 1976. June 1984. Not June 1968. I remember the 2008 election; you didn’t have to be a Republican to wonder whether Clinton’s wish was father to her thought. The suggestion was logically inescapable.

And as said, it was all over the air waves–this in a year when the major media outlets were overwhelmingly predisposed to treat Clinton as the favorite, from day one.

Last up, on May 27, 2008, NPR’s All Things Considered:


The holiday weekend has afforded time to reflect on Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s apparent inability to understand why so many Americans are upset by her mention of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Senator Clinton has shown evidence of a tin ear before, but her allusions to a past assassination for whatever reason displayed a deeper disconnect with an American trauma. Her assertion that her husband did not sew up the nomination in 1992 until mid-June, that’s factually wrong. Governor Bill Clinton was generally recognized as the Democratic front-runner from the time that Paul Tsongas withdrew in March, and he said so in his own memoir.

But more troubling was Senator Clinton’s reference to the assassination of Senator Kennedy 40 years ago on June 5th. These are thoughts better not articulated lest they have an effect on some disordered mind. From Lincoln to the Kennedys, we know the unhappy possibilities. We live with the sorrowful awareness that a talented soldier statesman, Colin Powell, agonized about running for president and finally decided against it when his wife, in tears, implored him not to expose himself as a target on the campaign trail. We live with memories that resulted in Senator Obama’s receiving Secret Service protection earlier than any other presidential candidate in history.

In a Washington Post-ABC poll last March, almost six of 10 Americans worried that someone might try to harm Senator Obama. Among African-Americans, the figure was eight of 10. We do not need to be reminded that one of our leaders can suddenly be struck down. Senator Clinton may have thought she was just helping her waning candidacy, but I imagine that she’s reduced her chances of being designated for vice president, only a heartbeat away from the presidency.

This is Daniel Schorr.”

Schorr’s grave and thoughtful commentary underscores the grim resonances of a slip like Clinton’s, in such a context.

Hillary Clinton not only repeatedly used the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy as a talking point on the viability of her campaign in 2008. She basically imagined or created the context. Contrary to what Clinton was saying about her husband’s 1992 race, Bill Clinton had wrapped up the race in March, not “June.”



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