Thursday, August 7, 2008

All the perfumes of Arabia


On Thursday, March 6, 2008, Time magazine published an interview with Hillary Clinton entitled “One Day at a Time” which contained the following question and answer:

Time: Can you envision a point at which — if the race stays this close — and with the difficulties that everyone has analyzed in accumulating enough delegates to get any distance ahead where party elders would step in and say "Senators Clinton and Obama, this is now hurting the party and whoever will be the nominee in the fall. We need to figure this out."

Clinton: No I really can't. I think people have short memories. 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.

Time: Could you envision it going all the way to the actual convention itself?

Clinton: I think we should take it one day at a time. I find that usually is a better policy in life and in politics.

There was no reaction whatsoever to Clinton’s statement in March.


On Friday, May 23, 2008, Hillary Clinton met with the editorial Board of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Although none of the reporters traveling with Clinton were in that meeting, the meeting was streamed online. In the course of that twenty-minute meeting, Clinton said:

HRC: People have been trying to push me out of this ever since Iowa.

Q: Why?

HRC: I don't know. I don't know. I find it curious. Because it is unprecedented in history. I don't understand it. Between my opponent and his camp and some in the media there has been this urgency to end this. And historically, that makes no sense. So I find it a bit of a mystery.

Q: So you don't buy the party unity argument?

HRC: I don't because again I've been around long enough.

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. There's lots of speculation about why it is.

Q: What is your speculation?

I don't know. I find it curious. And I don't want to attribute motives or strategies to people because I don't really know, but it's a historical curiosity to me.

Most reporters who saw the video of the meeting did not find anything noteworthy about this clip. For example, according to Politico, “The Associated Press, in what looked at first blush like a classic example of what reporters call 'burying the lead,' had no mention of Clinton’s RFK remarks in its original dispatch on the interview.” The New York Post however seized upon her comments and promptly wrote a story that began, “Hillary Clinton today brought up the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy while defending her decision to stay in the race against Barack Obama.” The story twice mentioned Obama receiving threats and reported he had received Secret Service protection early in the campaign. It also reported the Obama campaign’s reaction:

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

The original version of the Post’s story said that Clinton was “making an odd comparison between the dead candidate and Barack Obama.” That version probably precipitated the Obama reaction but as Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s spokesman, pointed out (emphasis mine):

The Obama campaign did put out a statement almost immediately condemning the remarks. It was unfortunate and unnecessary, and in my opinion, inflammatory, for the Obama campaign to attack Senator Clinton on Friday for these remarks, without obviously knowing the full facts or context.

According to The Daily Howler, the Obama camp then spread the Post’s story to the press corps. According to Washington Wire, the story spread when it was picked up by the Drudge Report. The Politico story is not clear on this point but their chronology attributes the “no place in this campaign” quote to Bill Burton and goes on to say, “Soon enough, several websites and cable news outlets were giving the story trumpet-blaring treatment.” Considering what the Obama campaign would do on Saturday, I’m inclined to believe The Daily Howler’s version.

However the story spread, a firestorm began. As Clinton began making a speech at her next stop the reporters traveling with her began hearing about the Post’s story and the Obama campaign’s response. They asked for a clarification. According to Washington Wire:

... [T]he [Clinton] spokesman explained that Clinton had merely been trying to emphasize the point that Democratic primary fights had stretched into June in the past.

Later Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee offered an official statement, saying “any reading into it beyond that is inaccurate.” After a few more minutes he came back, suggesting that his quote should be amended to add “and outrageous.”

After finishing her appearance, Clinton herself returned to offer her own brief apology for the remarks.

Clinton aides pointed to the fact that she had made previous references to both her husband’s 1992 campaign and Kennedy’s 1968 campaign before to stress that these primary fights have pushed into June in the past. The Associated Press cited [the] March interview with Time magazine...

The Clinton apology referred to by Washington Wire was:

Earlier today I was discussing the Democratic primary history and in the course of that discussion mentioned the campaigns that both my husband and Senator Kennedy waged in California in June 1992 and 1968 and 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 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. 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 from the state of New York and have the highest regard for the entire Kennedy family.

Randell Beck, Executive Editor of the Argus Leader also issued a statement on Friday:

The context of the question and answer with Sen. Clinton was whether her continued candidacy jeopardized party unity this close to the Democratic convention. Her reference to Mr. Kennedy's assassination appeared to focus on the timeline of his primary candidacy and not the assassination itself.

Also on Friday, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., issued the following statement:

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.

Despite Clinton’s explanation and the statements by Beck and Kennedy, the story grew and grew. If you want to see the range of coverage simply enter:

clinton kennedy assassination

into any search engine.

In a sort of grand culmination of all the outrage, Keith Olbermann devoted his Special Comment
Friday night to Clinton’s remarks. I find his comments contemptible but you can read - or watch - and judge for yourself. I’ll simply point out two facts. First, Olbermann presented a very truncated version of Clinton’s remarks thus making it more difficult for his viewers to judge for themselves what Clinton actually meant - and said. Second, The Daily Howler points out that despite Olbermann’s insistence that Clinton must not say the word “assassination” and must not invoke that sort of image, Olbermann himself - on March 3 and March 7, 2008 - managed to mention Clinton’s assassination quite casually.

Friday finally ended. There were two sequels on Saturday, May 24. It’s not entirely clear in what order they occurred but as far as I can tell, they happened like this:

Saturday morning the Obama campaign circulated Olbermann’s Special Comment via email to the political press corps.

Later on Saturday, after all possible damage had been done, Obama washed his hands of the matter with this statement:

”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," Obama said in a radio interview today.

“Senator Clinton says that she did not intend any offense by it and I will take her at her word on that.”


The Obama campaign’s distribution of Olbermann’s Special Comment went largely unremarked. To his eternal credit, George Stephanopoulos did raise this issue with David Axelrod on the May 25 edition ofThis Week:

Stephanopoulos: The Clinton campaign clearly thinks that the Obama campaign are part of that group that is deliberately misinterpreting her statements. And in fact, your campaign's original statement on Friday afternoon said that Senator Clinton made an unfortunate statement that has no place in this campaign. Do you think it would have been better to give her the benefit of the doubt?

Axelrod: Well, in fact, she—a few minutes after we issued that statement seemed to say she herself felt it was unfortunate and was misinterpreted. We accepted that, as Senator Obama said yesterday. She said, you know, that's not what she meant, and we take her at her word and, you know, it's—we're beyond that issue now, so certainly we're not trying to stir the issue up.

Stephanopoulos: Senator Obama did say that we should move on. You say you're not trying to stir the issue up. But a member of your press staff yesterday was sending around to an entire press list, I have the e-mail here. Keith Olbermann's searing commentary against Hillary Clinton. So that is stirring this up, isn't it?

Axelrod: Well, Mr Olbermann did his commentary and he had his opinion. But as far as we're concerned—

Stephanopoulos: But your campaign was sending it around.

Axelrod: As far as we're concerned, George, as far as we're concerned, this issue is done. It was an unfortunate statement, as we said. As she's acknowledged. She has apologized. The apology, you know, is accepted. Let's move forward.

Stephanopoulos: So your campaign won't be sending around any more commentaries like that?

Axelrod: As I said, as far as we're concerned this is—this issue is done. There's so many important things going on in this country right now, George, that people are interested in that we're not going to spend days dwelling on this.

Stephanopoulos’ questioning of Axelrod also received very little attention. One source that did mention it was myDD which also provided the best summary of this episode:

Typical Chicago smear politics. Change and Hope, my ass.


Related links:

Thursday, April 24, 2008: Anglachel's Journal writes Olbermann Calls for Clinton's Murder

Did Hillary Clinton kill Benazir Bhutto? - From Anderson Cooper 360 Blog in December 2007. This is not directly related but references to Axelrod’s odd logic popped up on some blogs discussing Clinton’s RFK/June comments and it seems so terribly bizarre it’s worth mentioning.

The U.S. Election Season: Security Challenges and Conventional Wisdom - One of the aspects of the outrage over Clinton’s remarks that I find most odd was the insistence that Clinton was particularly horrible because Obama was particularly at risk for assassination. I thought at the time that Clinton as a woman was at least as at risk as Obama as an African-American. This piece from Stratfor presents some interesting - and surprising - thoughts along those lines.

The Daily Howler did a four-part, four-day series on Clinton’s RFK/June remarks and how the media handled (that is, “willfully misinterpreted”) them. I’ve referenced one of these posts previously but it’s worth reading through all of them in order:

May 27

May 28

May 29

May 30

The Daily Howler also addresses Clinton’s remarks in later posts in which he points out that some journalists are now acknowledging - as if it was a matter of no moment - that the media lied about the meaning of Clinton’s RFK/June remarks:

June 1

June 9

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