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Hillary Clinton Raises the Specter of the Unspeakable

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 24, 2008

Smart candidates don't invoke the possibility of their opponents being killed. This seems so obvious it shouldn't need to be said, but apparently, it needs to be said.

"We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California," Hillary Clinton said yesterday, referencing the fact that past nomination contests have stretched into June to explain why she hasn't heeded calls to exit the Democratic race. She was in an editorial board meeting with a South Dakota newspaper, and she didn't even seem to notice she'd just uttered the unutterable.

The nation's political science students, our future strategists and campaign managers, would do well to pay attention to this moment. There are taboos in presidential politics, and this is one of the biggest. To raise the specter of a rival's assassination, even unintentionally, is to make a truly terrible thing real. It sounds like one might be waiting for a terrible thing to happen, even if one isn't. It sounds almost like wishful thinking.

If there were any doubt about the taboo nature of discussing such a thing, witness the reaction Barack Obama's campaign put out, which carefully avoided any repetition of what Clinton had actually said. To repeat it would be to repeat the possibility of the terrible thing.

"Senator Clinton's statement before the Argus Leader editorial board was unfortunate and has no place in this campaign," spokesman Bill Burton e-mailed. (A reporter checking his BlackBerry after an overlong smoke break would have no inkling of what was so unfortunate.)

Clinton issued a statement apologizing "if" she'd been in "any way offensive," and a spokesman tried to clarify what she meant.

"She was talking about the length of the race and using the '68 election as an example of how long the races in the past have gone," Howard Wolfson said, missing the point. What she meant was: We can wait a little longer to know who the Democratic nominee is. What she said was: assassinated.

In fact, she had used similar, more carefully phrased language back in March, in a Time magazine interview: "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. Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual."

The fear of a president or a presidential candidate being shot or assassinated is horrifying precisely because recent history teaches us that it can happen. We don't need anybody to remind us, and we certainly don't need anybody to remind whatever suggestible wackos might be lurking in the shadows.

In the context of Obama, Clinton's words broke a double taboo, because since the beginning of his candidacy, some of Obama's supporters have feared that his race made him more of a target than other presidential hopefuls. Obama was placed under Secret Service protection early, a full year ago. To be unaware that one's words tap into a monumental fear that exists in a portion of the electorate -- a fear that Obama's race could get him killed -- is an unusual mistake for a serious and highly disciplined presidential candidate.

It's surprising, too, because something very similar just happened last week, when Mike Huckabee made a joke at an NRA convention about somebody aiming a gun at Obama. He later apologized and called his remarks "offensive." He also could have called them "instructive" for any politician paying attention.

If they didn't already know.

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