By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday invoked the 1968 assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in explaining her decision to remain in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, comments that drew criticism from aides to Sen. Barack Obama and cooled speculation that the two may form a joint ticket for the general election.
Clinton was asked during a meeting with the editorial board of the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., about continuing to run despite long odds of winning the nomination. She said that while the media and Obama's campaign have urged her to withdraw, "historically, that makes no sense."
"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right?" she continued. "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."
Her advisers quickly explained that Clinton merely intended to note that this was not the first primary campaign to stretch into the summer, not to suggest that Obama might be assassinated. Clinton later apologized to the Kennedy family while speaking to reporters, saying she did not mean to offend anyone.
But in a campaign where Obama's safety has been a subtext and in which critics have blamed Clinton for exacerbating racial tensions, her words added a new element of tension to the Democratic contest. Obama began receiving Secret Service protection about 18 months before the general election because homeland security officials were concerned about potential threats against him.
Obama campaign officials quickly called the comments out of bounds. "Senator Clinton's statement before the Argus Leader editorial board was unfortunate and has no place in this campaign," spokesman Bill Burton said. Clinton's comments came just days after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the only survivor of four brothers, found out he has a malignant brain tumor.
Robert Kennedy's son, Robert Jr., has endorsed Clinton, and in a statement through her campaign, he said: "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 understand how highly charged the atmosphere is, but I think it is a mistake for people to take offense."
The incident served to further undercut rumors that the two campaigns are engaged in private talks about forming a joint ticket. Advisers on both sides said that any such discussions probably would come as part of a longer process after the final primaries, on June 3. Howard Wolfson, a top Clinton strategist, described the reports of talks as "totally false," a sentiment Obama strategist Dan Pfeiffer echoed. "Entirely not true," he said.
A report in Time magazine said that former president Bill Clinton is driving the effort to secure a slot for his wife on the ticket, and Clinton campaign aides said it would not be the first time that he has ventured out on his own.
Hillary Clinton's reference to the shooting of Robert Kennedy on June 6, 1968, after he had just won the California primary, hardened feelings in the Obama campaign once more, following a brief thaw as it appeared that Clinton would seek to unite the party in the final weeks of the campaign. Her allusion came on the heels of two other comments over the past few days that the Obama campaign described as off-putting: her reference to the Michigan and Florida delegations as similar to the fraudulent elections in Zimbabwe, and her comparison of that dispute to the ballot recount in the 2000 presidential election.
The Clinton campaign sent out a full transcript of her conversation with the South Dakota paper, and its executive editor, Randell Beck, also issued a statement saying that "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."
But even her advisers did not try to defend the reference, and by 5 p.m. she had apologized.
"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," Clinton said.
"That's a historic fact. The Kennedys have been much on my mind the last days because of Senator [Edward] 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 [Robert] Kennedy's seat in the United States Senate from the state of New York and have the highest regard for the entire Kennedy family."