By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, May 29, 2008
When Hillary Clinton said, "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California," she was not saying anything she had not publicly declared earlier. Yet those words sparked a political firestorm, raising among Democrats new levels of anti-Clinton sentiment and concern about Barack Obama's viability in the general election.
After Clinton cited the 1968 murder of Robert F. Kennedy as reason for remaining a candidate for the presidential nomination, I contacted many activist Democrats -- both pro-Clinton and pro-Obama. Without exception, they felt Clinton had crossed a line and inflicted a grievous wound on the party that will be difficult to heal.
This recalls Milton's 17th-century tragic poem "Samson Agonistes" -- portraying Samson as a battler. "Eyeless in Gaza" was the poet's reference not only to physical blindness but also to failure to comprehend reality. As "Hillary Agonistes," she threatens to bring down the temple of the country's oldest political party.
Clinton's infamous comments to the editorial board of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader last Friday came when she was asked why she was still competing in the South Dakota primary June 3. In March, when Time magazine asked her whether remaining in the race would hurt the party, she replied: "Primary contests used to last a lot longer. We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A." According to campaign sources, that has been a commonplace observation made in private by Bill Clinton.
Poor taste by the Clintons is matched by their poor knowledge of history. Kennedy's campaign against Hubert Humphrey 40 years ago is not comparable to the Clinton-Obama marathon. When he was killed, Kennedy had been a candidate for only 2 1/2 months and Humphrey for two months. Contrary to the impression given by Sen. Clinton, Kennedy was not a presumptive nominee stopped by an assassin. Humphrey enjoyed a decisive lead in delegates that Kennedy surely would have been unable to erase. As for 1992, Bill Clinton clinched the nomination in April -- not June, as his wife's claim implied.
Her recent performance has led loyal Democrats to talk to me about Clinton in the same terms that Republicans have used for 16 years, branding her as untruthful, deceitful and unscrupulous. This condemnation is not limited to Obama partisans. One seasoned Democratic operative, who voted for Clinton in his home state's primary but was not part of her campaign, said of her comments about Kennedy, "I think it was about as hideous as it gets."
The defection of famous Clinton supporters continues. The New York reformer Sarah Kovner, an ardent Clintonite and close associate of Clinton strategist Harold Ickes, turned up at an Obama rally. Investment banker (and former deputy Treasury secretary) Roger Altman, a charter "FOB" (Friend of Bill), is reported by Democratic sources to be advocating an end to the Clinton campaign despite the former president's vigorous protests.
But not all Clinton supporters have given up. Her labor backers from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers and the International Association of Machinists continue the fight. On Monday, AFSCME President Gerald McIntee elicited booing of Obama at a Clinton rally in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
The noxious atmosphere contributes to counterintuitive results in a national Newsweek-Princeton poll last week. Despite plunging Republican support thanks to an unpopular war and president and a declining economy, the survey showed a tie -- 46 percent to 46 percent -- between Obama and John McCain.
Most startling was that 19 percent of Democrats said they would vote Republican. "Will 60,000 old white women in Ohio vote for McCain and make him president?" asks a prominent Democrat.
Many Democrats, not all of them Obama supporters, feel a need to end the contest for the nomination to reduce that 19 percent slice of apostates. But it won't happen Saturday, when Democratic National Committee members meet to determine whether to seat Michigan and Florida delegates. The Clinton camp this week rejected a contemplated compromise, promising more struggle rather than reconciliation. It looked like Hillary Agonistes, eyeless in Gaza.
© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.