Defending campaign, Clinton cites RFK assassination

Speaking to a South Dakota newspaper, Hillary Clinton said her campaign was not abnormally long, and offered her husband's and RFK's runs as evidence.

Published May 23, 2008 8:59PM (EDT)

During a meeting with the editorial board of the Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper, on Friday, Hillary Clinton brought up the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy as she attempted to explain why she's still in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right?" Clinton said. "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don't understand it."

Kennedy was assassinated in the early morning hours of June 5, 1968, just after he'd spoken to supporters about his victory in the California presidential primary, which had been held June 4.

Unsurprisingly, this comment has become big news because of the discussion of assassination. The suggestion that Barack Obama might be a target because of his race has been floated before, and he has been the subject of threats -- after his victory in the Iowa caucus, the Secret Service reportedly increased the size of Obama's security detail, making it one that rivals even President Bush's.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton e-mailed reporters with a link to the New York Post's coverage of Clinton's comment. In a statement included in the e-mail, Burton said, "Senator Clinton's statement before the Argus Leader editorial board was unfortunate and has no place in this campaign."

Mo Elleithee, a Clinton spokesman, told the New York Times, "She was simply referencing her husband in 1992 and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 as historical examples of the nominating process going well into the summer. Any reading into it beyond that is outrageous."

Update: Just after this post was published, the Clinton campaign sent reporters a statement from Clinton herself, which reads:

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.

Update 2: At Time's Swampland blog, Karen Tumulty notes that this isn't the first time Clinton has referenced her husband's campaign and RFK's assassination when talking about the length of the campaign. She did it in March, in an interview with Time, as well. As Tumulty observes, "Her excuse now is that the Kennedys have been 'much on my mind these days' with the illness of Senator Edward Kennedy, but that doesn't explain what brought it to mind more than two months ago."

On a personal note, the catch Tumulty made is one of my pet peeves about Clinton. Too often she (or whoever writes her statements) tries to go one extra mile beyond what's necessary just to explain herself, and that extra mile ends up being demonstrably untrue -- or at least giving that impression. She didn't need to excuse her comments by saying she was thinking about Sen. Ted Kennedy's health trouble recently, she could have just said she was trying to make a point about the race for the nomination going into June, and that would have been fine on its own. Instead, she looks like a liar, even if you think her earlier comments were completely innocent. This is what I meant when, in a post I wrote earlier this month about what the Clinton campaign had done wrong, I said they failed to make her seem human. A lot of people already think of her as an insincere person willing to say anything to get elected -- why confirm their suspicions?

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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