A new low in Clinton bashing

Can anyone truly believe her remark about Robert Kennedy's assassination was anything other than an unfortunate reference to another June primary battle?

Published May 27, 2008 8:49PM (EDT)

The world is divided between people who consider Bill and Hillary Clinton monsters, and people who don't. It used to be that the monster faction was limited to Republicans and certain mainstream media fixtures like Maureen Dowd and much of the MSNBC lineup. Now, increasingly, it involves too many Obama-supporting Democrats -- and the Clinton-hate is in danger of damaging the Democratic Party.

I took the weekend off, really and truly off, because my daughter graduated from high school Saturday (yay!) and events got under way Thursday night. I did check e-mail briefly on Friday, and I learned then about Clinton's unfortunate reference to Robert F. Kennedy's assassination -- from an Obama campaign e-mail from spokesman Bill Burton. I took some time to look around at the coverage, and I followed a link to Clinton's actual interview with the Argus-Leader, and I had to say: Wow. I couldn't believe this became the weekend's hottest political issue. I couldn't believe Keith Olbermann did a special comment on it (which I really couldn't believe was also widely circulated via e-mail by the Obama campaign). I couldn't believe that only George Stephanopoulos took the time to scrutinize and question the judgment behind the Obama campaign's political use of what was at worst bad phrasing on Clinton's part.

Thanks to my long weekend, I could probably get away without addressing the controversy over Clinton's RFK remarks, which is finally dying down. But I think this is an important and disturbing issue for Democrats. Criticize Clinton's vote to authorize the Iraq war, her pandering on the gas tax holiday, her lame remarks about "hardworking Americans, white Americans," her response to Obama's "bitter" remarks, her lackluster campaign strategy coming into 2008. I've criticized all of that, and more. But to argue that she was suggesting she's staying in the race because Obama might be assassinated -- even after both Clinton, and the journalists who interviewed her, said her reference was to RFK's June campaign, not to his heartbreaking murder -- requires either a special kind of paranoia or venal political opportunism.

I understand the fears many people have about Obama's safety; given our country's tragic history, they are real and understandable. Suggesting Clinton was trying to play on such fears is different. Throughout this long campaign the Clintons have been turned into a vile caricature: amoral, power-mad narcissists who are not beyond using racism and even worries about Obama's safety to press their political cause. I've criticized both Clintons repeatedly in the pages of Salon for over 10 years, but it's really time to say: Enough.

For several months I've found myself bothered by a double standard in both the behavior and the media coverage of the Obama campaign, as supposedly representing a new kind of clean, post-partisan politics, by contrast with the dirty old win-at-any-cost Clintons. Hardball Obama campaign tactics -- David Axelrod partly blaming Clinton for Benazir Bhutto's death; the intimidation of Clinton voters by a pro-Obama union in Nevada (to be fair, some Obama supporters claimed intimidation by Clinton forces, too); the campaign's infamous South Carolina race memo (prepared before Bill Clinton made his dumb Jesse Jackson remark); the multiple "Harry and Louise" mailers distorting Clinton's healthcare proposal; not to mention ties between Obama, Axelrod and the Exelon Corp., even as Obama is touting his lobbyist-free campaign. Nothing seems to stick to Obama; he's Teflon.

This episode was worse than many but not entirely atypical: After his staff helped whip up a frenzy about Clinton's remarks, Obama himself said he accepted Clinton's statement that she had been misunderstood, and Axelrod tried to act gracious and insist that it's time to move on. But the damage had been done. Obama has run a better campaign than Clinton, there's no doubt about it, but he's had a lot of help from a fawning media. (Here's a great piece making a point I made months ago about how such coverage may ultimately hurt Obama.)

I'll be on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews" today, debating this issue with talk show host and Obama supporter Joe Madison.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections