WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When Hillary Clinton last Friday said, "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June (1968) in California," she was not saying anything she had not publicly declared earlier. Yet, those words detonated a politically critical mass, raising among Democrats new levels of anti-Clinton sentiment and concern about Barack Obama's viability in the general election.
After Clinton cited the 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 in the party 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 failure to comprehend reality. As "Hillary Agonistes," she threatens to bring down the temple of the country's oldest political party.
Clinton's Bobby Kennedy comments last Friday to the editorial board of the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader came when asked why she was staying in the race for the South Dakota primary June 3. In March, when Time magazine asked 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 her campaign's sources, that has been a commonplace observation in private by Bill Clinton.
Poor taste by the Clintons is matched by poor 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 two-and-one-half months and Humphrey for two months. Contrary to the impression given by Sen. Clinton, Kennedy was not the presumptive nominee removed 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 claims.
Her recent performance has led loyal Democrats to talk to me about Clinton in the same terms that had been used by Republicans for the past 16 years, branding her as untruthful, deceitful and unscrupulous. This condemnation is not limited to Obama partisans. One seasoned Democratic operative, who had 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." Another Democrat who five months ago rejoiced in Clinton as the first female president called her "sleazy."