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."
The defection of famous Clinton supporters is continuous. 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 as advocating an end to the Clinton campaign despite the former president's vigorous protests.
But not all Clinton backers have given up. Her labor backers from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers and the Machinists continue the fight. AFSCME President Gerald McIntee elicited booing of Obama by Puerto Ricans at a Clinton rally in Ponce Monday.
The noxious atmosphere contributes to counter-intuitive results in a national 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 19 percent of all Democrats saying 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 Obama supporters, feel a need to end the contest for the nomination in order to reduce that 19 percent slice of apostates. But it won't happen Saturday, when Democratic National Committee members meet in Washington to determine seating of Michigan and Florida delegates. The Clinton camp this week rejected a contemplated compromise, posing more struggle rather than reconciliation. It looked like Hillary Agonistes, eyeless in Gaza.