Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hellery's D-Day (the day she destroyed herself poltically)

On the Road: Clinton’s Very Bad Day

Katharine Q. Seelye

Friday might have been one of the worst days of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political career. Her campaign, as everyone knows, was already struggling. But on Friday, she made a reference to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination — a terrible choice of phrase in a presidential campaign that features an African-American candidate.

Opponents seized on it, and even if they misconstrued it, she may have reduced further her seemingly slim chances of capturing the nomination.

We had a front-row seat to this very strange day, and we want to describe the whole thing for you because it says a lot about the state of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, about the media and about politics in the Internet age.

In the morning the campaign, with its traveling press corps of about two-dozen reporters, photographers and camera operators, flew from Washington to Sioux Falls, S.D., to campaign in advance of the June 3 primary.

Mrs. Clinton had three events. First was a meeting with the editorial board of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, which was live-streaming the interview, something a few newspapers just started doing in this election cycle.

The press corps, meanwhile, was on a bus from the airport to Brandon, a few miles away, to set up for her second event at a supermarket. (The media are sometimes in a different place from the candidate, usually when the event is private or small.)

Her interview began while we were on the bus, but Internet access was so poor, we could only pick up bits of her comments intermittently. We did hear her bat back reports that her campaign had made overtures to Senator Barack Obama’s campaign about some kind of deal for her to exit the race.

At the supermarket, we were ensconced in a café off the deli counter, where many reporters were writing about her denying the overtures while also trying to follow the live stream. Here, too, Internet access was spotty and the stream came over in choppy bursts.

Mrs. Clinton arrived from the newspaper in the midst of this, and began addressing a couple of hundred people who were seated adjacent to us, in the fresh produce section. Then our cell phones and Blackberries went off.

On the other end were editors who had seen a Drudge Report link to a New York Post item online. The Post was not with the traveling press — and apparently had a decent Internet connection.

The initial N.Y. Post item read this way: “She is still in the presidential race, she said today, because historically, it makes no sense to quit, and added that, ‘Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June,’ making an odd comparison between the dead candidate and Barack Obama.”

Mrs. Clinton did not make that comparison. Here’s the video and here’s the transcript from the paper’s Web site, though it is not complete.

Mrs. Clinton had been saying that some in the Obama campaign and in the media were trying to push her out of the race and she didn’t know why.

“Historically, that makes no sense,” she said, “so I find it a bit of a mystery.”

Question: “You don’t buy the party unity argument?”

Mrs. Clinton: “I don’t because, again, I’ve been around long enough. You know my husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. You know, I just don’t understand it and there’s lot of speculation about why it is.”

Here’s another video reference:

She was referencing the assassination as a familiar timeline benchmark that might remind listeners that Mr. Kennedy was campaigning in June. (Her references were not quite right, since those campaigns began much later than this one, but that’s another story.) At the same time, she used an eye-popping word in the context of a presidential campaign with a black candidate.

In the deli section, we were seeking reaction from Clinton aides. One of them, Mo Elleithee, who had been with Mrs. Clinton at the editorial meeting, said her comments were being distorted.

A usually mild-mannered man, he was noticeably angry. He gave an on the record statement, saying that any attempt to portray her comment as anything other than a timeline was “inaccurate.” He came back again to add the word “outrageous.”

Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, was finishing up her short talk with the people in the produce section, where voters were asking her about her decision to pursue the nomination, often offering words of encouragement. One woman asked her about the once-arcane subject of superdelegates.

“I’m racing against the wind here,” Mrs. Clinton said, noticing that Mr. Obama had the “establishment” endorsements in the state. Afterward, she posed for pictures with workers behind the deli counter and went into a holding room.

By then, the Obama campaign had issued a statement, linking to the Post item and saying her comment “was unfortunate and has no place in this campaign.” Privately, we were told, the Obama camp was livid.

As the news whipped around the Web and on cable television. furious comments from readers started piling up on Web sites (including our own).

As it did on cable. Keith Olbermann, granted no friend of Senator Clinton’s, went on a tirade about all of what he considers her mistakes in this campaign. It’s, without further comment, tough beyond measure. (Update: On Saturday morning, the Obama campaign also sent reporters a transcript of this commentary.)

Many were appalled that Mrs. Clinton had uttered the word assassination, just a few short days before its anniversary. Some said the furor was unfair because her point was clearly that other campaigns had gone into June.

Some blamed the media for fanning the flames of what they considered a non-story. (The Argus Leader would provide perhaps the only thorough account of what she said on the stump throughout the day.)

As the story picked up steam, Mrs. Clinton decided to try to tamp it down on camera, within about two and a half hours of the original comment (in contrast to her letting a week go by in March before addressing her misstatements about having been under sniper fire in Bosnia).

She had not spoken to her traveling press corps in more than a week and in this case, did not take questions but simply appeared, against the backdrop of a grocery aisle, made a short statement and left.

She said she referenced the 1992 and 1968 campaigns “to make the point that we have had nomination primary contests that go into June.”

She added: “The Kennedys have been much on my mind the last days because of Senator Kennedy,” referring to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer. “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.”

Her note that the Kennedys had been on her mind puzzled some, because she had made similar references to the assassination before.

“Primary contests used to last a lot longer,” she told Time magazine on March 6. “We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A. My husband didn’t wrap up the nomination in 1992 until June. Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual.”

The Argus Leader issued a statement saying: “The context of the question and answer with Sen. Clinton was whether her continued candidacy jeopardized party unity this close to the Democratic convention. Her reference to Mr. Kennedy’s assassination appeared to focus
on the timeline of his primary candidacy and not the assassination itself.”

And Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has endorsed Mrs. Clinton, told The Times that he did not take offense at the comment, and he soon issued a statement to that effect.

But the damage was done. The episode appeared on all the network newscasts and seemed to stay alive in the media.

But Mrs. Clinton still had one more event. We quickly packed up from the supermarket and got on the bus for a 50-mile ride to Brookings, where she held a town hall meeting with a few hundred people in a farm museum shed.

The Kennedy remark was not mentioned. But she was introduced by a retired college teacher, who said Mrs. Clinton was one of her heroes.

“I know a little bit about being a woman in a man’s world,” she said, praising Mrs. Clinton for “never giving up or giving in.”

Mrs. Clinton stuck to her stump speech. But she was clearly dispirited. She spoke in an unusually soft, almost perfunctory way. The crowd was subdued, applauding occasionally. There were no banners or “Hillary” signs.

For the first question, she called on a man with a toddler asleep on his shoulder. The man delivered an unexpected rant about President Bill Clinton’s having pardoned several Puerto Rican nationalists in 1999. He suggested that Mr. Clinton pardoned them so that Puerto Ricans in New York would vote for Mrs. Clinton for Senate in her 2000 campaign.

The second question was from a woman who broke down in tears as she told Mrs. Clinton about her difficulties in getting a disability payment.

Another woman told Mrs. Clinton she was concerned about ending the polarization in Washington. That elicited a rambling response from Mrs. Clinton, who went from talking about having a Democratic majority in the Senate to describing “gotch-ya politics” and how people’s words can be “twisted” and that this very thing had happened to her (though no mention of the episode of the day).

She left the shed post-haste, back to her motorcade and then on to her campaign plane for the trip back to New York. She stayed in her seat by herself at the front of the plane; her aides, who usually mingle with reporters, stayed in theirs too at the front of the plane and kept to themselves.

At the back of the plane, some in the media were playing a raucous game of roll-the-dice. In the middle, a clutch of reporters dissected the day’s events.

After a day like Friday, it is hard to imagine how she keeps going, not just with her campaign, but emotionally. Even if she wanted to let off steam, she can’t, at least in public. She may have little heart for carrying her race forward, but she has committed many times to doing so, at least through June 3. She told her audiences in South Dakota that she and her husband and daughter would be back before the primary.

But the day obliterated the arguments she had made in an earlier part of her interview with the editorial board — that she was “more progressive” than Mr. Obama and would be a stronger candidate in the fall.

And it may have shattered any strategy for trying to win over superdelegates. The question is, did this episode alienate those who would have helped her to find a graceful way out.

Original article posted here.

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