Please support this
holiday season!

Clinton References Kennedy(s)

[ Posted Tuesday, May 27th, 2008 – 15:49 UTC ]

Actors are a superstitious lot. Among the many good-luck and bad-luck rules they follow is one known to the general public, due to its near-universality: actors are never supposed to say the name of the play "Macbeth." They refer to it as "the Scottish play," or the "play about the Scotsman," or some other roundabout terminology which avoids mentioning Macbeth's name.

One would think that politicians everywhere would likewise avoid mentioning the word "assassination" -- ever -- on the campaign trail. Especially if it's not even germane to the point you are supposedly making. One would think. One, apparently, would be wrong.

But, rather than leap into the fray over Senator Clinton's recent remarks on Robert F. Kennedy's assassination (and what month it happened in), I would like to revisit a remark she made earlier on the campaign trail which referenced his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Because I still think it was the turning point for her entire campaign. At the time I raised the possibility that it would be seen as her "Dean Scream" moment, and intervening events have done nothing but reinforce that analysis for me.

Here is her full quote, from back in January. She had (at this point) lost Iowa, won New Hampshire (against all odds) and the South Carolina primary was looming large.

"Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do; presidents before had not even tried. But it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president who said 'We're going to do it' and actually got it accomplished."

Back then, you'll notice, Clinton avoided mentioning the fact that J.F.K. had been assassinated, even though it would have been a lot more relevant to what she was saying.

The context of this statement is important. Hillary Clinton, at this point in time, was polling 50% to Barack Obama's 33% among South Carolina's African-American voters. That is not a misprint. She was out-polling Obama among black voters in South Carolina, by a healthy 17 points.

Subsequently, there was some movement in this demographic. Now, I fully admit that proving causality (the "real reason why") is virtually impossible for these things. Many black voters, before Obama won Iowa, didn't want to get their hopes up that a black man could actually make a viable run for the White House. They were afraid to believe in the dream, because they had seen this dream dashed to pieces before. So a large part of the movement towards Obama may have been due to black voters gaining confidence that Obama could win over a large percentage of the white vote (as in Iowa), and therefore had a real chance at winning the nomination.

Right before South Carolina actually voted, the numbers had switched. African-Americans in South Carolina were now backing Obama 56% to Clinton's 25% (Edwards was still in the race, explaining why the numbers don't add up to 100%).

But the exit polls showed that Obama got a whopping 80% of the black vote in South Carolina, to Clinton's 16%. This trend, astonishingly enough, would increase, until Obama was regularly winning 90% or even higher among African-Americans everywhere.

In other words, Hillary's black support crumbled. It virtually disappeared. Now imagine where we would be if Hillary had done even slightly better among black voters. Say, 30 or 40 percent to Obama's 60 or 70. While this may not have been enough to flip very many states from the "Obama win" column to Clinton's, it would likely have meant a lot closer race for the convention delegates than what has happened.

Which is why I continue to believe that it was Clinton's L.B.J. / J.F.K. / M.L.K. remark that started this landslide of movement among black voters from Clinton's side to Obama's. Others point to Bill Clinton's remark after South Carolina that "Jesse Jackson won" the state as well, but I truly believe the damage had been done before he said this.

I think when historians take a good look at the 2008 Democratic nomination campaign, this will be identified as the turning point for Hillary Clinton's chances at winning the nomination. Back then, I wrote the following:

But nobody seems to be addressing what (for me) is the central issue in the debate: the "framing" of the issue by Clinton. And because Hillary isn't even addressing this aspect of it, she is (perhaps fatally) destroying her support in the black community. Which is why, if left unaddressed, Obama's going to reap the rewards of this debate even happening -- and Clinton may look back at this statement as her "Dean scream" moment in the campaign. Now, that's pretty extreme. It might not happen this way. But I see it as a real possibility, unless she confronts the framing mistake which she is apparently unaware she even made.

Because when black people hear her quote, it's not so much that Hillary is cheapening King, it's the whole racial picture she's painting. King, cap in hand, had to come to LBJ, a white politician, and beg his political help in getting a law passed. Hillary's comment is, on the face of it, historically correct. Without LBJ, the Civil Rights Act wouldn't have become law. But what nobody is addressing in this whole debate is this isn't the 1960s anymore.

Think about it -- the issue is that King needed Johnson's help in getting a law passed. Well, why did he need this help? Why couldn't King's "dream" become a "reality" without Johnson's help? Because in the 1960s there is no possibility whatsoever that a black man could have been president. Again, think about it -- if King had been president himself, he sure wouldn't have needed LBJ's help.

This is historical fact. We've come a long way since those days. But nobody is pointing out that it is now 2008, and not 1964. The big difference (as it relates to this argument) between then and now is that now we have a black man who has a very good chance at actually becoming president on his own.

Would King have made a good president, and been able to pass the Civil Rights Act? Who knows? Would Barack be a good president today? Again, who knows? But what is crystal clear is that King would have had exactly zero chance of becoming president in 1964. Barack Obama has a very realistic chance today. That's a pretty big difference for everyone to be ignoring.

This also, it should be noted, makes Clinton's argument ridiculous. Because she is trying to view what happened in the early 60s through the lens of a 2008 political campaign. The way she has framed it -- and repeatedly defended it, as in last Sunday's Meet The Press interview -- is that she has the highest respect for Dr. King, and that she was just making a historical statement about "dreamers" and "doers." But this defense doesn't even address what many black voters are annoyed with -- the idea that in 2008 even if Dr. King himself was running -- that she would be a better candidate since she's a doer and not just a dreamer.

Now, I take the Clinton camp at their word that she really, really wasn't trying to inject race into the debate. And that she would disagree with that previous paragraph's interpretation of what she said. But she's not accurately looking at it the way black voters may be: that any black dreamer should take a back seat -- in 2008 -- to a white politician, because she'll be able to "get things done" by deftly wielding political power. To black America, the question this arouses is: "Well, why can't Obama be a dreamer and actually have that political power himself as well?" Clinton continues to not answer this question at her own peril.

2008 is not 1964. Unless Clinton realizes the mistake she made in framing the issue (and addresses it forcefully), this is just going to get worse and worse for her. South Carolina's primary this Saturday will be the first test of this.

An astute commenter pointed out at the time one other thing which I hadn't considered when I wrote that -- that Clinton wasn't just disparaging Martin Luther King, Jr., but that she was also denigrating John F. Kennedy for not getting the Civil Rights Act done either. It fit into her narrative -- Kennedy and his Camelot was all about "dreams" and not about "getting things done."

When it was pointed out to me, I saw the connection and wondered (back in January), "Is this really the best way to win the Democratic nomination, by belittling one of the most beloved Democratic presidents ever, while at the same time pointing out the ineffectiveness of the patriarch of the Civil Rights movement? Isn't that kind of disrespectful to two icons of what the Democratic Party stands for?"

Back then, though, this was an isolated incident -- and I was very careful to remain as neutral as possible in discussing Clinton's comments. But, over time, this scenario has played out over and over again. Clinton's M.L.K. reference was one of the first times the Clinton camp used what later seemed to become the campaign's modus operandi for such statements: Make a provocative statement, immediately deny that it means what it seems to mean on the face of it, attack the Obama camp for pointing out that these words actually came from her mouth, and then jump all over the media for drawing attention to such a non-issue and demanding the benefit of the doubt for what she said.

Which, considering what just happened with her R.F.K. assassination remark, is still continuing to this day. It may make some sort of triangulating sense to the Clinton camp, but, as has been proven, it is not the smartest way to get the Democratic nomination for president.


-- Chris Weigant


5 Comments on “Clinton References Kennedy(s)”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    Very well thought out and rational.. I can find no fault in it...

    I am predicting that this latest remark will finally force Clinton out. Even her fanatical supporters over at TM are seeing the writing on the wall and Marsh herself has stated unequivocally that taking the fight to the convention would not be in Clinton's best interest.

    I am guessing that Clinton will stay in until the 3rd just to save face. I am also guessing that the SDs will hold off until the 3rd to allow her to save face.

    But then again, I am still bald from my last wager, so what do I know. :D


  2. [2] 
    BLaws wrote:

    What amazes me with all this media coverage over the R.F.K. comments, is that almost no one is discussing what is the most likely reason she said what she did: That she intended to say exactly what she said. But the media has that reason wrong, she didn't intend for someone to actually assassinate him (although a part of me thinks a small part of her probably hopes for it), but what she intends with that comment is to scare away his support.

    Back in March she made the same statements to Time, in nearly identical phrasing. What hasn't been covered much that I've seen is that a few days before that interview a poll had be released showing that over half of those polled feared that Obama *would* be assassinated. For the next couple days the media had sidewalk interviews with people on the subject and I remember one elderly black woman who said that she couldn't vote for him because she feared he'd be killed. So she was going to vote for Hillary so that he wouldn't win and wouldn't get killed. Just a day or two later is when Clinton made those comments to Time.

    I firmly believe she played in to those fears. Trying to get his supporters to not back him out of fear that he would be killed. The same undertone was there with the MLK and JFK comments. At the time a lot of people were comparing Obama to MLK or JFK, and I remember hearing her say those comments and thinking "she's trying to get people to think: "Hey these people were great men, but they got killed, you shouldn't vote for him because he'll get killed too".

    There have been Clinton surrogates in the last few weeks pushing the same undertone. One was quoted as saying that "He should pick Clinton for his VP. If anything ever happened to him, she'd make a great President."

    Now, a lot of people have died suspicously around the Clintons. So a part of me really has to wonder. But what I don't wonder about is that she is deliberately trying to poison the waters with doubt that she can take away the nomination. I wouldn't doubt one bit that her people are telling super delegates in private something very similar. Coded words to get that thought across their minds.

  3. [3] 
    Buzzardbilly wrote:

    "Clinton camp used what later seemed to become the campaign's modus operandi for such statements: Make a provocative statement, immediately deny that it means what it seems to mean on the face of it, attack the Obama camp for pointing out that these words actually came from her mouth, and then jump all over the media for drawing attention to such a non-issue and demanding the benefit of the doubt for what she said."

    That's one very astute observation. I hadn't noticed it before, but you sure have a point.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Sounds like a pretty safe bet, this time.

    BLaws -

    From January, a memo from the Obama camp on Clinton's tactics included the following, from an unnamed "introducer of Clinton." I didn't include it because (1) that's pretty thinly sourced, and (2) I wanted to focus on her remarks, and surrogates' remarks would have been a distraction. Anyway, here's the comment:

    "If you look back, some people have been comparing one of the other candidates to JFK and he was a wonderful leader, he gave us a lot of hope but he was assassinated and Lyndon Baines Johnson actually did all his work and got the republicans to pass all those measures."

    This seems to support what you're saying.

    BuzzardBilly -

    When I read that article (link above) from JANUARY, it reminded me that from the early part of the race right up until now, the provacative statements have changed over time, but the method has remained the same. This becomes even more pronounced when you look at how Clinton tried to use Obama's comments against him a la Karl Rove. Read the "Reagan/party of ideas" kerfluffle and see who is taking remarks out of context, and who is merely pointing out what was said.

    I must admit, this wasn't really clear until I began reading Clinton's remarks from all of four months ago. "There's a pattern here..." I thought.

    Thanks to all for commenting!


  5. [5] 
    BLaws wrote:


    Yeah, I had seen that quote but I couldn't remember the time frame. But it was one that I took into account. Many times Clinton or her surrogates tried to plant the thought into peoples' minds that "He's a great guy, but if you elect him he'll get killed and I'll have to do the work anyway, so just elect me instead."

Comments for this article are closed.