Give Hillary Clinton the benefit of the doubt. She was not, as she explained, suggesting that she was staying in the race because something horrible might happen to Barack Obama, the man who is denying her bid for the White House. She was only citing an example of a presidential-nominating contest that went into June to explain why she hasn’t dropped out of the race. She was distracted by her concern for Ted Kennedy who had just been diagnosed with brain cancer. She was sorry if anyone, especially the Massachusetts senator’s family, was hurt by her clumsy remark.
Take her at her word.
And then, so what?
The television analysts and politicians who spent Memorial Day weekend exonerating Clinton from the spurious charge that she secretly expects some campaign-ending calamity would befall Barack Obama are missing the point. No one believes that she harbors such dark thoughts. The real issue is that Clinton, once again, has betrayed herself as a politician who will say absolutely anything to press her case.
Sometimes she lies, as when she repeatedly bragged about being under sniper fire in Bosnia. Sometimes she obfuscates, as when she explained her vote in favor of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq as an endorsement of strong diplomacy, not war. Sometimes she whines, as when she suggests that her failure to win the nomination is due to sexism instead of flaws in her campaign strategy. Sometimes she panders, as when she dismissed the views of every economist who has studied the matter and endorsed a temporary repeal of the gasoline tax.
And when she is fatigued and feeling desperate about the dwindling prospects of achieving her glorious dream, she, inadvertently but no less painfully, invokes a specter so offensive, so incendiary, so malicious in its implications, that it raises questions about her temperament and fitness for the White House. If she will say something like this in the course of a campaign, what might she say in a moment of genuine national crisis, when the stakes are infinitely higher than in a political contest? In other words, would she shoot her mouth off when the phone rings at 3 a.m.?
Slips of the tongue during the course of a long and arduous campaign are not uncommon, and Obama has made blunders of his own. Perhaps thinking of the grilling from the press he suffered over his use of the word “bitter” to describe economically depressed blue-collar voters, Obama said, “I think that when you’re on the campaign trail for 15 months, you’re going to make some mistakes. I don’t think Senator Clinton intended anything by it, and I think we should put it behind us.”
But behind the scenes, Obama’s campaign was calling attention to a passionate diatribe from MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann in which he declared that Clinton’s remarks were “unforgivable, because this nation’s deepest shame, its most enduring horror, its most terrifying legacy, is political assassination.”
Olbermann’s frenzied remarks are clearly over the top and Obama’s staff was obviously trying to have it both ways, allowing their candidate to take the high road while they twisted the knife, to mix a metaphor. Nonetheless, the commentator’s screed tapped into the skeptical feelings among voters that have given Clinton the highest negativesof any candidate in history. Voters believe that Clinton’s relationship with candor is as tenuous as her husband’s. They do not believe that she can be trusted. These feelings will be especially inflamed among black voters, whose fears about Obama’s vulnerability are palpable. Some newspapers and Web sites have featured images of the candidate in the crosshairs of the sights of a rifle and of his wife depicted hanging from a lynching tree.