It was a long time ago in an America we would hardly recognize today: Jan. 7 of 2008. The main conversation around Bill Cosby was his conservative positions, not his choice of home beverage. Tracee Ellis Ross was still Joan and not Rainbow. And Dr. Ben Carson was still just the best neurosurgeon in American history.
Presidential candidate, former first lady and Sen. Hillary Clinton came in a distant third to Sen. Barack Obama in the Iowa caucuses and was in the race of her life. The New Hampshire Democratic primary was the next day on Tuesday, Jan. 8; Clinton knew she was going to win, so the campaign was already looking 4,000 miles south to the crucial South Carolina Democratic primary.
Clinton was doing well in the polls in the Palmetto State; in late December of 2007 she was statistically tied with Obama 46 percent to 45 percent among African Americans, who made up half of the Democratic primary voters in South Carolina. If she could hold those numbers for just two more weeks, until the primary on Jan. 26, she would put Obama in a 2-1 hole and reclaim her crown as the inevitable candidate.
Instead, on Jan. 7, 2008, Clinton effectively killed her relationship with African-American voters with one of the biggest gaffes of her political career. And she’s been digging herself out of a hole ever since. Eight years ago today, at a Dover, N.H., campaign rally, a supporter introduced Clinton with the following line: “Some people compare one of the other candidates to John F. Kennedy. But he was assassinated. And Lyndon Baines Johnson was the one who actually” passed the civil rights legislation.
The introduction was a clear reference to the Kennedy-Martin Luther King Jr.-Obama comparisons that were popular at the time. The Clinton campaign was in a war of words with Obama, trying to paint him as the optimistic dreamer with no real experience, compared with Clinton’s ability to get things done in the real-world trenches. Nevertheless, the suggestion that a prominent African American with national political aspirations might be assassinated struck many voters, especially African-American voters, as the worst kind of race-baiting from the Clinton campaign.
“I would point to the fact that that Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done,” she said. “That dream became a reality; the power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it and actually got it accomplished.”
African-American voters, political leaders and journalists were shocked and offended by Clinton’s comments. She and her supporters had glibly alluded to the assassination of Barack Obama to score political points, a Freudian slip that was missed by no one. This wasn’t just a dog whistle to conservative white voters; it was a blaring Klaxon to black voters to ward them off from supporting Obama lest something … terrible happened.
Worse, however, was Clinton’s apparent belief in herself as a “white savior” for black political activism. The idea that it was somehow Johnson’s blood, sweat and tears that accounted for more of the civil rights movement’s progress than the life, blood and sacrifice by King was peak savior mentality and, at worse, historically inaccurate. The political consequences of her comments were swift and long term.
In mid-October of 2007, Clinton led Obama 53 percent to 36 percent among registered black voters. A week before her interview on Fox, Clinton was tied with Obama among black voters, and African Americans found her more qualified for the job than Obama (72 percent to 17 percent) and more likely to win the election in 2008 by a whopping 67 percent to 21 percent.