Hillary Clinton’s supposedly controversial invocation of Robert Kennedy’s assassination was not only benign, it was precisely the kind of thing historians do all the time. Trying to explain why she did not think it unreasonable to remain in the presidential race, Senator Clinton first noted that her husband’s successful 1992 campaign ran until June. Then, logically, reasonably, she mentioned the most famous June primary in American history, Robert Kennedy’s surprise win in California, which was followed by his assassination.
The fact that we are approaching the fortieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, and that his surviving brother Ted Kennedy has been in the news lately, made Clinton’s mention even more reasonable. As she mentioned while backpedaling, she — along with many other Americans – has certainly had the Kennedy family on her mind lately.
Whether pro-Hillary or not, historians in particular should defend Hillary. Historians frequently refer to previous incidents to explain current behavior. To perceive hidden agendas in such analogizing is unreasonable. True, Robert Kennedy was tragically assassinated that June; but he also was running in a race that remained wide open that month too. Senator Clinton was in no way calling for an assassination or warning of one. Simply writing that previous statement emphasizes how absurd the charges are. Analogies by nature are selective. The analogizer has the right to pick or choose within reason, as Senator Clinton did in this case.
The real question, of course, is why people are so quick to pounce on Hillary Clinton’s words and impute such horrific motives to her. The answer points to one of the big surprises of this campaign season: the way the partly anticipated Clinton-fatigue has morphed into Clinton-disgust. Democrats who were the chief enablers of Bill Clinton’s hardball politics in the 1990s now profess surprise at both Clintons’ hardball tactics. The cheers have turned into jeers. Clearly, it is one thing when Democrats play tough with Republicans; that seems to be okay. But seeing the Clintons deploy their characteristic sharp-elbow tactics against a fellow Democrat – -and an idealistic African-American Democrat at that – has led to this Democratic wake-up call, slowed Hillary Clinton’s momentum at critical moments, and badly tarnished Bill Clinton’s legacy.
Still, in a long list of Clinton curveballs, sleights-of-hand, manipulations and lies, Hillary Clinton’s innocent Kennedy comments don’t rank. But, for most candidates, when even harmless comments cause massive headaches, that usually is one more sign that it is time to call it quits. So far, Hillary Clinton has refused to read any of those signs. Whether that obtuseness ultimately leads to victory or to even more backlash remains to be seen, but the smart money remains on the latter.