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The Big Story

Once in a while, a politician will say something dumb. Are you with me so far? Once in a while, the dumb thing will become news and take over the airwaves and column-inches to a really horrifying extent. We’ve got an example of it this morning, and I think it’s worth us all taking a look at it and talking about the phenomenon.

Let’s start with the dumb thing. Here’s Hillary Clinton, in response to a question about whether she should drop out of the race now, rather than waiting until the primaries are over in June:

Between my opponent and his camp, and some in the media, there has been this urgency to end this. And, you know, historically that makes no sense. So I find it a bit of a mystery. [interviewer: you don’t buy the party unity argument?] I don’t, because, again, I’ve been around long enough. 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, I don’t understand it. There’s lots of speculation about why it is, but [interviewer: what’s your speculation?] You know, I don’t know. I find it curious.

…and just so you have a good sense of the inflection, go and watch the video and then come back. Oh, hell, let me try to embed the bastard thing.

This made the front page of the Hartford Courant, made the above-the-fold part of the New York Times on the web (and I think made the front page of the print below the fold, but I’m not sure about that), made the Guardian, and of course made all the blogs and web sites, too. Sam Boyd, over at TAPped, in a note called Oh No She Didn’t says “Hillary Clinton suggests, elliptically at the very least, that she’s staying the presidential race in case Barack Obama is assassinated.” Hunh? But yes, that’s how it seems to be playing. Katharine Q. Seelye, in the New York Times article, says that “the comments touched on one of the most sensitive aspects of the current presidential campaign—concern for Mr. Obama’s safety.”

I’ll try to be brief here with my analysis of the actual statement, since I don’t think the actual statement is terribly important. It’s obvious to me that Senator Clinton was invoking a historical argument to say that it is perfectly fine to have a nomination contested until June, because it has been so contested in the past without problems. And we remember about June, because it was June when Robert Kennedy was killed, which we remember. This is unpersuasive as an argument because (a) the calendar, news media, and cultural context is very different than it was in 1992 and even more different than it was in 1968, (2) 1968 was a disastrous year for the Party, even before the assassination, and (iii) the nomination fight in 1992 was essentially over after New Hampshire, when the Comeback Kid took second and was assumed to romp on Super Tuesday in his home South, which he did, and that took care of Paul Tsongas. You could make an argument that, independent of anything else, June is plenty of time to pick a nominee for an August convention, much less a November election, but the historical stuff is irrelevant to that. Or you could make the opposite sort of argument, from uniqueness, that there has never been an election so close, where two candidates had so many pledged delegates, and where both were still winning primaries so far into the calendar, and that for that reason we should savor it and see it through, rather than rushing to stop it. But nobody who wants the Senator to withdraw now, or who wanted her to withdraw after the Texas primary, will be convinced by a historical argument, nor should they be.

OK. Fine, it was a bad argument, and like the arguments about which states count and which methods for counting the total number of votes cast count, and most of the other arguments about how she could realio trulio be the nominee, is both unpersuasive and a trifle embarrassing. In my opinion, the stuff that implies that pale-skinned voters should be the deciding factor in our Party’s nomination is more offensive than the reference to a historical event, but evidently that’s just me. This one is the big news. Why?

I think it’s because the dominant narrative—the story of what happens, rather than what happens—has become Senator Clinton’s desperate struggle to stay afloat. In this story, she is lashing out, trying anything, no longer caring who gets hurt, grasping at the lowest-probability straws. The thing about this story is that it ends with her utter destruction. Not just her losing the nomination, mind you, but abandonment by all her political friends and allies, and the total loss of power over others and control over herself. I’m not saying that will actually happen, mind you, just that it’s the way the story goes, and that if that’s the story that we are telling ourselves nationally, that’s the story we will see. Fortunately, there is always the chance that in a couple of years we will be telling ourselves an entirely different story. A couple of months, even. We’re easy that way.

The other narrative that I think is making this whole thing click is the Camelot story. Handsome young man goes to Washington, bringing fresh energy, new hope and a generational change, and They kill him. That story, combined with the deeper but vaguer fear of racial violence, leads us to be very sensitive to the idea that Barack Obama is peculiarly vulnerable to assassination. Honestly, I think there’s something to that, in that I know there are a lot of violent racists in this country, but then I think that there are a lot of violent misogynists in this country, and Hillary Clinton has been vilified for more than fifteen years. A disturbed young fellow in his early twenties may not remember a world without people saying on the radio that Hillary Clinton was a murderess. Of course, I am astonished that there haven’t been close calls with Our Only President himself. He is mildly disliked by a lot of people, but he is actively hated by quite a few as well, some of whom have never accepted his legitimacy in office, and some of whom fear that, having disregarded many provisions of the Constitution, he will not leave office in January 2009. I am pleased that nobody, domestic or foreign, has made serious attempts to murder the man, but I am surprised. Particularly since there were two or three attempts on the life of Our Previous President, some sort of foreign conspiracy to take the life of the President Before That, the One Before That was actually shot, and in fact most of the Presidents of my lifetime have had attempts on their life, from Squeaky Fromme to the guy who tried to hijack an airplane.

Anyway, I think a lot of us have a real and only somewhat irrational fear that Barack Obama will be assassinated. And, of course, a Kennedy has been in the news recently; that’s presumably part of why Senator Clinton had it in mind and repeated the comment (which she has evidently made more than once). I think it’s not altogether shocking that our pattern-matching brains put the two together.

The problem is that I want my journalism to be smarter than that. I want my newspaper editors and yes, even my bloggers to be aware of the temptation to go along with the narratives, and to resist it as much as they can. It’ll still happen, of course, but maybe it’ll be less annoying in between times. At least for me. What do you think, Gentle Readers? Are you seeing a different set of narratives? In what context does the placement of this story on the front page make sense to you?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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