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'Assassination' Flap Is the Latest Media 'Aha!' Moment

By Mort Kondracke

This ought to be the last word on the flap over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-N.Y.) use of the word "assassination": Ridiculous!

Or, if two words are necessary, how about: Enough already! Clinton is being hammered not for anything she actually did or said - or even meant - but because the media and her political critics want to diminish what little chance she has left to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clinton has given voters plenty of legitimate reasons to doubt whether she ought to be president, but talking about the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy isn't one of them.

It's as clear as day what Clinton was talking about to the Sioux Falls-Argus Leader editorial board. Look at the videotape. Her emphasis was all on the word "June" - not "assassination" - and she clearly was citing some history to justify her staying in the Democratic race into next month.

Yet, the media went berserk because she mentioned Kennedy's assassination in recalling the June 4 California primary in 1968. And some can't let it go even yet. Clinton was accused of "breaking a taboo," of committing a "huge gaffe," of "going beyond the pale," of revealing secret, unconscious death wishes for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), even of inciting nut cases.

Some commentators demanded she apologize to Obama, even though she never mentioned him or alluded to him in any way.

What's going on here? Various analysts attributed the frenzy to the constant feeding demands of the 24/7 news cycle, but this is far from the whole story.

Clinton had cited Kennedy's death as a June marker - and used the "a" word - on several previous occasions. She did so in an interview with Time in March and in a Washington, D.C., speech earlier this month with lots of journalists present. No one cared to make a big deal out of it then.

But suddenly, the media last week seemed to be in need of an "Aha!" moment, when it collectively obsesses on some action, statement or incident to demolish a disfavored candidate with exaggerated attention.

I've seen it happen before. In the first presidential campaign I ever covered - the 1968 race, long before the 24/7 era-the ruling lions of print political journalism arrogantly decided that Michigan Gov. George Romney was not smart enough to be president.

When he went to Vietnam on an inspection tour in 1967 and accused generals there of trying to "brainwash" him, it was his "Aha!" moment. The press and his adversaries had all the evidence they needed that he wasn't up to the presidency and his candidacy collapsed.

There was as little wrong with what Romney said about "brainwashing" as what Clinton said about "assassination." But he was clobbered for it. The consequence - maybe it would have happened anyway - was the nomination (and election) of Richard Nixon.

Another "Aha!" moment occurred in 1972. Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination until the infamous "crying incident" in New Hampshire, after which he was deemed emotionally unfit for the White House by a media that favored his militantly anti-Vietnam War rival, Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.).

Muskie claimed to his dying day that he hadn't cried - but was brushing away snowflakes - as he denounced the Manchester Union-Leader's attacks on his wife. McGovern got nominated - and went on to lose 49 states to Nixon. Another victim of "Aha!" journalism was Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose "scream" at a post-Iowa caucus rally in 2004 seemed to justify media judgments that he was too flighty to be a serious candidate.

The "scream" sounded crazed on television, whose microphones picked up Dean's voice clearly. But reporters at his rally said he was shouting because he couldn't be heard in the hall. You can't say that Nixon/McGovern-level damage was done - Dean wasn't going to win anyway - but he was disqualified on false pretenses.

There are plenty of legitimate flaws in Clinton and her candidacy - some of them revealed in other "Aha!" moments this year. Making up stories about dodging gunfire in Bosnia does reinforce doubts about her honesty.

Her and her husband's exploitation of racial differences - her reference to "hardworking white workers," his comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson - justify their reputation for ruthlessness.

Obama, too, has been singled out for "Aha!" treatment, as in his reference to "bitter" rural Pennsylvanians and his wife's assertion that she'd never been "proud" of America until he began winning primaries.

Obama arguably would be more susceptible to "Aha!" moments than Clinton because he's so much less known and embarrassing statements might be taken to reveal more that's new about his character.

Yet, it's Clinton who has received the big "Aha!" with the "assassination" flap, and it's hard not to conclude that Obama's media claque wants her not to do further damage to its chosen candidate's chances of winning the election.

Every time she beats Obama by double digits in a primary, every time exit polls show that white working class or Hispanic voters are reluctant to vote for him and every time she comes nearer to winning the Democratic popular vote, the more doubt there is that he can beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

So, on Friday, the media super-hyped her use of the word "assassination." It got front-page treatment in nearly every newspaper on Saturday and was Topic A on the Sunday talk shows. MSNBC, the Obama news channel, kept the story going even into Tuesday. Enough already!

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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