Friday, May 23, 2008

Too cruel anywhere

As the 2008 presidential primaries wind to a close, Hillary Clinton invokes the assassination of Robert Kennedy as a reason not to end her campaign. In response to suggestions from reporters and Barack Obama's campaign that she should quit the race, Senator Clinton replied: "[H]istorically, that makes no sense. . . . We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."

Clinton versus TsongasIn fairness, Senator Clinton was referring to the historical fact that primary seasons have stretched into June. She had just described Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, which also reached June and the California primary that proved so fateful for Robert Kennedy.

Nevertheless, Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post described Clinton's "choice of words" as "surprising," especially in the context of "a campaign in which voters have voiced concerns about the safety of the first African American front-runner in history" and in which "Clinton has already faced harsh criticism for allegedly exacerbating racial divisions."

Senator Clinton later clarified her statement:
Earlier today I was discussing the Democratic primary history and in the course of that discussion mentioned the campaigns that both my husband and Senator Kennedy waged in California in June 1992 and 1968 and I was referencing those to make the point that we have had nomination primary contests that go into June. That's a historic fact. The Kennedys have been much on my mind the last days because of Senator Kennedy and I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation, and particularly for the Kennedy family was in any way offensive.
Lady Macbeth
John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889)
Yes, this has been a campaign of many verbal missteps. From Hillary Clinton's appeal to "hard-working Americans, white Americans" to Barack Obama's irresistible attraction to the nickname, "Sweetie," it has been a long walk through a tight verbal minefield. And this is to say nothing of words such as bitter and cling. Perhaps the rhetoric of this campaign is so bitter precisely because so little of substance separates the candidates.

This latest episode came straight from Shakespeare's Macbeth (act II, scene 3). Senator Clinton, having been caught in her unfortunate invocation of Robert Kennedy's assassination, protests: "Woe, alas! / What, in our house?" To which the only proper response also comes from Macbeth:

Too cruel anywhere.


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