by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & H & lt;/span & illary Clinton's come-from-behind strategy seems to depend on staying in the race long enough for Barack Obama to stumble. But she's the one who stumbled when she seemed to suggest she'd be ready to take over the Democrats' top spot if something bad were to happen to Obama -- "We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California," she said.
She later clarified it was just a historical reference to how long primary election seasons can take. But her comments did rip the scab off a deep national wound -- something she seemed to realize when she added, "I regret that my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation, and particularly for the Kennedy family, was in any way offensive."
Hopefully this wasn't one of those true Washington gaffes -- you know, when a politician forgets herself and actually speaks her mind. But let's take Clinton at her word -- that she was only bringing up relevant history. I agree that the election of 1968 is extremely relevant -- but not in the way she suggests.
If RFK's candidacy is a template for how long to stay in a race, consider that Clinton has been officially running for nearly 18 months -- and according to Carl Bernstein's A Woman in Charge, she started planning to run in 2003. Kennedy had only been in the race three months when he was shot just after winning the California primary on June 4, 1968.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & C & lt;/span & linton understates things when, apparently unwilling to apologize, she issued her statement of regret, characterizing the assassination as a "moment of trauma." Let's understand 1968 for what it was -- a cataclysmic year we have yet to recover from. That's the argument Rick Perlstein makes in his excellent new history, Nixonland.
By 1968, there was a massive backlash against Lyndon Johnson's landslide in 1964 and his subsequent civil rights legislation. George Wallace was running an openly racist third-party campaign, which would ultimately win him nearly 14 percent of the vote and four states. Cities were burning, as cops faced off with angry workers, disenfranchised blacks and militant students. The death count wasn't just coming out of Vietnam; the grim tally from these clashes on American soil grew by the day. If you think we have two Americas now, just consider that in 1968 the sides were in open battle, with the TV cameras catching cops in riot gear, hippies taking over college campuses and heavily armed blacks.
The tragic arc of 1968 started April 4, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and African Americans and the poor lost their champion -- and America entered a terrible new phase in its upheaval.
Then, 40 years ago this week, came the murder of Robert Kennedy -- a blow to the future of the Democratic Party and America.
The trauma continued when what was left of the Democratic Party met in Chicago, where Mayor Richard M. Daley's police cracked down on dissent inside the convention and on the streets -- delegates and the press were roughed up by Chicago cops along with hippie protestors. And, again, it was all televised to a numb nation.
The final blow came in November, when Nixon claimed a narrow victory -- coming in less than 1 percentage point ahead of Hubert Humphrey. As Perlstein argues, America burning was good for Nixon. The keys to his victory included playing up the fear (his TV ads showed, with few words, ghettos aflame); using back-room deals to secure the South (he was the first Republican to win with significant support from the South); and manipulating the press (he had learned a hard lesson when his 1960 race against JFK was scuttled after his poor debate performance on national TV). Most significantly, when necessary, Perlstein shows Nixon would simply lie -- he ran against Vietnam, but once in office, he expanded the war with secret bombing runs. And worse, he even had Henry Kissinger work behind the scenes to torpedo American efforts that were underway in Paris to end the war in Vietnam before the November election.
Divide and conquer was Nixon's political game -- win at any cost -- and America has been playing along ever since. The only trouble with the Nixon-first, America-second approach is that it's great for winning elections, but it's horrible for creating a consensus, a shared sense of common purpose and, ultimately, progress.
Nixon's victory, taking advantage of America in its most vulnerable places, created the blueprint that has been followed ever since -- especially by Karl Rove and George W. Bush. Now, in these final days of this 2008 primary season, Hillary Clinton seems to be employing the same tactics when she points out that white working class voters (the same demo targeted by Nixon) may not support Obama in the general election.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & o that's the lesson of 1968. Maybe Robert Kennedy wouldn't have won. Maybe he would have struggled as president. But one thing is clear: He would have tried to heal the wounds, to end the war in Vietnam, to bring America back together. So today that lesson teaches that we should seek a president who can heal the still-festering wounds of race and class, who can lead us out of war and who can move us past this purgatory of Nixonland.
By invoking that sad chapter in our history, Hillary Clinton has cast herself in the Dick Nixon role. And doesn't she know that divide-and-conquer politics are a big part of the reason Nixon has gone down as the worst president in American history? (And his most attentive pupil, George W. Bush, is not far behind.)
In a weakened moment, America took that pernicious road and it was one of the biggest mistakes we ever made. But it's a mistake that finally -- 40 years later -- we can correct.