Assassinationgate: The Self-Righteous Hit on Hillary Clinton

There is of course no point in paying too much attention to the U.S. presidential campaign, which is almost entirely a monstrous excretion of meaningless, bull-roaring noise. True, a few hints of the horrors to come can be gleaned in broad outline -- chiefly by following the money behind each candidate, and also noting from which pool of imperial courtiers they draw their top advisors: i.e., the "kill 'em all" neocon crowd, the "more in sorrow than in anger" humanitarian interventionist school, the "let the poor eat dirt until they die" faction, or the "I feel your pain but Wall Street fills my coffers" contingent, etc. But to give more than a passing moment's heed to the excruciating and tedious minutiae of the horse race is, as the man says, an "expense of spirit in a waste of shame."

But occasionally the spectacle becomes so obtrusive that you can hardly avoid it. One such occasion was the uproar over Obama's preacher (which Arthur Silber, for one, has covered in illuminating detail). Another one belched forth from the belly of the beast last week: Hillary Clinton's "shocking" mention of the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968. From the tenor of the reaction to her statement, you would think she had been caught at the cauldron, summoning evil spirits from the deep to strike down the golden hero of the age.

Now anyone who has read even a smidgen of my work knows that I hold no brief for Hillary Clinton. Her presidency would have been a disaster -- a confirmation and continuation of the worst elements of the Bush Administration in almost every essential aspect. But the self-righteous vilification that has greeted her remark is truly repulsive -- and it bodes very ill, given the likely prospect that the self-righteous vilifiers will soon gain power.

Clinton told some editors in South Dakota that nominating campaigns have often dragged on until June; as examples, she referenced Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, and noted that RFK was killed in June 1968 -- while his race with Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy was still going on. The interviewers to whom she made the remark say it was clear that the timing was the sole point of her reference to the assassination; i.e., when Kennedy was killed in June, which we all remember, the campaign was still going on; ergo, campaigns do sometimes go on into June, and thus there was no reason for her to drop out before then. Robert Kennedy's own son said her intent was clear on this point, that there was no unintended -- or intended -- desire to encourage the idea of Obama's assassination. She had, in fact, made this same comparison several times before.

Yet oddly enough, those who have long considered Clinton to be Machiavelli reincarnated -- a woman of overpowering ambition whose every move, every word, every thought is minutely calibrated to advance her march to power -- suddenly seemed to believe that she would be stupid enough to deliberately "let hang in mid-air the prospect that she might just be sticking around in part, just in case the other guy gets shot," to quote Keith Olbermann's nostril-quivering denunciation of Clinton's remark.

Olbermann's thunderous outrage at this violation of his exquisite sensibilities was fairly typical of the wider reaction. Olbermann declared that any person who could suggest such a thing -- i.e., the thing that he himself had wrung out of Clinton's words -- "has no business being, and no capacity to be, the President of the United States."  Well, given the number of mass murderers who have served in the White House over the years, it's a bit of a stretch to say that someone who suggests bumping off a rival has no capacity to be President of the United States. In fact, I'd say they actually have a leg up on the job. But then, I don't get all teary-eyed and trembly with respect at the very mention of "the President of the United States," as Olbermann obviously does. I'm more simpatico with old James Buchanan, who told his successor, "Mister Lincoln, the office of president is not fit for a gentleman to hold."

But let's not be too hard on Olbermann and his sensitivities. After all, he is clearly a more tolerant man than I am. Me, I would consider someone unfit to be president of the United States  if he or she had, say, promised to obliterate an entire country if that country attacked, er, another country, not even the United States. I think I would have written off a candidate like that long ago. But not Olbermann. He doesn't even mention Clinton's apocalyptic threat to annihilate 70 million people in Iran in his long list of her gaffes and misdeeds for which "we have forgiven you." No, for Olbermann and many others of the freshly outraged, that kind of thing -- the calm contemplation of slaughtering millions upon millions of innocent people -- is just par for the course, not even worth noting. But a sorta ambiguous statement that, if you squint real hard, could be made to look like an inappropriate reference to a political opponent -- now, that's just going too far!

To its enormous credit, the Obama campaign has taken the high road in the controversy, with the candidate publicly "taking Senator Clinton at her word" that she meant no harm by the reference -- while his staff privately blankets the media with transcripts of Olbermann's tongue-lashing and other harsh commentaries on Clinton's "inflammatory" remarks. Oh, it does one's heart good to see how the very nature of politics is being transformed before our eyes by this unique and transcendent campaign.

Of course, the possibility that Obama will be assassinated is very real. Yet, remarkably, Olbermann, who has built a considerable and not entirely undeserved reputation as a bold truth-teller, insists -- or rather, gives a direct order -- that no one even mention assassination in the context of American politics: "You cannot and must not invoke that imagery! Anywhere! At any time!" Because, presumably, if we close our eyes and shut our mouths and pretend that such things don't happen, they won't happen. Of course, Olbermann issues his grave injunction immediately after "invoking the imagery" of every major assassination and assassination attempt in American history. But logical consistency is often cast aside when a righteous prophet dons his robes.

I'm no prophet, but I tend to think that Obama probably won't be assassinated, because he is not really a genuine threat to the elites who command most of the power in our society. He seems, by all appearances and by his past record, to be eager enough to serve their interests. (And it will be almost impossible for a random "lone gunman" to penetrate the phalanx of security around Obama, which is far more extensive than the amateur protection that Bobby Kennedy had.)

Then again, one should never underestimate the anxiety of our elites, who tend to regard even the mildest hint at the most cosmetic change as a dire threat to their power and privilege. And even though Obama has loudly announced his intention to increase the size of the war machine and keep "all options on the table" -- including the option of nuclear obliteration -- in any number of conflicts with recalcitrant client states and rivals to the empire, he does talk a good game on "change" and "reform," and has obviously inspired millions who take him at his word -- and might try to hold him to it. So the risk of assassination remains substantial.

There is of course a great deal of intractable racism in the country that can always be drawn upon if the need arises. Although, if the blow comes, I imagine the chosen patsy will not be an angry Appalachian but some sort of "Muslim terrorist." We might be seeing some groundwork for this scenario being laid in the recent spate of articles and talking-head "concern" about angry Muslims wanting to kill Obama because he is supposedly an "apostate" from Islam, due to his father's abandonment of the faith. As Juan Cole points out, this is simply bullshit from the point of view of Islamic law -- but who will care about the facts after a "crazed terrorist" has struck at the very heart of our electoral process?

So here we are. Forty years after Kennedy and Martin Luther King were cut down in a single season, assassination is still very much in the American air. The fact that it is simply considered a given that a black man running for president is at high risk of being killed says far more about the true nature of our society than a thousand "inappropriate" remarks by some politician on the make. But how likely is it that those prone to hair-trigger outbursts of nostril-quivering self-righteousness over each passing gob of pointless campaign spit will ever be able to see and think clearly enough to address this genuinely tragic and shameful reality?

(There is a postscript after the jump.)


Postscript: Actually, if there was any subliminal message in Clinton's remark at all, it was probably an attempt to associate herself with the glamor and pity of the martyred Kennedy. After all, she has been one of the most hated and vilified figures in American public life for years, subject of repeated death wishes for her and her family voiced by some of the most prominent members of the political and media establishments.

When she was first elected to the Senate, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott "joked" that "maybe lightning will strike" to kill her before she could take her seat, as the Washington Post reported. High-profile conservative windbag John Derbyshire once "joked" that Chelsea Clinton should be put to death, as Stalin and Hitler killed the children of "enemies of the people," because she "bears the taint," the "vile genetic inheritance" of Clintonism. As I wrote way back in early 2001:

Take, for example, Bush supporter Brian Buckley, attorney for the powerful right-wing Web site, and nephew of William Buckley, the renowned "father of modern conservatism." While the vitriolic morons on the left indulge in childish shouting matches against their enemies, Buckley, in a recent posting, offers this tempered, Christian view of the former president and his wife:

"Even after [the Clintons] are dead, I say we stuff their bodies, fix them in some kind of preservative, and display them at county fairs across the nation, where the citizenry can have fun putting cow dung on them. Or if that's not in good taste, their bodies should be flattened as thin as possible, again fixed in some kind of preservative and then hoisted up a flagpole to flap in the wind. I'm sure others could come up with some additional ideas, but the point is we all need to spend every waking moment for the rest of our lives - even after the Clintons are dead dead dead - reminding people that the Clintons were bad bad bad. And if we can figure out how to do this in our non-waking moments, we need to act on that too."

No vitriol or imbalance there, then. Buckley's non-partisan approach finds an echo in his uncle's august journal, National Review, where columnist John Derbyshire dipped his toe into the water of fairness with this recent piece, "I Hate Chelsea Clinton."

Chelsea is a Clinton. She bears the taint, and though not prosecutable in law, in custom and nature the taint cannot be ignored. All the great despotisms of the past recognized that the families of objectionable citizens were a continuing threat. In Stalin's penal code it was a crime to be the wife or child of an 'enemy of the people.' The Nazis used the same principle, which they called Sippenhaft, 'clan liability.' In Imperial China, enemies of the state were punished 'to the ninth degree': that is, everyone in the offender's own generation would be killed, and everyone related via four generations up, to the great-great-grandparents, and four generations down, to the great-great-grandchildren, would also be killed. (This sounds complicated, but in practice what usually happened was that a battalion of soldiers was sent to the offender's hometown, where they killed everybody they could find, on the principle neca eos omnes, deus suos agnoscet - 'let God sort 'em out.')

...Not to be pedantic or anything, but as a service to readers we should point out that Mr. Derbyshire is perhaps incorrect in his attribution of the principle neca eos omnes, deus suos agnoscet to the ancient Chinese. Far be it from us to accuse Mr. Derbyshire - or indeed, any acolyte of the famously erudite Yale alumnus William Buckley - of being a pig-ignorant poseur or anything of the sort; and certainly, if Mr. Buckley and Mr. Derbyshire believe the ancient Chinese spoke Latin, why then, who are we to say otherwise?

However, in the interest of balance and fairness, we should note that most historians attribute the saying - which indeed may be apocryphal - to Arnold Amaury, a monk in the service of the Catholic crusaders who destroyed the Cathar heresy in southern France in the 13th century. Amaury was the spiritual guide of the troops besieging the town of Beziers in 1209. As the soldiers prepared for their final attack, they asked Amaury how to distinguish the good Catholics of the town from the despised Cathars. Amaury supposedly replied with the aforementioned expression of militant faith.

Again, not to be controversial in any way, nor to denigrate Mr. Derbyshire's considerable achievement in researching the many ways that "great despotisms" have dealt with their ungrateful dissidents, we would also gently note that most reputable historians translate the phrase not in Mr. Derbyshire's somewhat jocular manner but more straightforwardly and - dare we say it? - correctly as: "Kill them all; God will know His own." And that's just what they did, of course; the faith-based Crusaders slaughtered almost 20,000 people in Beziers that day.

This was in March 2001, before all the little Michael Savages and Glenn Becks and Ann Coulters of the world were hauled out from under numerous rocks in the post-9/11 era and given gargantuan, corporate-funded media platforms from which to spew their psychosexual hatred of Hillary. She has lived with the very real threat of assassination -- and ceaseless, gleeful public talk of her violent demise -- for a lot longer than Obama has.

Again, this is not a defense of Clinton's candidacy, or even of her remark, which was not only clumsy but entirely irrelevant to the question of why she was continuing her campaign in the specific conditions pertaining to the 2008 race, which have nothing to do with the particular dynamics of the 1992 and 1968 campaigns. But her answer was no more witless or meaningless or dangerous than anything else we've heard on the campaign trail this year. And she is just as threatened by the invocation of assassination imagery as any other candidate.