An assassination remark is the latest twist to sour relations between the two rivals
By Sarah Baxter / May 25, 2008
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama, the probable Democratic presidential nominee, wants Bill Clinton to help him heal the deep party rifts created by his wife Hillary’s divisive campaign – culminating in her dramatic claim this weekend that the 1968 assassination of Robert F Kennedy was a reason not to be pushed out of the race.
The tension between Hillary Clinton and Obama intensified after she told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader in South Dakota, which holds the last primary contest in 10 days’ time: “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June.”
She quickly apologised, ashen-faced, for a comment which appeared dangerously close to wishful thinking about Obama, but the damage was done.
Senior officials on Obama’s campaign believe Bill Clinton has the unique status and political gifts to reunite the party after such gaffes. They expressed confidence that the former president would rise above the perceived slights and grudges of a hard-fought campaign and work flat out for an Obama victory in November’s presidential election.
“If anybody can put their arms around the party and say we need to be together, it is Bill Clinton,” a senior Obama aide said.
“He’s brilliant, he has got heart and he cares deeply about the country. It’s tricky because of his position as Hillary’s spouse, but his involvement is very important to us.
“Bill Clinton will give permission to Hillary supporters to come into our camp and become one party. He is critical to this effort.”
Hillary, 60, claimed that her remark about the assassination had arisen because the “Kennedys have been much on my mind” after Senator Edward Kennedy, Robert’s younger brother, was diagnosed with a brain tumour last week.
She insisted she was referring to the timing of his assassination in June, when he was still a presidential candidate, rather than his killing, to make the point that there was nothing unusual about her determination to take this year’s race for the nomination into the summer.
However, while she expressed regret for “referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation”, she did not apologise to Obama, who has been receiving secret security protection for the past year after death threats.
“We have seen an x-ray of a very dark soul,” wrote Michael Goodwin, a New York Daily News columnist. “One consumed by raw ambition to where the possible assassination of an opponent is something to ponder in a strategic way. Otherwise, why is murder on her mind?”
The outburst joins “Sniper-gate” – Hillary’s imaginary landing under fire in war-torn Bosnia – as one of the most memorable mistakes of a historic fight to the finish between two remarkably evenly matched candidates.
With just three contests to go – in Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota in early June – Obama, 46, is ahead of Clinton by 158 pledged delegates after winning the most states.
His lead is insurmountable unless superdelegates – the party leaders who will determine the outcome of the vote at the Democratic National Convention in August – break in her favour.
After the Kennedy gaffe, however, the implausible has become the unthinkable.
It is a delicate matter to bring Bill Clinton on board. The former president believes that Obama should offer his wife the vice-presidential slot as a mark of respect after she proved her electoral strength in the big must-win states for Democrats, but her latest error is widely perceived to have squandered what little chance she had.
“It would be hard to take the country in a new direction with the Clintons in the White House,” a source in the Obama campaign said. “They bring controversy.”
Discreet merger talks between key campaign staff and leading fundraisers in both camps are already under way. But the process of healing is fraught with friction after accusations of sexism, racism and other insults.
Bill Clinton has been stung by accusations that he played the “race card” by referring to Obama’s story as a “fairy-tale” and comparing his early success in South Carolina with that of the Rev Jesse Jackson, the failed black presidential candidate, in the 1980s.
Nevertheless, friends said they expected the former president to campaign hard for Obama once the nomination is settled.
“In my experience, he is someone who doesn’t really carry political grudges to the end of the line,” said Leon Panetta, who served as Clinton’s White House chief of staff. “He will get mad and angry but ultimately he comes around.”
He added that Clinton was “hurt” by the defeats of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004: “He knows that in the end his legacy within the Democratic party rests not just on his victories but the victories that follow.”
In an interview in People magazine, Clinton, 61, extended a small olive branch to Obama. “There have been some rumbles about leaving this party divided but not one of them has come out of our camp. Not one. Ever,” he said. He went on to speak warmly about his wife’s opponent, although he said Obama lacked experience.
Betsy Myers, a former White House official under Bill Clinton who is now with the Obama campaign, said: “They have very similar stories. They both came from lower-income families with a strong mother and went on to become very well educated and devoted their lives to public service. Had Hillary not been in the race, Barack is exactly the sort of candidate Bill Clinton would have embraced and supported.”
Obama has an important bargaining chip which could tempt Bill Clinton into the fold. Friends say the former president is distressed by the rift in his relationship with the African-American community after he was affectionately described in the 1990s as the “first black president”.
His wife’s reference to Robert Kennedy’s shooting touched a raw nerve among a community which has long feared that the first black candidate to have a serious chance of entering the White House will be assassinated, just as earlier champions such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were.
William Galston, a former White House official and Hillary Clinton supporter, said: “One part of him [Bill Clinton] deeply regrets the schism that has opened up with the black community and he would welcome the opportunity to redeem himself.” Campaigning for Obama would go a long way to restoring good relations.
Don Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic national committee during Bill Clinton’s presidency and a leading Hillary supporter in South Carolina, said: “I don’t know of any two white people who have been more inclined to support causes of interest to the African-American community than Hillary and Bill Clinton. I’m certain they will want to soothe the ruffled feelings that have occurred during this campaign.”
Fowler is a member of the party’s 30-member rules and bylaws committee, which meets on May 31 to decide whether to seat disputed delegations from Michigan and Florida at the Democratic National Convention, as Hillary Clinton is insisting.
The two states were disqualified after holding their primaries early in defiance of party rules but are likely to have their status partially restored.
Fowler’s wife Carol, who chairs the South Carolina Democratic party, also sits on the rules committee but supports Obama. The couple – a microcosm of the split in the party – believe that a “peaceful resolution” to the conflict is possible.
Don Fowler said Hillary Clinton did not have to be Obama’s running mate to unite the Democrats: “She has lots of options and is a very talented woman. I don’t know if that would be a good choice for her or for the party.” A senior member of Obama’s campaign team suggested the former president could deploy his skills on the stump to help Obama woo white working-class voters in key swing states.
“When this primary is over, we’re going to unite as one and Bill Clinton will play a huge role,” said Patrick Murphy, a congressman who chaired the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania, a battleground state.
In a sign that the two camps are drawing together, Al Gore, the former vice-president and winner of the Nobel peace prize, is hosting a fundraiser for the Democratic party on May 31, co-chaired by Orin Kramer, a prominent Obama fundraiser, and Maureen White, one of Clinton’s top financial backers.
The Clinton dynasty may yet play its part. Bill Clinton predicted last week that Chelsea, his 28-year-old daughter, could one day enter politics.
“If you had asked me this before Iowa [which held its caucus in January], I would have said: no way – she is too allergic to anything we do. But she is really good at it.”
If the entire Clinton family can be persuaded to campaign for Obama, their supporters will surely follow.
Source. / Sunday Times, London
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