When Bad Things Happen To Good Candidates

Well, it seems that pretty much everyone’s all a-dither about Hillary Clinton mentioning the assassination of Robert Kennedy back in 1968 when discussing why she’s staying in the race. Some say it was tactless and graceless; others see it as a veiled threat.

I don’t.

I tend to take the historic view on such things, and in her own ham-handed way, Hillary was making a very valid point: sometimes bad things happen to leading candidates, and we’d be wise to make preparations for such events.

For example, in 1992 Ross Perot was making a very credible bid for the presidency on his own third-party ticket when he couldn’t contain his inner wigginess any longer and self-destructed in a most spectacular fashion. He ended up proving a spoiler in that race, tipping the balance to Bill Clinton, but after his dust-up with the NAACP he never really recovered.

In 1988, Gary Hart was the Democratic frontrunner when he finally decided to address the questions about his marital infidelity and challenged reporters to follow him around. They did, right to Donna Rice’s townhouse, where he spent the night. Splat, crash, burn.

In 1972, Thomas Eagleton was pretty much guaranteed the Democratic nomination for vice-president when his history of mental illness came out, and he went from rising superstar to has-been in an instant.

Also in 1972, George Wallace was making his own credible third-party play for the presidency, when a would-be assassin’s bullet took him out of the race.

Hillary addressed 1968, so I’ll skip that one over and go to 1944. It’s certainly arguable that President Roosevelt should not have run for a fourth term, knowing his health would make an unplanned transition a certainty, but he did anyway.

And back in 1900, a young Republican upstart reformer was causing the party bigwigs all kinds of headaches. They finally hit upon the perfect plan to silence the little punk — they gave him the “honor” of an office that had tons of prestige, but absolutely no real power. Then an anarchist with an unpronounceable last name ran into President McKinley, and those bigwigs suddenly found that that brash young pain in the ass they thought they’d rid themselves of was suddenly President of the United States. The 1900’s equivalent of “oh, shit” echoed through the halls of power when Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office.

I can understand why Hillary Clinton chose not to mention Gary Hart. Not only is Hart still around and semi-active in Democratic politics, making mention of his fall extremely awkward, but the circumstances of Hart’s fall bear uncomfortable echoes for her — or, more specifcally, her husband’s own problems with “bimbo eruptions” when he ran for president in 1992. Indeed, talk of Hart was very prominent when the stories about Bill’s philandering ways started bubbling to the surface.

No, she probably thought it safer to remind everyone of a candidate whose downfall was purely external, a Democratic martyr whose assassination elevated him to near-saintly status, than to remind everyone of another Democrat who couldn’t keep his pants on — especially one who could still speak out. And while I don’t think Hart is a “superdelegate,” he certainly could have some say at the Democratic National Convention.

No, Hillary’s mention of Bobby Kennedy is nothing more than further proof that the woman has a tin ear when it comes to public perceptions. It was clumsy, it was graceless, and it was just plain stupid to put it forth in a context like she did.

But the essential point she was raising is valid: in politics, anything can happen at any time, to any person.

And, far too often in our history, it has.

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