History repeats itself, someone once said, because people don't hear it right the first time. The problem with Sen. Hillary Clinton's Robert F. Kennedy gaffe is her failure to recall correctly the history that she has helped to make.
She was wrong on the facts, wrong in her argument, and wrong in her recollection of the deep, gut-wrenching fear and loathing that the second assassination of a Kennedy inflicted on Americans across party lines.
Grasping at historical straws to explain why she is still campaigning instead of putting her campaign on hold, at least, the New York senator unleashed an argument that not only sounded breathtakingly tacky but also happens to be wrong on its facts.
"You know, my husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right?" she said to the editorial board at South Dakota's Argus Leader. "We all remember, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."
Yes, he was. But her argument falls apart in light of how her husband, Bill Clinton, already had won three times more delegates by early April 1992 than his nearest opponent, former California Gov. Jerry Brown. There were not enough delegates left in the remaining primaries for Brown to catch up, even if he won all the remaining primaries.
And in 1968 then Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had only entered the race in mid-March, four days after President Lyndon B. Johnson narrowly defeated Sen. Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire.
This year's calendar started much earlier than it ever has before. That's given the Democratic candidates extra time to bicker after the Republican frontrunner, Sen. John McCain, sewed up enough delegates to clinch his party's nomination.
Clinton later apologized for any suggestion that she thinks Obama might be assassinated. Nevertheless, her indelicate remarks laid bare her naked hope: Now that she's exhausted any chance to win the nomination on her own merits, she speculates that something bad might happen to Obama. My column-writing colleague Michael Kinsley famously said that a "gaffe" in Washington is when somebody tells the truth. If so, Clinton appears to have revealed an apparent "truth" that sounds devastatingly inconvenient to her political future.
In her South Dakota newspaper interview, Clinton scoffed at the importance of unifying her party before the last states and Puerto Rico are decided. Instead she and her husband, both Yale-educated lawyers, wield the lawyerly argument that there's no rule or law requiring them to quit. No, there are only quaint notions like grace, tradition, party unity and a desire to avoid letting your sense of entitlement show.
Clinton had made a similar reference to RFK in at least one earlier interview. But this time it had the added unfortunate timing to have come a day after the nation learned that Sen. Edward Kennedy had brain cancer. It also came closer to the 40th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's death. But, most of all, it came at a time when more people than ever are wondering why Clinton is still in the race.
As Rolling Stone political correspondent Matt Taibbi has observed, we may yet see the Clintons' real legacy is "institutionalizing the fight for power through lawyers and backroom maneuvering instead of votes."
All it takes is a sense, endlessly promoted by the Clintons, that a system that leaves them a few votes or delegates short must be a flawed system.
The irony for us old fogies with long memories is how Bill and Hillary Clinton used to be passionately idealistic antiwar baby boomers themselves. In George McGovern's 1972 campaign, they opposed the old-school Democratic bosses in "smoke-filled rooms." Today the Clintons have become the old-school insiders fending off the insurgent antiwar campaign of the Illinois upstart, Sen. Barack Obama.
Ah, the irony. Now hopes for an Obama-Clinton ticket may have hit the rocks with the RFK gaffe. Obama's political chief, David Axelrod, sounded nothing but conciliatory in his call to "move on" during an ABC-TV appearance Sunday. But, at a time when she's been trying to raise questions about Obama's maturity, experience and judgment, Hillary Clinton suddenly gave us a new reason to wonder about hers.
The Clinton camp still has bargaining power with the Obama camp, which does not want to lose the votes of her supporters. But Sen. Clinton faces the danger of winding up on the wrong side of the history she is trying to make. She may yet be remembered as then-Gov. Ronald Reagan was in 1976 and Sen. Edward Kennedy was in 1980 as a challenger whose primary fight led to the party's defeat in November.