Context, as in "you've taken my words out of context," is the last refuge of a politician caught with foot in mouth. That's where Hillary Clinton is today, alternately explaining and apologizing. But with both feet in her mouth, she doesn't have a leg to stand on.
Gravity is the toughest opponent of all, even for a Clinton hellbent on a comeback.
Of course the meaning of words can be distorted if they are lifted from their surroundings. The problem for Clinton is that her reference to the assassination to Robert F. Kennedy is just as outlandish when everything she said before and after is taken into account.
There is no question she was citing the RFK murder of 40 years ago in the spirit of "anything can happen" and thus as a reason she should stay in the race against Barack Obama.
Which means she was thinking of murder as a momentum changer. Not a pretty thought in any context.
But the full context works against Clinton for a larger reason, too. The assassination remark is the latest evidence that her increasingly erratic campaign suffers from a severe case of split personality disorder.
One day it's a focused machine, gobbling up votes in numbers big enough to stave off Obama's nomination triumph. The next day the same machine spews out gaffes and B.S. as though it's been sabotaged.
Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde.
Consider the last three months. Fresh off big popular vote wins in Ohio and Texas in March, she shot herself in the foot with a tall tale about coming under sniper fire during her trip to Bosnia as First Lady. Only when she became the subject of ridicule, with a videotape showing her smiling and accepting flowers from a child in Bosnia, did she confess to being wrong.
In April, her top strategist, Mark Penn, was caught working both sides of a key issue in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary. Among Penn's private clients was the government of Colombia, which was pushing for approval of a free-trade agreement at the same time Clinton was denouncing the idea. When Clinton fired him, he was her second campaign honcho to get dumped.
May brought more of the same, even before the RFK reference. The day after disappointing results in Indiana and North Carolina, she trotted out the race card, saying "Senator Obama's support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening again." She went on to landslide wins in West Virginia and Kentucky by tapping that very demographic.
The headline-grabbing blunders stopped her from scoring big gains against Obama, even though he was wounded by the Jeremiah Wright issue, his "bitter" comments about small-town values and growing concerns about his kumbaya foreign policy overtures. The delegate deficit is a hurdle for her, but she had a potent argument about his vulnerability in the general election.
Instead of cashing in, Clinton repeatedly stepped on her own story. And with finger-wagging Bubba piping up with frequent off-message zingers, the prospect of the restoration of the Clinton presidency has been a political wash at best.
She's now so toxic she's probably doomed any hope of being named Obama's running mate. He didn't want her to start with; now he won't have to take her.
This one matters most because the notion of Obama being assassinated has been much discussed. He is the first black candidate with a real chance to be President, and, not incidentally, received the endorsement of Ted and Caroline Kennedy, making him the symbolic heir to the Camelot legend that was twice felled by assassin bullets. She couldn't have picked a worse point.
Still, myths aside, Obama is looking weak. In addition to Clinton's pounding him in key states, President Bush and Republican nominee John McCain have taken turns using Obama as a piņata. His yes-we-can crusade has been reduced to explaining why he wants to meet personally with the leader of Iran, whose militias are killing American troops in Iraq and who pledges to wipe Israel off the map.
Obama's views on the Mideast are so muddled the appeasement label is starting to stick, but Clinton is in no position to benefit. That's the impact, full and final, of her mentioning murder in a political context.