Saturday, May 24, 2008

Waterloo, S.D.

There’s no reverse gear for a car heading off a cliff.

The panoramically flawed, irreversibly doomed presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton learned this lesson — maybe its last — in the wildfire of reactions to her comments in South Dakota, a twisted speculative conflation of the chance of assassination and the rationale to continue a failed bid for the presidency.

Those comments, said Friday at a newspaper editorial meeting in Sioux Falls, S.D., and weakly explained later in the day at a supermarket in Brandon, S.D., said it all [see the video below]. Her Friday statements were really the fourth time Clinton either directly or obliquely referenced the June 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, en route to an expression of the potential for surprise as a reason for staying in a race she cannot win.

But this time was too over the top, too visible to ignore. In a streaming-live moment, Clinton invoked race and the spectre of political violence in the service of a campaign whose appetite for self-destruction seems almost pathological. It’s an Internet-time meltdown: Her comments distill in a moment what’s been obvious in slow motion for months: we’re witnessing not just a political campaign but a political career in free fall. We’re watching a decline almost Nixonian in its arc.

“This does great damage to her persona and her biography,” said Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian and professor at Rice University, on MSNBC’s “Countdown.” Brinkley clearly understood the cultural repercussions: “Leno and Letterman types can’t even make a joke about the latest comment because it’s just so dark … it’s almost become now a pathology we’re dealing with. The humor of her not quitting is starting to not even be funny anymore.”

In every political campaign, there’s some distilling moment that puts everything in that campaign to that point in a clear and unmistakable perspective.

This was her watershed. Her Waterloo.

◊ ◊ ◊

Now Team Clinton faces the prospect of having to make their electoral-map case with little leverage at all; most of her positions are now politically untenable. Whatever leverage she may have had for gaining the vice-presidential spot on the Obama ticket has evaporated tout court. And whatever sway she may have possessed with the already dwindling number of superdelegates is gone too. In fact, according to a Friday story by independent journalist Al Giordano, on his Web site, The Field, a group of superdelegates — including some pledged Clinton delegates — is about to announce support for Obama.

There are few options left for Team Clinton. The opportunity for a dignified climbdown is pretty much off the table. She's seen to that. Damage control is more the order of the day than it had been already. The saving grace of all this may be the timing; it happened on a Memorial Day weekend so, relatively speaking, this tree in the forest might not make the sound it would otherwise.

Leave it to Keith Olbermann, the host of “Countdown,” to put the situation in its proper context, one that won’t be forgotten between now and the formal end of the already-ended Clinton campaign:

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