Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Theory Behind the Taboo

"Well, both, if we could . . .heh heh heh heh."
-- Liz Trotta, Fox News Contributor
(see below)

A couple observations about the fallout from Hillary Clinton's Friday comments:

From what I could see, everyone was at first pretty well agreed that what she said was inappropriate. Absent any consideration of motives, there is a strong taboo against politicians raising the specter of political violence. That Hillary Clinton had seemed--and this is obviously hot disputed at the moment--to be explicitly making the potential for violence a part of her political calculations made it all the worse.

After the initial storm of criticism, there was obviously a felt need in the Clinton camp to defend Senator Clinton from the worst inferences being made about her. That imperative made impossible the abject apology that so many people were demanding. I think that's why the Clinton campaign settled on their current approach, which involves (a) a limited statement of regret from the candidate if anyone is offended and (b) a strong insistence that Senator Clinton had been taken out of context, has said nothing wrong, and that the Obama campaign is in some way at fault.



Some saw that as a suggestion that the same thing could happen to Obama, who leads Clinton in the race for the party nomination. The Clinton team vehemently denies that was her intent, pointing out that she was simply naming lengthy primary campaigns of the past when she mentioned Kennedy.

"She was talking about it in a historical context," Wolfson told host Bob Schieffer. "To claim that she was making any other kind of reference," he said, " is wrong. And I think some in the news media did overhype this."

The press isn't the only one to blame, he suggested.

"The Obama campaign did put out a statement almost immediately condemning the remarks," he said. "I think what the Obama campaign did on Friday was unfortunate . . . to attack Sen. Clinton's remarks without knowing fully what she had said."

Now, in a way, this is all predictable. Hillary Clinton wants to win; so does her well-paid and ambitious staff and her dedicated cadre of supporters. None of them want to see the coup de grĂ¢ce of her campaign delivered as the result of a single word. So they attack the taboo: It's an innocuous comment interpreted in a pernicious way. Hillary wishes she had put it a different way, but honestly, what's the big deal?

Well, the big deal is that it leads to moments like this:

That's Fox News contributor Liz Trotta--after misspeaking--laughing approvingly about "somebody knocking off" Barack Obama (along with Osama Bin Laden). Hillary Clinton's comments, and her campaign's subsequent attempt to defend them, made that terrible moment possible on a mainstream television station. They have made the possibility of assassination a part of our discourse--a topic of normal discussion--and a predicate for mordant humor. Further, it is reasonable to fear that the normalization of this pernicious discussion will give license and tactical cover to actual extremists.

That's why the taboo exists in the first place. Because while Hillary Clinton may not mean anything by it, someone like Liz Trotta could--in effect--say "from your lips to God's ears," and a more malign listener could take the encouragement seriously. That's why politicians don't, and shouldn't, talk about the potential for political violence. It's a taboo worth preserving. Let's hope the Clinton campaign understands that.

Also, the Secret Service should make an example of Liz Trotta. This has to stop here.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman, right on cue, illustrating this unfortunate dynamic:

It is, in a way, almost appropriate that the final days of the struggle for the Democratic nomination have been marked by yet another fake Clinton scandal — the latest in a long line that goes all the way back to Whitewater.

This one, in case you missed it, involved an interview Hillary Clinton gave the editorial board of South Dakota’s Argus Leader, in which she tried to make a case for her continuing campaign by pointing out that nomination fights have often gone on into the summer. As one of her illustrations, she mentioned that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June.

It wasn’t the best example to use, but it’s absurd to suggest, as some Obama supporters immediately did, that Mrs. Clinton was making some kind of dark hint about Barack Obama’s future.

It's really not about whatever was going on inside her head.

UPDATE 2, Trotta apologizes:

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