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Clinton Gaffe, McCain Health Records Top Campaign News

May 23, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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As Sen. Hillary Clinton apologized for citing the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy as a rationale for staying in the race, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama took harder punches at one another in the presidential contest. Mark Shields and David Brooks consider the news from the trail.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnists Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And as we heard Hillary Clinton just earlier today, just before show time, in fact, she was talking to the editorial board of the Argus about how late, historically, primary contests have run. She referenced, first, the fact that her husband didn’t wrap it up until June of ’92, and then added, “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,” as if to say, yes, June, when there was still a campaign on.

But the blowback has been — and in a very short time, a strikingly short time — tremendous. What’s this about?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, what a country we live in when we have our events of the day — we have McCain distancing himself from some lunatic preacher; we have Obama pandering to the Jews, “I really love your Woody Allen movies”; and then we’ve got Hillary Clinton with the RFK thing.

And my own personal belief is she didn’t mean it. She was talking about June. She stumbled into the assassination thing. She didn’t mean anything by it. You know, she says 100,000 words a day like all the candidates.

I basically think there’s nothing to it, doesn’t reflect any real views of any of the three what happened today.

Assassination comment

David Brooks
New York Times
It's reckless or despicable if she's trying to send a signal to voters, "Hey, this guy could be killed. You better keep me in the race." I just can't imagine she was thinking that.

RAY SUAREZ: But is it emblematic of what can happen in a campaign, when unexpected and, as far as she was concerned, fairly innocuous things end up becoming a dustup?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I don't think this is -- this rises to a different level. The unspoken story of this campaign have been the assassination threats against Barack Obama. It's widely known. It's widely whispered. It's widely discussed, always in private.

He had Secret Service protection earlier than any candidate in our history. He is the first African-American. I don't care who it is, who's covering an event, whether it's 75,000 people on the Portland waterfront or when he plunged into the crowd in Des Moines, there's a sense of holding their breath for fear that some lunatic could step forward.

RAY SUAREZ: So you don't think Mrs. Clinton's statement was inadvertent?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was, at the best, totally reckless. I mean, her history is absolutely faulty. Robert Kennedy's first primary, Ray, was in May 7th of 1968. He was murdered four weeks later. She's talking about a long campaign.

This campaign began the first week in January. She's still talking about June. So, I mean, it's faulty there.

And then her explanation afterwards was just unbelievable. She said, Senator Kennedy, Edward Kennedy, had been on my mind. And, therefore, I was thinking in these terms.

I mean, it's absolutely bizarre. And I just -- I really do think it was a reckless statement and one for which she should be held accountable.

DAVID BROOKS: It's reckless or despicable if she's trying to send a signal to voters, "Hey, this guy could be killed. You better keep me in the race." I just can't imagine she was thinking that.

I think these people say a lot of things, and this came out. I just can't imagine.

You know, Eugene Robinson had a piece in the Washington Post today about why she's going forward at this late date, which I think is the right analysis. She's going forward because every day you can't think long term. She just goes forward from day to day to day, and they're exhausted, and this sort of thing comes out, and I think the blowup is out of proportion.

MARK SHIELDS: This has been a YouTube campaign. It's what makes this campaign different from any we've been through. Every word you say is recorded. It's been rather remarkable that the three surviving candidates have made so few missteps.

I acknowledge that Senator Clinton is tired, that her stamina has been tested. But I really think this was a statement that she has to be held accountable for.

McCain's health

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
The greatest rebuttal, the greatest retort he has to any critics or any skeptics on his health is Roberta McCain [McCain's mother]. She is sharper than most people half her age, and she's more agile and more engaged and more animated.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, there was a medical document dump in the American Southwest, 1,800 pages of John McCain's health history, saying basically in pretty good shape for a man his age.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And I think when you cover the guy, you see him -- basically, what you see is a guy who's working 15 hours a day, or 16 or 17 or 18 hours a day. And you've seen him doing that for 18 months now.

So when you cover the guy, you think, "Well, he's got the energy." And, frankly, my worry about John McCain is not that he's too old and feeble, is that he's too hyperactive.

I mean, the guy 15 years ago would have been totally unfit for the presidency because you couldn't have locked him up in the White House. The guy can't sit still.

And so, to me, his health is the least of his concerns, if you actually cover him day to day, because he will exhaust you.

RAY SUAREZ: Why was it important for him to do this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, because the melanoma more than anything else. And plus the lingering charges from the campaign that George Bush ran against him, about whether he was mentally healthy and emotionally healthy. And that was part of it.

The greatest rebuttal, the greatest retort he has to any critics or any skeptics on his health is Roberta McCain. She's 96 years old. She is sharper than most people half her age, and she's more agile and more engaged and more animated. John McCain has great genes.

McCain goes after Obama

David Brooks
New York Times
If McCain had run against Clinton, these two senators actually do respect each other. They work together quite a lot. Obama and McCain never had that mutual respect and do not have that mutual respect.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier this week, and continuing right up until today, some tough shots -- this is like October between Senators Obama and McCain. John McCain said about Barack Obama, "For a young man, he's done very well, very, very great lack of experience and knowledge of the issues."

MARK SHIELDS: Lack of experience I think is where John McCain wants to run against Barack Obama.

Frequently, Ray, when a president lets us down in this country, or fails, the voters go looking for what was missing in that failed president in that president's successor. That explained the election of Jimmy Carter after the criminality of the Nixon years and Spiro Agnew and Watergate and the idea of an outsider with virginal, no back-deal, back-room Washington experience.

After George W. Bush, American voters are looking for a united, not a divider. They're looking for someone who can reach across the partisan divide. Obama qualifies in this.

But they had a terrible experience with George W. Bush, who was unsure-footed, unknowledgeable, and uncurious about world affairs and national security. And I think this is where John McCain sees his target of opportunity, as far as Obama is concerned.

RAY SUAREZ: Was it an effective rebuttal from Senator Obama?

DAVID BROOKS: I'm not sure it's the right way to go after Obama. I'm not sure -- first of all, the ugliness is already there.

If McCain had run against Clinton, these two senators actually do respect each other. They work together quite a lot. Obama and McCain never had that mutual respect and do not have that mutual respect.

So even though they're both independent, post-political sorts of a kind, I expect we're in for an extremely nasty campaign. Now they're already trying to define each other in extremely negative terms.

If I were McCain, though, going after the inexperience card, which is the card he keeps hitting, it seems to me Hillary Clinton tried that to no effect. And the argument that worked better was he's out of touch with regular Americans, which McCain isn't using.

But he keeps hitting that inexperience. "He's naive," that's a word he uses quite a lot. I'm not sure that's going to work with the American people.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator McCain said that electing Barack Obama in these tumultuous times would be dangerous.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think that is -- I mean, Obama's mandate, his challenge is to make voters feel comfortable and safe with him, Ray, not simply as commander-in-chief and as principal diplomat for the country, but also on personal values.

I mean, I don't think there's any question that Barack Obama gets under John McCain's skin. I mean, he certainly did in the debate over the G.I. Bill. And we saw a side of John McCain that John McCain has really kept away from the public microphones and cameras for quite a while, when he started saying that, for a young man who chose not to serve in the military -- I mean, John McCain was the chairman of Phil Gramm's presidential campaign in 1996 against Bob Dole, an authentic hero, Phil Gramm, who prided himself on the fact that he had avoided military service, artfully and creatively.

And he's never mentioned Dick Cheney's five deferments. I mean, that just seemed small for John McCain.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, it was out of character, because he's someone who's never pulled the military card...

MARK SHIELDS: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: ... I think in debate, but I think McCain's sense of Obama -- and certainly people in the McCain campaign's sense -- is that he's a guy who talks about independence. He never actually does anything; he never takes any risks. He wasn't involved in the Gang of 14. He didn't really work on immigration.

So unlike Clinton, who they think did actually work across the aisle, they do not believe that of Obama. And I think that's why they don't have the respect.

And I do think it's dangerous for both candidates. If they started both this negative so quickly -- and particularly McCain -- it just could get so ugly and tarnish both the reputations. I don't know how it plays out, but the loathing, the mutual loathing, it could spin wildly out of control.

Pastors in the spotlight

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
[In 2000] John McCain called both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" in that campaign. This time, John McCain has been kissing the hem, and singing the praises, and courting the support of these people.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, pursuant to that, opposition researchers have probably spent more hours watching videotaped sermons this campaign season than ever before in our history.

DAVID BROOKS: I'm sure it's been an uplifting experience for all of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, John McCain had to denounce or felt he had to denounce Pastors Hagee and Rod Parsley, who's been heard about a lot less, frankly. But both this week said, instead of the little bit of daylight he put a couple of weeks ago, he said, "No, no, sorry, I have nothing to do with this."

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Hagee says something idiotic every 45 minutes or so and McCain has had to distance or apologize, but he's never completely broken until these latest remarks about Hitler.

And it's, A, embarrassing, but I can't believe it will have any political effect, because people know McCain. They know that he's not that big a social conservative. They know his views are nothing like that.

If he were sort of a militant, social conservative who ran as a religious conservative, I think it would tarnish him. But McCain's moral sensibility is, frankly, military. It's based on honor and courage. It's classical. It's different from what Hagee represents. So I don't think it will hurt him.

MARK SHIELDS: For John McCain, it's an unhelpful reminder on how different he was as a candidate in 2000, when he disdained the constituency-coddling that the Bush campaign spent hours and days and weeks perfecting, going after every little splinter group in the party, particularly religious conservatives.

And John McCain called both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" in that campaign. This time, John McCain has been kissing the hem, and singing the praises, and courting the support of these people.

And what I think really bothered him, when he had to cut loose on the Reverend Hagee and Reverend Parsley, was he had accused Obama as having been endorsed by Hamas several times.

Obama never sought any endorsement from Hamas. He never praised Hamas. He rejected Hamas. And John McCain, by contrast, sought and welcomed and appreciated and even defended Hagee's characterization of the Catholic Church as the "whore" and the "anti-Christ."

It was just when he went into the Hitler Hunter syndrome that he had to cut him loose.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, this is because McCain doesn't actually -- or the people in the McCain campaign are not that expert in the evangelical community. They think Hagee is important.

If they actually knew a little more, they would know they don't have to worry about a guy like that and they can go to the people who actually matter. But I think that's a sign of the lack of connection that McCain has had. And that has actually been a problem for McCain, the lack of connection to the authentically important social conservatives.

RAY SUAREZ: And perhaps an explanation for why it took so long to cut this guy loose?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, I think that there wasn't a hue and cry, but I think there's no question, when Hagee made his statements about the Holocaust having been necessary for the creation of Israel and part of God's plan, that it risked his support with, I think, Jewish voters, who are very important to McCain, because they've targeted Florida.

And Obama has manifest problems with Jewish supporters, we saw in his courting and wooing in the synagogue.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, David, have a good weekend.