Hillary without the spotlight

When Hillary Clinton peers ahead on the campaign trail these days, she cannot help but see the tunnel at the end of the light.

Soon the spotlight in which she once twirled alone, far ahead of a dimly lit pack, will be no more. Stretching ahead of that, for her, there appears to be only the darkness of the tunnel that is more commonly known as the corridor of power that leads to the Capitol Dome.

Yes, the dome gleams ever white against the capital sky. And yes, it is, for some, their ultimate aspiration, a seat at the pinnacle of power, a career cap of glory. But Hillary Clinton is not and has never been one of those others.

After all, she spent eight years at the mountaintop, in the gleaming white mansion at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, just 16 blocks up the road. And then she went from the mountain to the Hill, getting herself elected to the Senate.

But a seat as the junior senator from New York, a state she didn’t much know until she worked it and won it, was never intended to be her grand prize. That’s why she never put herself on the insider’s track to be part of the Senate’s Democratic Party leadership team, but instead worked tirelessly on the outside, helping Democrats win elections, which has the added dimension of building a nationwide network of appreciative allies for whom she had campaigned and to whom she had contributed her time and, of course, her political action cash.

It seemed a solid foundation for a launching pad, a fitting place to fire up her personal fame and political reputation and rocket away to an instantaneous lead in the presidential race. Uncatchable, said some pundits. Unstoppable, said the rest. Until she was caught and stopped.

Now she finds herself alone on a trail where the light has dimmed and vision is difficult at best. Focusing ahead, all she can see is the tunnel and for her it seems dark indeed. It is the corridor of power that leads to the dome of prestige, but suddenly that junior seat from New York looms as her only sure prize. And being number 36 in seniority among the Senate’s 49 Democrats just doesn’t much cut it as a grand prize for one who has twirled so famously in the spotlight for some many years — decades, in fact. Not even when she knows, deep down, that the spotlight was really not hers for most of those decades, but his.

So it is understandable why she has resorted to trying all manner of desperate moves and maneuvers to try to hang around long enough, winning just enough, to stay around in the event that something can happen and Democrats will turn to her at last and she can be resurrected as the life of the party. Yet again.

But desperation never begets subtlety. And so, there was the once and former Democratic presidential frontrunner, in Sioux Falls, S.D., meeting with the editorial board of the Argus Leader newspaper. When she said something that was received as being so shocking that the pundits and the chattering heads are still talking about it on the nonstop cable news.

It happened when she was asked that suddenly old question of why she doesn’t just abandon her now-Quixotic quest for the presidency as so many Democrats say she eventually must, so should now. “Historically, that makes no sense,” she said, adding: “My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”

Gasps were exceeded only by disgust when word of what she’d said in Sioux Falls whipped across the country like a windswept prairie fire. Pols, pundits and just plain people reacted as one. Clinton’s team rushed to explain and then she issued one of those Washington-braunschweiger apologies _ the kind that is not really about the offender but the offended, so it never says “I’m sorry” but just I-regret-if-you-took offense.

That’s what Clinton did — and she further de-blamed herself by emphasizing that she said it mainly because her mind was filled with the sad news of Ted Kennedy’s brain cancer diagnosis: “The Kennedys have been much on my mind the last days because of Senator Kennedy and I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation, and particularly for the Kennedy family was in any way offensive.”

Time out. Way back in happier times for Kennedy and Clinton, on March 6, the day after Clinton won the Texas and Ohio primaries, Time Magazine managing editor Rick Stengel asked the senator if party leaders might want to end the contest early. “No, I really can’t. Primary contests used to last a lot longer. We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A. My husband didn’t wrap up the nomination in 1992 until June, also in California. Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual.”

Time Magazine put her words on its web site on March 6 and published them in the March 17 magazine. But the talking heads paid no attention to it. Not until Clinton said it again, just the other day, in that major media metropolis of Sioux Falls. (It is yet another of Campaign 2008’s wacky ways that Time apparently just doesn’t have the clout of the Argus Leader.)

Clinton’s assassination comment was deplorable. Her apologia explanation was calculatedly acceptable on the surface — but cynical when seen in the glaring light of its full context.

The darkness of the looming tunnel may provide a worthy respite for us all.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)