Hillary, King and Goldwater

While Hillary Rodham Clinton came out second best to Barack Obama in their long-range oratorical duel at Selma, Ala., the real problem with her visit there a week ago concerned her March 4 speech’s claim of her attachment to Martin Luther King Jr. as a high school student in 1963. How, then, could she be a "Goldwater girl" in the next year’s presidential election?

The incompatibility of those two positions of 40 years ago was noted to me by Democratic old-timers who were shocked by Sen. Clinton’s temerity in pursuing her presidential candidacy. Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the 1964 voting rights bill was not incidental to his run for the White House but an integral element of conscious departure from Republican tradition that contributed to his disastrous performance.

Of course, no political candidate should have to explain inconsistencies of her high school days. What Hillary Clinton said at Selma is significant because it betrays her campaign’s panicky reaction to the unexpected rise of Sen. Obama as a serious competitor for the Democratic nomination.

The Clinton game plan for returning to the White House reflected tactics used in 2000 when she parachuted into New York to tie up campaign money, secure support from important Democrats and discourage potential opponents for the nomination. It seemed to be working on the national scene, discouraging longtime presidential aspirants. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack dropped out, and Democrats who dared to run were being snowed under by the Clinton tide.

Clinton’s plans were transformed by the advent of Obama, an African-American threatening the hard allegiance of black voters forged by Bill Clinton. On one hand, the Clinton campaign has attacked Obama and his supporters. On the other hand, she has sought to solidify her civil rights credentials.

Speaking at Selma’s First Baptist Church on the 42nd anniversary of the "bloody Sunday" freedom march there, Sen. Clinton declared: "As a young girl [age 16], I had the great privilege of hearing Dr. King speak in Chicago. The year was 1963. My youth minister from our church took a few of us down on a cold January night to hear [King]. . . . And he called on us, he challenged us that evening to stay awake during the great revolution that the civil rights pioneers were waging on behalf of a more perfect union."

Young Hillary Rodham answered that challenge the next year as the 17-year-old class president at Maine East High School in the Chicago suburbs. She described herself in her memoirs as "an active Young Republican" and "a Goldwater girl, right down to my cowgirl outfit." As a politically attuned honor student, she must have known that Goldwater was one of only six Republican senators who joined Southern Democratic segregationists opposing the historic voting rights act of 1964 inspired by King.

Hillary headed the Young Republicans at Wellesley College as a freshman before defecting to the Democrats there. But when in 1969 at age 22 she was the first Wellesley student to deliver the commencement address, she did not place civil rights first. She talked about a demonstration in Founder’s parking lot at the college that "protested against the rigid academic distribution requirement" and supported "a pass-fail system" and "a say" in "academic decision making." That was not quite Martin Luther King’s agenda.

While Clinton was re-inventing her past, her campaign was shaken by the first serious, public internal Democratic criticism of the Clintons since the 1992 presidential campaign. The sharp rebuke of Hollywood producer David Geffen, the erstwhile Clinton friend now backing Obama, was approved unanimously by a campaign conference call presided over by consultant Mark Penn. Bill Clinton was not on that call. But the former president, described by Democratic sources as "incandescent" over Geffen’s remarks, recommended the harsh response.

Hillary Clinton’s road to the White House is not going as planned. Instead of a steady procession to coronation at the Denver convention, she is involved in a real struggle against credible opponents led by Obama. No wonder she and her handler were tempted to imply the existence long ago of a teen-ager in Chicago’s suburbs who never really existed.