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Hillary Clinton’s path to Sunday’s address on police matters has not been a smooth one. In fact, as with most things Clinton, the first lady has been careful, in light of the killing of Amadou Diallo, to not say much of substance about an issue critical to New York voters. What follows is a time line showing how the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate has tiptoed around this racial-political tinderbox.
DECEMBER 21, 1999 After a state appellate panel orders the Diallo trial moved to Albany from the Bronx, Clinton calls the decision “unfortunate.” Her spokesman, Howard Wolfson, tells reporters that Clinton will not comment on the court’s legal reasoning since “her purpose is to talk about things she would do as senator, and a senator doesn’t render legal decisions.” That no-rendering vow lasts less than a month, though.
JANUARY 17, 2000 Appearing at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at Al Sharpton’s Harlem headquarters, Clinton refers to “the tragic murder of Mr. Diallo.” With four cops facing trial in the shooting, Clinton is excoriated for seeming to convict the quartet pretrial. On Hardball, host Chris Matthews says, “Her instincts are antipolice.” When Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer confronts Wolfson about his boss’s statement, the spokesman claims that he isn’t even sure Clinton made those remarks. “It’s in court now, and that’s a question for the courts.”
FEBRUARY 2 A group called the Coalition for a Fair Trial, composed of various law enforcement types, rallies in front of the Albany courthouse to criticize Clinton for trying to poison the Diallo jury pool with her “murder” comment. Wolfson now says Clinton “misspoke” at Sharpton’s MLK Day event, adding that the lawyer-candidate “knows that only a jury can decide the outcome of this case.”
FEBRUARY 13 Clinton apologizes for the “murder” remark. “I misspoke. That was just a misstatement on my part,” she tells WNBC’s Gabe Pressman. Hillary’s “my bad” comes 27 days after the gaffe. Not surprisingly, the Post isn’t buying her explanation, noting two days later that it is “becoming clear that this is another Clinton whose use of the English language is not to be trusted.”
FEBRUARY 25 Nearly four hours after the Diallo acquittals, a bland Clinton statement notes that “we must all work together toward the day when all citizens and all police treat each other with mutual respect” and “we must not allow this verdict to divide New York.” Clinton’s remarks appear delayed since she was in Chicago at a fundraiser. Delighted at her tardy reply, the Post quotes a “Democratic lawmaker” wondering, “Does she even know there’s a verdict?” For his part, Rudolph Giuliani declines the postverdict opportunity to comment on HRC’s “murder” rap: “This wouldn’t be the right time to discuss it.” The “right time” will probably end up clocking in at 30 seconds.
FEBRUARY 26 Post columnist Steve Dunleavy reports that the 11-year-old daughter of one of the accused cops wrote Clinton an “impassioned letter” after the candidate made the “murder” remark. “Shame on you,” little Shauna Carroll exclaimed in her missive. Dunleavy notes that after the verdict was read, in a call to her daughter, the officer’s wife says, “Now you can tell everyone, ‘My daddy is not a murderer.’ ” It is unclear whether the child carried that uplifting message to school the following Monday.
FEBRUARY 26 As the city braces for fallout from the verdict, Clinton cancels a trip to Aspen, Colorado, for a fundraiser. Surely she realizes that such an ill-timed white flight would look terrible.
FEBRUARY 28 Citing a last-minute schedule change, Clinton bows out of an appearance with police officials from around New York. Members of the Police Chiefs Benevolent Association, which planned to make her an honorary member, wonder whether Hillary came down with the blue flu to avoid any sticky queries about her Diallo remark.
MARCH 2 Clinton ducks reporters’ questions on whether Diallo cops should be disciplined by the NYPD or if a federal monitor should be named to oversee the police department.
MARCH 3 Previewing her Sunday speech, Clinton notes that New York City “obviously has a problem when an unarmed man is gunned down.” Asked whether a federal civil rights prosecution is warranted in the Diallo killing, the Democratic candidate hedges, saying that Justice Department officials needed to review the case and “make a decision as to whether or not it will proceed.”
MARCH 3 At a San Francisco fundraiser, President Bill Clinton shows he has his wife’s back on the subject of Diallo: “Most people in America of all races believe that if it had been a young white man in an all-white neighborhood, it probably wouldn’t have happened.” More than a year after the killing, these are his first comments on the Diallo case and come on the eve of his wife’s major address on police and race issues in the city.
MARCH 4 Giuliani moans about this Clinton sandwich, saying the president is now also trying to turn Diallo’s death into a “political issue.” Wolfson says Rudy complains too much: “It’s not even worth commenting on,” he comments. “It’s an evasion of the mayor’s responsibility for him to even suggest it.”
MARCH 5 In an address at Riverside Church, Clinton (without uttering her opponent’s name) smacks Giuliani’s tendency to “perceive every question or critique as an attack. To hunker down instead of reaching out. To shut doors instead of opening them.” The Democrat, who has spent time in the bunker herself and once sniffed out a massive right-wing conspiracy targeting her family, delivers this harsh assessment with a straight face.