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Archives for Politics and Feminism

Sonia versus Sarah


Sarah Palin. Sonia Sotomayor. These two women have almost nothing in common except gender – and a little time in the public eye. But thereby hangs a tale. And a look at how opportunity is and was created in this country.

Sonia Sotomayer’s success is due in no small part to the willingness of Ivy-league institutions to accept students without regard for their economic status. As recently as 30 years ago – when student loans were new, Pell Grants went by an ugly series of initials (BEOG) and yuppies didn’t exist, places like Harvard, Yale and Princeton underwrote college tuition for pretty much anyone smart enough to get accepted.

You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist. You didn’t have to be a varsity-level jock. You just had to get admitted to the school and fill out a bunch of forms. If you needed the money – and you were in – the schools would help. And if you got in and you needed money half-way through, most would help with that, too.

It wasn’t rosy, no one should think it was. Ivy-league schools were expensive then and anyone getting financial aide worried not just about getting through four years but getting the loans paid off once they got out. That’s probably why we’ve got so very many lawyers in this country.

Today it’s almost impossible for a student at any of those schools to “work their way through”. Tuition is simply too expensive, grants harder to come by, loan terms more restrictive – and this is before the economic crisis that’s cut many an endowment fund off at the knees.

In contrast to Sotomayor – who’s got a smile that can light up a room – we’ve got Sarah Palin. It’s been hard to decide what to make of Palin. She’s grasping and self-righteous and possessed of an intelligence that gives her – let’s be polite – a shrewd sense of how to take the best advantage of an opportunity. But, hey, that’s politics. And her speech before the Republican National Convention was a great demonstration of these skills. She’s a good campaigner; voters like her.

But Palin’s path to national-level success seems to rest almost entirely on her personal charms. It’s hard to believe given her recent public outbursts, that Palin can be charming. But a lot of Republican men seem to think she is attractive and they are anxious to recruit more women to the party. That’s how Palin got nominated to be vice president.

Plenty of women take advantage of their looks to succeed – and Palin with her five kids and handsome “first dude” of a husband does a good job of winking to those who can’t play that game but who don’t mind her doing so. They would if they could. When Palin raids Nieman Marcus her supporters understand that she deserves something nice – just as they do – after years of hard, thankless work. And Palin’s look – sexy Mommy – is very important. At the Conservative Political Action Conference (where she was a no show) earlier this year, the hot Librarian look – glasses, up-do, very high heels – was the look for young girls

Palin’s dilemma is that women who do take advantage of their looks – for a living – pretty much know it. You don’t see a lot of supermodels worrying about what David Letterman thinks of them or their families. And they certainly don’t issue press releases every time someone suggests that they’re somehow less than perfect. You have to have good and thick skin to succeed on a smile; it is a kind of cynical affirmative action. You’re getting help ’cause you’re cute – that’s it.

You also have to be pretty tough to make it through the nation’s legal establishment with a Spanish last name fighting the belief that formal affirmative action programs – which at their best are nothing more giving people a break on the basis of potential ability – are somehow zero-sum games. And while Sonia Sotomayor probably doesn’t mean to stand in contrast to Palin, her accomplishments give us a good look at how opportunity on the basis of ability – not personal charm or looks – is the better course.

A lot of breath will be wasted in the U.S. Senate today about Sotomayor’s success because of her minority status. To which the answer should be “So what?” Very little of that sort of criticism is leveled at Palin who represents women in the Republican party – a minority if I ever saw one. But between the two of them, we can get a look at how affirmative action should work and why it’s still very much needed.

A policy designed to help those who have the proven ability to help themselves – getting into Princeton and Yale ain’t easy – is one that by its open-handed faith has the power to discourage those whose only real ability is to look out for number one.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 4:02 PM | Permalink

Michelle Obama’s Armed Insurrection


So, what is is about Michelle Obama’s arms that’s inspired a national semi-obsession?

Everybody’s got a pair. Why are her’s so special? Well, there’s the obvious. Among women of a certain age and class – a class that doesn’t involve lifting anything heavier than a soy latte – toned arms are a status symbol. For mothers with children, firm delts say “enough money to pay a nanny and make time to go to the gym.”

Which is another way of saying “just like us” to that crowd, one that for better or worse, sets our cultural cues. Michelle Obama has managed to turn herself into a kind of every-woman who doesn’t inspire jealousy but, instead, admiration. This is, I suspect, the result of being a black woman in a mostly white world; you get used to managing your behavior and mien when you thoroughly understand that you’re almost always being evaluated on something you can never change – your gender or your skin color. If nothing else, the Obama family’s ability to shrewdly see themselves as they are seen by white America and to subtly change those perceptions is an accomplishment.

That’s not to set aside Obama’s charm and sincerity. Her speak-from-the-heart style rings true and her enthusiasm for her husband, for his presidency and for the wonder and fun of living in the White House strike all of us as pretty much how we’d feel: Obama says she’s got the best job in the administration and she’s not shy about why. No cooking? Great! No beds to make? Even better!

But that doesn’t really explain why Michelle Obama’s popularity has out-striped that of many movie stars and other pop culture figures. I mean lots of us are sincere. Even more of us hate the chores of domestic life. So what is it about this woman?

Well, first of all, she’s no girl. She may have a breezy style but most folks who deal with Michelle Obama realize that she’s not to be dismissed – those arms come from early morning work-outs before the kids (and the husband) get up. Even in her recent write-up of what was clearly a girlfriends’ lunch, the Washington Post Sally Quinn didn’t even bother to use that phrase. Quinn, who considers herself the gatekeeper of Washington “society”, has given Michelle Obama a pass – a courtesy she didn’t give the Clintons or George W. Bush family.


Posted by Chris Nolan at 11:02 AM | Permalink

The Content of Our Character


Let’s be clear: If Sen. Barack Obama is not elected president tomorrow it will indeed be because he’s black.

It won’t be because he’s not tough enough – that’s a euphemism that questions Obama’s judgement and suggests that the color of his skin makes his thought process somehow inadequate. And it won’t be because he’s a “graduate student” – that’s a jab that implies that Obama’s not really that smart – he can’t be, he’s black.

No, if Obama loses it will be because a large number of Americans can’t bring themselves to vote for a man with dark skin. They may feel Obama is not “ready” – code, like all these other phrases, for “not a white person we can trust”. They may not like the idea of a First Lady – silly title, really – who is very dark-skinned and “angry” – which is how whites often describe black folks who aren’t obviously grateful for the “opportunities” they’ve had.

Each of these euphemisms ignores a simple fact: African-Americans who have done well at the nation’s top law firms, its Ivy League universities, its corporate boardrooms have had to demonstrate perseverence, judgement, diplomacy, intelligence and toughness and fortitude. More so, much more so, than their white counterparts.

That’s on top of the the obvious insults. For the past few days, the Republican Trust Political Action Committee has been airing a television commercial here in San Francisco that neatly sums up all the criticism of Obama, imagined and otherwise. It claims Obama’s “power base” was built in the church run by Rev. Jeremiah Wright and accompanied by pictures – and some audio – of Rev. Wright talking about the “KKK” and “god-damn” America. The ads end: “Barack Obama, too radical, too risky.”

What’s interesting about this ad isn’t what it says – same old, same old from a political party that’s happily scared the daylights out of white folks for a generation – it’s where it’s running. San Francisco is one of the most liberal cities in the U.S. But it is not a white city; it’s Asian, mostly Chinese. The ad I’ve described is aimed at instilling fear in those immigrants, taking a racist stereotype that many may know and imposing in on a man they may not.

It’s scurilous, it’s racist and well, it tells you what many, many people really think about Obama. The Wright ads are a slightly more sophisticated version of the scenario concocted by that Texas college student who dreamed up an attack by a tall black man who was supposed enraged by her John McCain bumper sticker. The subtext: Be afraid of Obama because, given the chance, black people will inflict deliberate harm on whites out of anger, jealousy or revenge.

This nonsense is not confined to the stupid or the politically naive. How else can you explain the speculation that Gen. Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama was motivated by racial solidarity? Or silly Monica Crowley’s dismay that Jet and Ebony magazines had gotten better treatment on the Obama campaign plane than writers from the New York Post and Washington Times? This nonsense is nothing more than a variation on another theme: It is very hard for people of different races to truly see one another but, for crying out loud, they don’t all think alike.

This is one ugly mirror of race relations in this country, a mirror that not very many white folks like to look at. Which is something that – if Obama does win – will start to change.

Everyone has their shopping list on this one. My great hopes is that Obama’s election will do away with a lot of nonsensical chatter about “post-racial.” This is a stupid phrase that’s code for “do they know?” as in “Does Michelle know she’s the only black woman in the room?” The answer to that question is obvious: If you were the only white woman in a room of African-Americans would you “know”?

“Post racial” is how people in power describe a world they think welcomes black folks. This is a world that many of them – as Time columnist Joe Klein put it awkwardly – don’t really understand. With reason. The most amusing thing about the Charlie Rose show where Klein made his comments was also the most appalling. In an election year that has seen two historic candidacies, a black man and a white woman run hard for the Democratic Party’s nomination and break our concept of what it means to be a successful politician, Rose’ guests, all talented journalists from “major” outlets, were all men and they were all white. I guess the “qualified” female commentators are still bitterly weeping over Sen. Clinton’s loss so they didn’t have time for Rose. And, of course, the black reporters are all on the Obama campaign plane, reveling in their new found status.

This would be a very different election if, as Obama has suggested, this country had a conversation about race and race relations and not just between white guys talking to themselves about themselves. Events – the stock market crash first and foremost – have taken the urgency of that exchange off the table. But in a nation where whites will soon be a large minority, not a majority, it’s one that’s needed, regardless of who wins tomorrow.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 7:48 PM | Permalink

Sows’ Purses, Pigs’ Ears


When they attend tomorrow’s ceremony for the 9/11 bombings, it’s a safe bet it will be the last time Presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain behave decently toward one another. This election year is starting to feel like it’s going to be one of the nastier campaigns on record.

This is a year where the sexist and racist stereotypes we all share are going to get folded, bent and mutilated in ways that will offend each and every one of us at one point or another. Americans discuss their differences in code and this may well be the year when the code get deciphered in some new ways for new audiences.

It’s not just the pit bull in lipstick as Republican Vice Presidential contender Sarah Palin calls herself. And it’s not Obama’s use of that timeworn phrase “lipstick on a pig”. Hey, Barry, Iowa was last year. We’re past pigs now. Or we were until Alaska’s governor decided to crack wise about how tough she is. Oh, wait, Palin was joking – no offense meant, governor. No, you’re not pig-like at all. If I were going to insult you, I’d probably have used the gender-specific “sow.”

The real problem here is the seeming closeness in the campaign’s goals and the ways in which they are articulating their messages for large groups of voters.

That’s not to say that Obama and McCain have the same ideas for how to run the country. They don’t. But their campaigns are pitching very similar messages to a very small group of voters: Vote for change. Change in health care, change in the economy, change in how the nation does business – at home and abroad.

That’s not exactly a hugely original strategy for either party. Voter disgust with the way Washington claims to “work” is high. So high that the largest political party in the country is “none of the above,” a group that in four years has gone from about 7 percent of registered voters to just about 20 percent.

“None of the above” are often called “independent” voters and this year they’ve got the election in their hands. And, of that group of independent voters, women are considered a key voting block, making up about 60 percent of the “none of the above” faction. And women decide late. Which is campaign-speak for “they change their minds. dammit.”

So why does that mean things will get nasty?

Lots of politicians think the best way to get women to vote one way or another is to scare them then offer them the welcoming broad shoulder of security and authority. It worked for George Bush. You may not have thought you were a “security Mom” until you took one look at John Kerry on a windsurfer.

Other girl-baiting tactics include hiring women and making a big fuss about it. The Republicans are very, very good at this. Two examples: Sandra Day O’Connor, first women to sit on the Supreme Court, and, today, Sarah Palin. Of course, Sarah Palin couldn’t shine O’Conner’s shoes but that could easily devolve into a trivial argument about, “qualifications” and, well, a lot of women – paging Hillary Rodham Clinton – find that conversation offensive.

But “qualifications” is a word that often sums up our ideas about race. For years, the white folk who run corporate America have bemoaned the absence of “qualified” black applicants. They’d love to hire more African-Americans, they’d say, but none who are qualified apply. This while they hire their best friends’ sons – white kids – for the mailroom and other entry-level jobs.

“Qualified” is a word that many white folks use to say “well, he’s not like us” and that’s very much the subtext of the talk about Obama’s ability to lead. It’s not lost on the candidate or his family.The fashion rags have already noted Michelle Obama’s dress – conservative, stylish and Jackie-Kennedy like – and it’s comfort factor. Tall, lanky and dark-skinned, Michelle Obama is dressing to reassure people that she’s not Angela Davis. It’s only kinda of working as The New Yorker slyly observed.

Which brings us to the last subtext: race. Using a black man to scare white voters, particularly women (Security Moms!) is a tried and true tactic. It’s kept the South Republican for a generation. It got George H.W. Bush elected. And it may well work for McCain’s campaign. The tactic backfired on Clinton, mostly because she was sloppy in her language and a little too-straightforward about her appeal to white men who don’t wanna take orders from a black man. But it may well work – with a chilling effectiveness – for some talented McCain surrogate.

Which begs a question: Where is Ann Coulter? And why has she been so quiet so long?

Posted by Chris Nolan at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Sarah Smile


Normally in a political race, vice presidential nominees are compared to one another. So it was Dick Cheney v. John Edwards or, earlier, Cheney v. Joe Lieberman. But this year, even though there will be debates (assuming her name stays on the ticket) between the two veeps it doesn’t feel as though Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin‘s been picked as a contrast with Sen. Joe Biden.

Barely Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman is the contrast to Biden, on the important area of foreign affairs, it seems. Lieberman who can probably count on the Secretary of State job in the McCain administration, is a flatly pro-Israel hawk who approves of the Bush Administration’s Middle East policy. Biden, a bit more of a rationalist in these matters – and a mouthy one – and probably can’t be relied on to toe that same line. Nor can Obama who has all but suggested a Middle East policy that would reduce the influence of Israel and the Saudi Arabia.

No, it seems as though Sarah Palin is meant to provide a contrast to Michelle Obama. And that’s not a race thing. It’s a class thing.

With her demur designer dresses, her Princeton degree, her pearl chokers and her long, lean good looks, Michelle Obama looks pretty much like every other career woman you’d meet in any big city in the U.S. – the kind who make a lot of men, white and black, nervous. Two kids – well behaved and almost professional nurtured – a husband she ruefully admires who’s just as well-educated, a nice house and a couple of good jobs, Obama is clearly smart, focused and on-the-ball. And, oh yeah, you better do what she says ’cause she’s almost six-feet tall.

The more petite Palin with her cracks about breast pumps and tales of in-flight labor, her beauty pageant past and her sloppy parenting seems, by contrast, warm and wacky, a little bit like the Mom who makes you wonder – not always in a good way – how or why she does it. Which isn’t to say that Palin isn’t competent. It’s just that she’s someone with a lot of ragged edges. And there’s a sneaking temptation to think of the Palin family – and you can hear the kids shouting, the door slamming, the off-kilterness of it all – as what is described through clenched teeth by the residents of “better” neighborhoods – neighborhoods like the one where the Obamas live – as “those people down the street…..”, folks who don’t quite have it together because they’re just barely making it.

Palin’s lack of national political savvy makes her, in a word, girlish. And girlish, for a lot of men – men like John McCain – often means more game than prudent, a little rough around the edges. Fun. For some, that’s charm. For others – mostly the very voters McCain’s trying to attract – it’s sexist because it’s clear we don’t have to take Palin seriously. Unlike Michelle Obama.

Which is why Paln’s selection – if it lasts past this week – is a horrible miscalculation.

A lot of the right-of-center voices are suggesting that Palin’s candidacy is a way to draw Hillary Clinton supporters away from the Democrats. This is nonsense. Clinton’s supporters – those older women in their 60s – are going to take one look at Sarah Palin and sigh. This – this girl – is not qualified to answer HRC’s Senate office phone.

Others are suggesting that Palin’s youth will serve as a contrast to Barack Obama and therefore draw young (and by young they mean young male) voters to the Republican Party. The thinking here is that they’ll vote for Palin who is, as various gossip website observed, very attractive. But most of the young folks who are fired up about Obama are more interested in his cool, hipness. They want to be him; they don’t want to do him. And shotgun weddings like the one Palin’s daughter’s about to have are never hip for young men.

The professional women who have been on the fence between Obama and McCain see the desparation in this move, the miscalculation, the condescension to their particular point of view by getting a girl to do a woman’s job. It’s one thing to have a daughter you’re proud of, give her a job in your office and nurture her career – as, say Hugh Hefner did with his daughter, Christine. It’s something else again to have a pretty young thing with not much experience get the second slot in a White House run by a man with serious and chronic health problems. Even Hef took his time teaching daughter Christine the publishing business and these days, when he wants to hang out with young girls, he does it in L.A., not at corporate headquarters in Chicago.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 3:06 PM | Permalink

Thugs in the Newroom


A few weeks ago, I said that it was time that women in various professions – politics and journalism – start pointing out sexist behavior and demanding that it stop. Well, Jessica DaSilva, a young woman in Tampa, Florida, and Clark Hoyt, a man in New York City, have given me an excuse to do just that. If you want to know why there are few women writing solid opinion journalism a look at DaSilva and Hoyt is a pretty good snapshot.

A post on DaSilva’s personal blog detailing a recent staff meeting at the Tampa Tribune announcing – again – lay-offs was the talk of the web this slow news weekend mostly because of the reactions DaSilva got from her colleagues. They offer an insightful look at how the mostly male news establishment goes about silencing enthusiasm and optimism.

“Wow, you really are young and naive, aren’t you?” “Jamie” writes on DaSilva’s site. “Someone sent me the link to your blog, and I almost had to laugh, it was so ridiculous. I’m truly amazed that in one of your other posts, you can tell reporters to stop whining and do something about their situation. What, praytell, young lady, would you like them to do? Let’s say you were at the Trib for 10 years and had a family to support; what would you do if you were laid off? (By the way, it’s laid off, not layed off. If you can read this, thank a copy editor.)” Jamie – who doesn’t submit his last name – finishes with a flourish: “Unfortunately, I would say that if most of the Trib staff (or any other newspaper’s staff, for that matter) reads some of your posts, you will make some serious enemies. That’s something you don’t want to do in this business; it’s WAY too small, and with the climate as it is now, you don’t want people against you. Give that some serious thought.”

And this post wasn’t a one-time event. Jamie repeats his threats in another comment. He – or perhaps “Jamie” is a she, the charge of sexism still stands – has a fellow-traveler in “Michael”: “I’m an editor at a medium-sized paper and I’m sending your name around to everyone I know in the business to make sure that you are never hired anywhere.”

Why is this an example of sexism? There’s the use of the “praytell young lady” for starters. Then, there’s the assumption that DaSilva doesn’t have – and won’t expect to have – a family to support. It would be nice if DaSilva’s case were isolated. But every woman in every newsroom knows it’s not; this is just a case of the threat made overt. And it’s why there’s precious little opinion writing by women.

Which brings us to one of the few doing the job, Maureen Dowd, and comments made by New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt. Hoyt’s since retracted any sort of intention that he meant to tell Dowd to “tone it down.” But that’s exactly what he was doing. But he then fell for one of the oldest dodges on the planet practiced by a woman well-versed in the sort of nonsense that came DaSilva’s way.

When she started covered politics there was a lot of “how dare she?” around Dowd’s writing and what was described by the male political press corps as her “feminine” style of reporting. These days, she placates that crowd, indulging in cheap shots that meld pop culture and paperback psychology in columns that read like nonsense to you and me by play well with the working political press corps who are in on all the inside jokes.

And she gets away with it. Why? Because, as Hoyt notes somewhat ruefully as he fell for her line, Dowd’s got a good defense: she’s a girl she can’t – as someone suggested in regard to “Jamie” be sexist. She – or perhaps they – can say these things the boys can only think. And no one can lay a hand on them – they’re girls talking about girls. It’s a particularly cynical ploy on Dowd’s part but it’s masterfully executed.

But it’s hollow. When Dowd uses female gender images to talk about male candidates – as she does with Obama and did with Al Gore – she’s associating them with weakness. And just because no one’s complained – as she told Hoyt – doesn’t mean it’s not sexist. It is. That’s not playing with gender stereotyping, as Dowd maintains, it’s playing into gender stereotyping. Hoyt’s failure to think through his critique – from all sides – does as well. He treats Dowd with kid gloves and fails to examine one of her great failings as a columnist.

So you can see why it’s hard to know what will become of Jessica DaSilva, a young and clearly ambitious women. Perhaps, in 10 years or so, we’ll be able to read her observations about Chelsea Clinton’s presidential campaign and we’ll get insight, not cringe-inducing snipes about Daddy’s girlfriends and Mommy’s ambition that parade as the “woman’s” voice on politics. Maybe.

But maybe DaSilva will, instead, end up working for Michael and Jaime’s associates and this is the last we’ll hear of her clear, smart voice. Maybe she’ll figure if she has to spend half her time placating the boys on the bus just to have a little peace in the newsroom, she’ll quit or – despite her inclinations – content herself with soft features, not breaking news and strong opinion.

So next time you wonder why there aren’t any women writing opinion journalism or op-eds, consider Dowd and DaSilva and the obstructions – self-made and otherwise – that lie in front of both.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 7:18 AM | Permalink

What Do Women Want?


If Hillary Rodham Clinton had given the speech she gave Saturday conceding the Democratic nomination to Sen. Barack Obama at any point in her campaign – an enthusiastic, honest talk that, finally, told us that she was indeed running to shatter the glass ceiling in American politics – I might have actually paid a lot more attention.

I might have even voted for her.

But Clinton and her campaign spent their time trying to play by rules set down by the men who run television news. And like most big American businesses, television has a basic precept when it comes to women: No matter what, do not complain about sexism because complaining about sexism means you’re a whiner who hates men. Whining is unattractive and hating men, well, that’s just dumb.

Clinton did the old “personal note” dodge (code for “I know this might make you uncomfortable….”) but her speech finally gave an authorative voice to what pretty much every woman working in and around politics knows: It’s a boy’s game. “I am a woman and like millions of women I know there are barriers and biases out there – often unconscious,” she said.

Ya think?

Now, let’s be clear, Clinton lost not because of sexism. She lost for many reasons, among them her husband’s mouthy showboating, her tin ear for racial politics, her lousy get-out-the-vote efforts and, above all, her failure to understand that this really was not the year when a female candidate could build a lawyerly case for her moving back into the White House.

There was and is a need for dramatic change in American politics today. And the Clintons missed it.

They missed in large part because they played a 1992 game and 1992 politics was dominated by television and other mass media outlets who have long barred women from talking about politics. In that environment, the dirty tricks and sex role stereotyping that the Clintons employed to discredit women like Gennifer Flowers worked effectively because they played to the sexism of those covering politics. But that day is fading away. And one of the frustrations that many women had about Hillary Clinton was her inability to see that sexual freedoms and feminism are fused in the minds of many young women.

That’s not a change that’s been reflected in the national conversation about politics, however.

Women working on-line have long been aware of this disconnect and frustrated by its effects. For the most part, “blogger” means “young white man”; they’ve been able to dominate political talk on-line because their popularity is supported and encouraged by Big Media producers, op-ed page editors and the political establishment. Meanwhile, we girls get Glam and “MommyBlogging” and Shine where the bad news is about calories and sexually transmitted diseases, not about economic discrimination against women or the lousy state of prenatal health care for most mothers.

In the past few months, the conversation about who – and how – political discourse is conducted in this country has moved past the “oh, interesting” stage and moved on to something more substantive. Just last month, the Washington Post’s omsbudsperson Deborah Howell noticed – gasp! – that her newspaper’s editorial pages are dominated by older white men. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof followed up with a blog post on the subject that’s generated more than 500 comments – five times more than anything else he’s done recently.

Right now, it’s just talk. Progress is going to be slow and painful. Take a look at MSNBC’s self-styled “liberal” Countdown’s lineup of “friends” and you’ll find two women, one of whom is charged with “covering” American Idol. This, of course, is cousin to the network that the Clintons – with reason – singled out for Chris Matthew’s inane questions and observations. (An aside: If Chris Matthews were a woman would she be on TV? With that hair?) CNN’s no better and you really don’t want to rehash Katie Couric’s status at CBS, do you? Me neither.

In issuing her “personal note” on the frustrations of being a working woman in American, Clinton has given voice – finally – to an enormous amount of frustration and outrage. She has, one can hope, set the stage for women to note the presence of discrimination in their workplace and in their profession. She has, one can hope, made it acceptable to ask men – and women, while we’re on the subject – to stop being satisfied with one voice representing the various points of view held by women in America today and to look past gender when hiring and recruiting. And she’s done so with a new tone – and 18 million people behind her.

Clinton’s most fervent supporters are and were right when they note that sexism is an acceptable part of our culture. But their comments about the patriarchy are dated notions of what constitutes acceptable behavior today. They are strident, they do whine and many, many of them do hate men. It keeps them from seeing the gains that have been made.

Clinton did a nice job of sending that sort of rhetoric on its way to the dust bin of history Saturday. Too bad it’s too late to put her in the White House.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 9:00 AM | Permalink

The Bigger Loser


It may seem hard to believe, but the animosity, the vitriolic name-calling, the camera-ready public protests and the massive self-pity that characterized much of San Francisco’s politics throughout the 1990s is going national.

The keystone of this aggrieved campaign style is the idea that virtue should triumph and that all who stand in its way are somehow morally bankrupt or worse. Here in San Francisco, when Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez ran against San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, his campaign boiled down to one idea: Progressives like me are good, everyone else is bad. You’re good, you should vote for me.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? On the national stage, oddly enough, it’s not the long-suffering Progressives who are ratcheting up the volume. It’s the more conservative, corporate wing of the party, led by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The theater that passed for public debate over the weekend when the Democratic National Committee met to split its primary baby and allow convention delegates from the rogue states of Michigan and Florida a half-vote each in Denver was familiar to observers of San Francisco politics.

There’s the self-justifying: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has served her country well – she deserves to be president! There was the self-pity: As a female candidate, Clinton’s had to face more scrutiny than Obama! And there were the scare tactics: Clinton, rather than Obama, can beat McCain. Oh, and let’s not forget the wallowing as Clinton supporters rolled their eyes and murmured little asides like, “I wonder what democracy looks like,” in reference to the DNC’s decision. It was all articulated – for better or worse – by the card-carrying protestors, the booing and shouting that punctuated Saturday’s meeting.

What’s really galling – and gall is a key element in this sort of politics – is that Hillary Clinton is trying to position herself as the candidate of “the people.” She can say this because she’s won more popular votes than her rival Sen. Barack Obama and because she may continue – using her campaign’s odd math (caucuses aren’t counted, ballots cast are) – to do so. This is a ham-handed way to position Clinton as the Al Gore of this contest – the person who will get screwed by crooked back-room tactics.

But Hillary Clinton isn’t a woman of the people by any stretch of the imagination. Her husband, the poor boy born in Hope, Ark., who realized the American dream and rose to become president through hard-work, intelligence and and no shortage of political chicanery, used to be “the people’s” representative. Sen. Clinton, born in a respectable Chicago suburb, once a Barry Goldwater supporter, a graduate of Wellesley and Yale, has the populist touch of, well, of a moderate Republican.

The real issue here isn’t that Hillary Clinton is being treated badly because she’s a woman. To paraphrase Geraldine Ferraro: If Hillary Clinton were a white man running the campaign she’s run, he’d have been drummed out of this contest back in March. Clinton’s gender is keeping her in the race, not pushing her out.

The Clintons have simply run a lousy campaign. It would have been a perfectly fine effort in 1992. Today it falls short because it’s a corporate-driven 90’s-style effort to out-spend and out-spin its rivals. Obama’s more embracing style is working much better. And voters are responding.

Those are the mechanics. The Clinton campaign falls short for other, more traditional reasons: the screw-ups by the two candidates involved. Sen. Clinton started her campaign against Obama by dissing the Rev. Martin Luther King. Her husband followed up, equating Obama’s efforts with that of the corrupt and almost universally distrusted Jesse Jackson. She’s ending it by reminding folks that presidential candidates are sometimes assassinated and asserting her popularity among uneducated white folks who aren’t going to vote for a black president. He’s offered to talk her into taking the vice presidency, a trial balloon that only brought – out into the open – the question of what he’ll be doing once the family’s back in Washington.

In the end, it’s hard to avoid a second conclusion, one that undercuts pretty much every statement Clinton’s made about her historic run for the White House. This isn’t about her. It’s about them. If Obama becomes the nominee – with the money-making machinery he’s built, with his support among black voters, with his grace and, oh yeah, the support of the Kennedy family – it’s Bill Clinton, not his wife, who’s the loser. He will no longer be the Big Dog of the Democratic Party. He’ll be another ex-president. Just like Jimmy Carter.

And that undercuts pretty much every other assertion the Clintons are attempting to make. Because if it were really all about her, we wouldn’t be talking to – or about – him.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 9:07 PM | Permalink

Female Trouble


Why is it that women in politics present the people who write about politics with such difficulty?

Sadly, I’m not talking about Sen. Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House. No, I’m talking about the New York Times, Sen. John McCain and a lobbyist you hadn’t heard “boo” about until last week and the silliness with which many of those writing about politics descend to whenever they have to deal with s-e-x.

The paper has come under attack for “hinting” at an improper relationship between McCain and a very pretty blond lobbyist named Vicki Iseman. It helpfully ran her photo so we could judge – cynically, for ourselves – if she was someone we’d sleep with. The sad thing here is that if the editors at the Times weren’t as willing engage in the sort of sex-role stereotyping that makes Washington the source of constant ridicule for those of us in the real world, they could have avoided this whole mess.

Here’s what the Times could have said in its story:

“Aides to the Senator became concerned about his relationship with Ms. Iseman, not because they suspected he was having a sexual relationship with her but because they worried others might draw that conclusion – fairly or not – and that speculation could cripple his political ambitions. Ms. Iseman, tall and blond, with an engaging smile bears a resemblance to Cindy McCain, the Senator’s wife.

“She’s an attractive woman and he’s a powerful Senator and you know how that’s often translated,” said John Weaver, the former McCain aide who says he talked with Ms. Iseman, warning her away from increasing contact with Sen. McCain.

Matter raised, matter addressed directly. Matter considered. You know, like grown-ups.

Instead, because of sensibilities of its editors or, even worse, what its editors (wrongly) think of as the delicate sensibility of its female readership, the Times had to twitter around like a bunch of high school cheerleaders, stepping all over a decent story about the role that lobbyist have played in the political career of a man who has sworn to opposed “special interests”. Ya gotta wonder if any of those guys have ever been to a college mixer. And then you gotta wonder: Just how dumb do they think we women are when it comes to men, politics, power and sex?

The issue, of course, isn’t that McCain was having an affair with a pretty blonde lobbyist (for the record, he probably did). The issue the larger story attempted to address is actually an interesting one having to do with the role that money and lobbyists – which go together like chocolate and peanut butter – play in American politics. McCain, as the story does a wonderful job of describing, may be the sworn enemy of lobbyists but, like pretty much anyone in the U.S. Senate, he can’t really defend that position as well as he’d like us to think.

And the Times has in its story muddied the water in McCain favor. The story is now about the story of allegations of hanky-panky, not the ways in which McCain may have let his actions contradict his rhetoric. No wonder the Republicans ares having a field day: This is a fight they know how to win. My God! My God! There’s VIRTUE at stake!!!!

So who do we blame for this nonsense? Well, it pains me to say it but we gotta blame the feminist prudes who clutter up America’s conversation about gender. You, Maureen Dowd, I’m talking to you (again!). You, too, Caitlin Flanagan and, of course just this month The Atlantic Monthly found us a new wet-blanket for girlie fun Lori Gottlieb, who wants us to all marry, pronto. The prudes want to be wanted for their brains, not their looks, even if that’s an impossible ideal that, honestly given their unrealistic ideas of what constitutes male companionship, can never be achieved. So we must all tread gently whenever we near their desks. You never know what can set a girl off…..

The problem isn’t Sen. McCain and Vicki – with an “i”! – Iseman, it’s that there are no women’s voices raised consistently in the conversations we have about American politics. And when we do have these conversations, we retreat into some odd version of high school where people are concerned that the “wrong” kind of underwear brands you a slut, where blondes really do have more fun (or claim to) and where nonsense, not clear thinking and direct talk, replaces dialog and conversation.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 4:02 PM | Permalink

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun


There’s a lot being made lately about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s inability to attract “professional” women to her cause. There’s also a lot been made about Sen. Barack Obama’s ability to talk to feminists. And then there’s the whole idea of “change” which gets a lot closer to women’s problems voting for Clinton than anyone wants to admit.

On the surface, Clinton’s inability to get traction with a wide swath of professional women is something of a contradiction. The assumption as you connect the dots across the magazine cover stories and front-page profiles is that “feminists” and “professional” women are the same crowd with the same interests: women who want to see another woman in the White House.

There are plenty of women with high-powered jobs who are happy to call themselves “feminists” and who are supporting Clinton’s candidacy. But there are just as many – the more calculating perhaps, the more moderate, maybe – who understand that in many circles “feminist” is code for “lesbian”. Or they’re women – and they are legion in partners’ meetings and board rooms – who believe feminism is politics and that politics has no place in business because such ideas – spoken or not – do not sit well with their male colleagues. Judging by her behavior in the Senate and on the campaign trail, Clinton in, in many respects, one of these women. One who has pulled her punches – in her love life and her professional life – to succeed.

Clinton’s new-found ability to cover her desire to wield power with a softer touch, her somewhat stiff and stilted delivery, her get-it-done-at-all-costs failure-is-not-an-option view of the her campaign, along with that train-wreck of a marriage are all earmarks of a very brittle version of the 21st century American womanhood, one that calls for almost constant, visible, unending compromise on all fronts.

Hillary Clinton is prepared, she is ready and – partly because she’s spent her life being held to a higher standard – she’s about as much fun as a nun at a co-ed summer camp. And she is in many respects the woman her peers – often desperately – do not want to be, a woman many are afraid they have become. In almost every area of her life, Clinton’s followed a remarkably cautious course – marriage to the politician, not entering politics, putting up with his philandering, not striking out on her own (even out of pride), cutting a moderately conservative course (on the Iraq War, on international diplomacy on health care), not bringing anything truly radical to the debates about the nation’s future.

Clinton is also a woman who – correctly or not – is see to have somehow not gotten this boy-girl, husband-wife thing down. Let’s face it, there are plenty of women who would happily sleep with Bill Clinton but precious few would sign up for a lifetime of on-and-off commitment. That’s another sacrifice Hillary Clinton appears to have made and for lots of women (paging Maureen Dowd) this is what rankles the most.

If the tired old saying about presidents is true – Americans elect the man you want to have beer with – then there’s a female corrallary and Hillary Rodham Clinton is not a woman you’d take shopping. Her husband? Hell, yes. Maybe even her daughter who clearly knows her way around upper Madison Avenue. But the Senator? Nah. And it ain’t just the pantsuits. It’s her sensibility. Clinton’s the woman who will ask why you need another pair of black shoes, not the one who will remind you that Christian Louboutin is only on sale at Nieman’s Last Call for about 10 seconds and if those things fit, you better grab ’em. Now.

Leave it to Oprah Winfrey to hammer home this contrast. Oprah – a successful career woman by any stretch of the imagination – shows up on stage at a political rally in a warm silver pantsuit, a little low-cut and a lot sexy. You may never watch her TV show but man, if you’re going to be 50 any time soon, you wanna look as good as Oprah does. And you want to be as fun and as interesting, as likable as she appears to be. Not to mention the boyfriend.

That’s not to say Clinton isn’t likable. She is gracious, well-spoken, a good politician and, increasingly, a comfortable and savvy campaigner. But she’s not standing before her peers saying she’s going to make great changes in their lives or hers. She’s telling us she’s going to keep doing what it takes to keep going. And for some that’s just not good enough anymore.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 5:10 PM | Permalink

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