Friday, June 13, 2008

Correcting What Should Be Recent History

Historical accuracy has rarely been a strong suit in American politics, particularly in the modern era when Bill Clinton was able to sell himself as a liberal, John McCain is able to pass himself off as a conservative, and George W. Bush has been permitted to draw one comparison after another between himself and Harry S Truman.

Nowhere has an attempt at historical revisionism been so crudely foisted upon the American public, however, than has been the attempt to characterize Hillary Clinton's failed bid to secure the Democratic Party's nomination for President as squarely the consequence of sexism. The clamoring has become almost deafening, with NBC's Katie Couric, among other devoted Clinton supporters, insinuating, if not outright contending, that Ms. Clinton had the nomination stolen from her by a sexist media feeding a sexist voting public.


When the election cycle began in earnest in 2007, Ms. Clinton was the presumed Democratic front-runner for the Party's presidential nominee. Who said so? Virtually everyone and every media outlet. Lat June, on MSNBC, one of the networks that Ms. Couric singled out for rebuke this week, Newsweek's Howard Finneman referred to Ms. Clinton as "a front-runner who deserves to be the front-runner." Chris Matthews did not disagree.

As Fall rolled around, writers for CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times were extolling the virtues of the front-running Ms. Clinton. In a piece acknowledging Ms. Clinton's front-runner status, David Broder wrote of the Senator's intelligence, loyalty, and bond with her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

There was no discussion from anyone covering the Democratic nomination process who did not clearly endorse whomever the Republican Party nominee would be that Ms. Clinton was unfit to be President because she was a woman. Not only was there no such discussion, there was not even a whiff of an insinuation. About the only meaningful criticism levied against Ms. Clinton at the time was the thought stated by Adam Nagourney of the New York Times that Ms. Clinton was relying too much on the policy of triangulation--hardly a misogynistic claim.

Up until the Iowa caucuses, in which Ms. Clinton finished a disappointing third behind Mr. Obama and Senator John Edwards, Ms. Clinton continued to receive highly favorable press coverage both as a candidate and as a person. As the New Hampshire primaries neared, however, Ms. Clinton, in desperate need of a rebound victory to stabilize her lagging fund-raising efforts, suddenly changed campaign tactics, thus raising some eye-brows.

Exuding a cheerful hubris prior to the Iowa caucuses, Ms. Clinton was brought to tears on the eve of the New Hampshire primaries. Given the tough exterior that she had shown prior to Iowa, many understandably wondered whether Ms. Clinton's show of emotion was genuine.

Despite suspicions about whether Ms. Clinton's tears were genuine or merely part of the political brinksmanship perpetrated by Ms. Clinton's advisors who, after Iowa, had been lecturing Ms. Clinton to "show her soft side," no credible media outlets used the opportunity to espouse sexist rhetoric. In fact, most media outlets even carried the New Hampshire story in full, including the embarrassing planted question intended to suggest that being a woman on the campaign trail poses nearly insurmountable challenges ("How did you get out the door every day? Who does your hair?"), without even giving the premise of Ms. Clinton's self-arranged Portsmouth, N.H., event a second thought.

All presidential candidates should be so fortunate.

On the day of the New Hampshire primaries, Gloria Steinem penned an op-ed column in the New York Times entitled "Women Are Never Front-Runners." Though Ms. Steinem asserts midway through the column that she makes no claim as to whether a member of a minority race or a woman faces the greater hardship in campaigning for President, the entirety of her column clearly cuts against that contention. Ms. Steinem notes that black men have had the vote longer than women, contends that a black man faces less obstacles than would a black woman (a seeming non-sequitor in this race), and claims that males have inherent advantages.

Allowing Ms. Steinem such a forum to espouse unsubstantiated claims in favor of Ms. Clinton on the basis of gender at such a delicate moment in the nominating process suggests two things. First and foremost, it indicates that Ms. Clinton, as late as January, enjoyed the media support of one of the most widely circulated papers in the world. Second, it showed that Ms. Clinton and her supporters were already poised to play the gender card if that is what it would take to overcome Mr. Obama's lead.

When Ms. Couric and numerous others in Ms. Clinton's throng of supporters finally realized the end was nigh, charges of sexism undermining Ms. Clinton's campaign rang fast and furious. In her June 3rd address in which she failed to acknowledge Mr. Obama's delegate victory, Ms. Clinton called on her supporters to fight against the sexism that was keeping her from winning the nomination. She essentially reiterated that theme in her "suspension" speech the following Saturday in Washington, D.C.

There are two substantial issues here, neither of which have anything to do with what derailed Ms. Clinton's campaign. The first is that, while Ms. Couric certainly has been able to identify two sexist commentators in Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson, identifying sexism in the media is not the same as identifying sexism as an explanation for Ms. Clinton's defeat.

As leading shills for the right-wing of the Republican Party, Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Carlson will and have said whatever is necessary to undermine a Democrat. That they made sexist remarks about Ms. Clinton--just as they have slandered Mr. Obama along racial and religious lines--is, therefore, not a surprise. But, in an Earth to Ms. Couric and those espousing the sexism line moment, Mr. Limbaugh, Mr. Carlson, and their supporters did not determine the Democratic nominee for President. Instead, that honor went, not coincidentally, to Democrats. And there is zero evidence that sexism within the Democratic Party is what cost Ms. Clinton the nomination--not statistically, not anicdotally, not at all.

To insinuate the Ms. Clinton lost the nomination due to sexism thus misses both the source of the sexist remarks to which Ms. Couric and others have pointed and, more unfortunately, the real reasons for Ms. Clinton's collapse, beginning, though certainly not ending with Bill Clinton's campaign antics and Ms. Clinton's aura of entitlement.

A second issue centers on why Ms. Clinton and her supporters continue to perpetuate the sexism claims, with the New York Times running a prominant article in the paper's June 13th edition again raising the charge. Most likely, the reason is that Ms. Clinton and those who support her still harbor hopes that Ms. Clinton will ascend to the Presidency of the United States, either this election or in 2013.

By perpetuating the sexism claims, Ms. Clinton has a built-in explanation for why she failed to succeed in obtaining the Party's nomination in 2008. In a party that is all about introspection, that might be enough to gain Ms. Clinton the added sympathy next time that most candidates for the office of President never enjoy.

Of course, the entire ploy could just as easily backfire on Ms. Clinton and her supporters, as it could make those within the Democratic Party who supported her despite concerns about her forthrightness switch their allegiances to another Barack Obama--or a Claire McCaskill--or a John McCain.

Up Next: So Much Time, So Little Work Actually Done.

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