The chattering class's tittering about Vice President Al Gore's floundering presidential campaign built into a hearty guffaw over the weekend upon hearing the revelation that middlebrow feminist author Naomi Wolf has been a $15,000-a-month paid consultant to the Gore 2000 campaign since January.
According to the original report, in Time magazine, Wolf is not only the consultant responsible for Gore's new three-buttoned, earth-toned look, but has also "argued internally" that Gore is "a 'beta male' who needs to take on the 'alpha male' in the Oval Office before the public will see him as the top dog."
When asked about it on ABC's "This Week," Gore called Wolf "a valued advisor" on "campaign strategy, communications," while pointing out that her salary has been cut to $5,000 a month. He downplayed her role, saying that she worked "with my daughter, Karenna, on an organization called GoreNet."
But there's a bit more to the story than that. Wolf -- 37 and married to former Clinton speechwriter David Shipley -- was an advisor to the Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign, where she was responsible for brainstorming about ways to reach soccer moms and other female voters. Former Clinton advisor Dick Morris once credited her with providing "remarkably prescient analyses of the social-cultural trends in the country" during that campaign.
Thus, Wolf's presence on Gore's team of advisors shouldn't be all that surprising. Gore's popularity among women voters is somewhat underwhelming, especially when compared historically with that of his sweet-talkin' alpha male ticket-mate. In 1992, Clinton beat President George Bush among women voters by 8 percentage points. In 1996, he beat Bob Dole by 16 percentage points. Without women voters supporting him so disproportionately, Clinton wouldn't have won.
Gore hasn't fared as well with women, especially when put in a hypothetical match-up with Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Gore has consistently trailed Bush in polls of female voters, though he's recently narrowed the gap to a virtual tie. Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, it should be noted, continues to trail Bush among women voters by 13 points, according to a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.
Despite his protestations, Gore clearly is making use of Wolf's mastery of the Zeitgeist in more ways than just GoreNet. While her influence on the vice president's campaign is nowhere near that of advisors like Carter Eskew or Bob Shrum, Wolf was one in a huddle of advisors prepping Gore for last week's town meeting in New Hampshire with Bradley -- an encounter in which Gore clearly took the offensive. More of an alpha dog he could not have been, unless someone had thrown him some kibble.
"Everybody's making a big deal out of that 'alpha male' stuff," says a Gore insider. "But how different is that from what we've been saying for months, that Gore has to emerge out of the shadow of the president and be his own candidate? It's just different words. The media talks about 'alpha beta' like it has to do with the wild kingdom. But it's the same concept."
"She's a very creative person," says Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane. "She's one of several people who has their ideas in the mix." Lehane insists that Wolf's role on the campaign has been overblown by the media.
But that's the Gore campaign's fault -- Wolf's $15,000-a-month stipend made her one of the highest-paid campaign advisors. More important, before Time broke the story, the Gore campaign seemed to be covering up Wolf's participation -- funding her through a consultant, presumably to keep her name off Federal Election Commission reports.
But Lehane says that's nonsense. "She was up there with us in New Hampshire for the town meeting," he says. "Anyone who wanted to could have seen her with us there."
If Gore was trying to keep Wolf's presence on the down-low, it's no wonder why: In her 1997 bestseller "Promiscuities," Wolf proposes "sexual gradualism" -- which includes masturbation, heavy petting and oral sex -- as "something schools should teach teenagers."
"This all sounds a little strange," noted Brit Hume on "FOX News Sunday," calling Wolf "sort of an interesting young woman who is [a] tribune of sort of modern feminist psychobabble."
According to Gore press secretary Lehane, Hume's comments are a harbinger of mud to come. "I also fully expect the Republican attack machine to kick in on this," Lehane says. "But that'll be interesting for them to do, especially when you compare Gore's record on women's issues with their record, which is zero."
The "modern feminist psychobabble" Hume alluded to first earned Wolf acclaim in 1991 with her bestselling treatise on women and looks, "The Beauty Myth." In the book, Wolf argued that women deserve "the choice to do whatever we want with our faces and bodies without being punished by an ideology that is using attitudes, economic pressure, and even legal judgments regarding women's appearance to undermine us psychologically and politically."
But Wolf has also been a critic of the political landscape, albeit through the multi-adverbial eyes of a media-friendly neo-feminist. And reviewing her oeuvre, one can't help but come to the conclusion that Wolf's political acumen can be somewhat wanting.
In 1992, in a piece for the New Republic, Wolf gave a two-thumbs-up review to Gore's 1992 Democratic National Convention speech, saying that "Gore's tale of how his wounded son taught him the meaning of life upended the patriarchal arrangement in which fathers teach sons."
She also appeared on CNN's "Sonya Live" that year, arguing that what potential first lady "Hillary Clinton is up against is something that all American women are up against ... There's a double standard in the workplace for men and women. ... the 'Hillary factor' as a problem was really invented by a few sexist male journalists like William Safire."
Showing that her political analysis didn't necessarily hit the depths of, say, the average late-night comedian, Wolf took a shot at then-Vice President Dan Quayle, asking, "Why should American women vote for an administration that encourages a brilliant, accomplished woman to hide in the shadow of a man who can't spell 'potato'?"
And when asked about the "softening" of the image of Hillary Clinton, Wolf asked, "Which would you rather have: A woman who's willing to streak her hair in order to get a message that is really pro-family across, or an administration that turns its back on the fact that we're in the middle of an epidemic of rape?"
The fact that Gore has turned for help to a partisan sociologist of such sporadic accuracy should be of more concern than the campaign's realization that Gore has much work to do when it comes to wooing the women's vote.
On the other hand, notes Lehane, "It'd be welcome if the media paid as much attention to the Gore campaign's ideas as they do to our staff."