Dubya's angels

Laura Flanders talks about her book "Bushwomen," and why the media has given a free pass to Condi Rice, Christie Whitman, Elaine Chao and the other women who've put a pretty face on ugly policies.

Published April 12, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

In this election year, there are so many books crowding the shelves that expose the crimes of the Bush administration, it hardly seems as if there's room for another. But while by now we're all pretty familiar with the alleged lies and shady dealings of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and company, some of us might be less acquainted with the policies and personalities of the female Bushies.

Laura Flanders, public radio personality and author of "Real Majority, Media Minority," takes a look at the backgrounds and policies of such women as Condoleezza Rice, Elaine Chao and Christine Todd Whitman in her new book, "Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species." This informative and entertaining investigation serves up the types of profiles Flanders believes the mainstream media has failed to provide; Laura Bush, Lynne Cheney, Karen Hughes, Ann Veneman, Gale Ann Norton and Katherine Harris also come under scrutiny, from their childhoods to their business backgrounds to the way they've cast a feminist gloss on two brutal wars. Does the Bush administration use its ambitious and successful women to put a kinder face on its cruel policies? Flanders thinks so. Women voters are a crucial group in the upcoming presidential election; will they be convinced to vote for Bush by his cadre of likable, smooth-talking female aides and Cabinet members?

Flanders spoke to Salon from San Francisco about the media's failure to expose these women's true backgrounds, Condoleezza Rice's relationship with Chevron, and how Karen Hughes figured out that looking at the world in simple good vs. evil terms was crucial to President Bush's success.

Your general point in the book is that the Bush administration has used women to put a sweeter face on some upsetting policies. How do they do this exactly? And is there any proof that Americans fall for it?

What first initiated my interest in this subject was watching what happened in January 2001, when the Bush administration came into office with the minority of the popular vote and the slimmest proportion of African-American support of any president in half a century. Their job was to articulate that the Republican Party was going to reunify the country, bring everyone together, and really represent the nation. The president's naming of the Cabinet secretaries was a big part of sending that message -- five women, two African-Americans, one Hispanic, one Asian-American, one Arab-American, a Democrat. This got applause in the media. The New York Times talked about George Bush putting forth a governing team every bit as ethnically and racially diverse as President Clinton's. "A rainbow" was the description a guest used on CNN. So it worked, with respect to the media.

Did it work among the population? Well, it's hard to tell. But I do think the compassionate conservative facade worked, in that it took several months to see statistics showing real dissatisfaction among women voters. By August of 2001, Bush's support among women and moderate voters was way down in the doldrums, some of the lowest statistics in a decade. But in the first days, I think it did help, yes.

And now, after Sept. 11 and two wars, does Bush have more women supporters?

The polls that I've looked at show John Kerry leading by a predictable 10 or 11 percent among women. There is a gender gap and it's been there since 1980 -- women have preferred Democrats for president. The point is that in this election coming up, every swing voter will count. There is no constituency more unspoken for than moderate women, particularly married suburban women. Increasingly we're hearing about unmarried single women being a critical voting block.

Just this last weekend we had the Bush campaign sending out press releases about what the victories -- the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq -- have brought for women and how women should be grateful for what Bush has done for women in those countries. I think there is a conscious effort out there to make that pitch because this is a huge group -- women vote more than men.

Which is obviously why you've decided to zero in on the women in his administration, assuming that American women are responding to them. This is a problem the Republicans have worried about for a long time, right?

Oh, yes. They've been concerned about it since the 1980 election when they thought that pandering to male fears of female equality and civil rights wouldn't do them much harm, and that women would vote like their husbands. It didn't happen. You saw this large "gender canyon" -- as the Emily's List people call it -- with women abandoning the Republican Party in droves. You've seen a change in that, in the last decade or so, white women have actually voted majority Republican. It's women of color, particularly African-American women, who give Democratic candidates the edge.

This is contested territory, and it's territory that the Democrats used to have sewn up because they were the party of reproductive rights, of the Equal Rights Amendment, they supported the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But they backed away from that. They dropped the ERA off the platform in the late '80s. I think that the Democratic Party has some work to do to really win women solidly to their side, just as the Republicans have a lot of work to do. But I'd say that the Republicans have been doing a good amount of work.

You have some research in the book that showed that one of the solutions the Republicans came up with was just that they should hire more women.

In August of 2001, when those nasty statistics I was talking about came out, the White House invited magazine editors and publishers to meet the officeholders. They announced they were going to spend millions of dollars on a new campaign called "Winning Women" that was going to profile Hughes, Whitman, Rice, etc. The woman who's the co-chair of the RNC, Ann Wagner, a 38-year-old suburban mom -- her description exactly fits the demographic they're aiming for. In summer of 2003, the GOP effort in California to unseat Gov. Gray Davis also featured a lot of women on the campaign trail. We found some memos [suggesting] that was a key part of their strategy. It was important for them to use the opportunity to present an image of diverse Republican women. They're no fools. They know they're not going to win the presidency if their constituency continues to be men, and white male Southerners at that.

Let's go back to the question of the media. You say that in the profiles of these "Bushwomen," journalists tend to write about their makeup and clothing and less about their background. But then again, you also cite media articles that go into the women's background, so the information must be out there.

Of course; there's been some excellent stuff done, but the rest of the stuff has been so startling. After Condoleezza Rice is appointed national security advisor, she's coming to office having directed an oil company and managed a multimillion-dollar university and served as a Sovietologist in the White House at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. She's taking on the top national security post in the Cabinet, and what did the New York Times talk about? It talked about her hair, her hemline and her place of birth. The fact of her policy positions or attitudes toward security didn't come up until the 27th paragraph of this long, soft feature. You just wouldn't see the same treatment given Dick Cheney.

Is this true of profiles of women in general, not just women politicians?

I think there's a pattern. We do tend to see softer features on women in public office than we would see of men. It's not always true -- the treatment that Hillary Clinton received was very rough, the treatment of [1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee] Geraldine Ferraro was very tough. But for a crew that have between them half a century of expertise in critical areas of U.S. policy, this group of women have received remarkably scant attention.

Instead, we're getting stereotypes, the type of stories that the White House plays to. For example, [Secretary of Labor] Elaine Chao, who says, "I've come to this country as an immigrant from China." She doesn't exactly mislead the public, but when she says, "I came to this country not speaking a word of English," it sets off a preexisting narrative in the public's mind that summons to mind images of sweatshops and Chinese takeout -- which is just not her personal experience! She grew up in a well-to-do shipping magnate's family, her father benefited from opening trade with China, she went to Mount Holyoke and took a golf class. Fair enough, that was her experience, but let's get the details so we're not off thinking that she has credentials to bring to her job that she doesn't in fact have.

Also, there seems to be this assumption that because they're women they're going to be looking out for women. You point out that's not necessarily the case.

No, this whole con job, this presenting of a multiculti facade, works in our media to suggest that something is enlightened about this administration's social and economic policy. In fact, integration in the halls of power, in the beginning of the 21st century, doesn't indicate anything beyond just that. Unless you see serious attention going to the reality behind the facade, you just see the identity-politics puppets, and you don't see that they are actually hardcore policymakers in their own right.

Condoleezza Rice had a really troubled time when she was provost of Stanford, didn't she? [Rice held the post from 1993 to 1999.]

She sure did. It's arguable that she was brought in to be the face on a very tough anti-affirmative action, pro-budget cutting regime that was trying to dig Stanford out of a financial hole, and did it mostly by cutting back on staff and funding for multicultural programs. It seemed to some people there at the time that she was getting away with things that a white man never could. She wasn't an expert, it seemed to them, in how federal affirmative action mandates actually worked. She would say things like, "We believe in affirmative action in hiring but not promotion" -- well, federal affirmative action mandates require both. That's the law.

Then of course the contradiction is that she likes to portray her experience as never having needed assistance in any way, when she obviously did. She says her family were lifelong Republicans, when actually her father had a much more complicated history. Has she ever talked about what her father was really like?

She's made an allusion to him as a Republican voter, which he was. He registered in the 1950s in Birmingham, Ala. The story that was dug up by a Washington Post reporter about why that happened wasn't exactly that the Republican Party was out there registering black people. [Neither party registered black voters in Alabama at the time. One individual worker in the county registrar's office agreed to register black voters, in secret, if they registered Republican.]

She told the Republican convention in 2000, "My father was a Republican," and not much more than that, but, again, it summoned a picture. I dug around and found that this was a guy who supported Dr. King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy's civil rights movement in the 1960s in Birmingham. He was the first administrator of Head Start in that town, a program that this administration is basically trying to roll back. He was at the University of Denver in the 1970s as the assistant dean of arts and sciences, where he initiated a seminar series on the "Black Experience in America" that brought speakers to campus to talk about white supremacy as a structural problem in the U.S. and its continuing legacy. The speakers he brought included South African exiled poet Dennis Brutus, Fannie Lou Hamer, Andrew Young of the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] and Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam.

All I'm saying is that her family is a bit more complicated than she would have you believe. Her family narrative is that they've always been Republican, they never needed government assistance, she should have gotten to where she's gotten, she didn't need anyone's help. Well, yes, she should have gotten to where she's gotten. She's supersmart. The problem is there were generations that should have gotten where she's gotten, but institutional discrimination held them back.

She also said that George W. Bush would have liked her Granddaddy Rice.

To which I say, he wouldn't have loved him if he was trying to vote Democratic in Florida.

The more disturbing part of her history for me was her relationship with Chevron and Nigeria.

I'm glad you bring that up, because I think that she has drawn on her experience in segregated Alabama to suggest something about her credentials in the area of civil rights. And I say that while that is her experience, her expertise as a professional has been different. Her expertise has been in the expansion of U.S. corporate reach, especially as the director of the Chevron Corp. throughout the 1990s. I approached the women of the Niger Delta and found that this was a period of tremendous struggle where the women of the Niger Delta, and the men too, were protesting to get jobs and clean water and access to healthcare from the corporation that was drilling this liquid gold from beneath their soil. They were shot down in the streets.

Chevron stands responsible for the deaths of local activists in the 1990s. Throughout that period, shareholders were actually bringing initiatives before the board, saying, "We need to review our relationship with this brutal dictatorship in Nigeria." Rice was on the social policy committee of the Chevron board that reviewed those resolutions, and in every case rejected sending them on to the full board for consideration. Those are her politics? I just say she should be held to account for them. Where have the reporters been in this enormous chapter in her history?

There haven't been any stories about this?

I've not seen one. I was the first person, I think, to look at those shareholder initiatives. And if there had been the odd article, it is nothing like what we know about Dick Cheney. Sexism is a problem of fairness, but in news reporting it's also denying the public the information we need to understand our situation. Dick Cheney can't go anywhere without people protesting. You see his face and you almost see the Iraqi oil contracts sprouting out of his head. But Condoleezza Rice doesn't read that way. She can say, as she did to the National Association of Black Journalists, that the invasion of Iraq is about bringing democracy and civil rights to the people of Baghdad, and compare it to bringing civil rights to the people of her hometown, Birmingham. And it has the resonance that I think needs to be looked at in the context of her actual professional past.

Did you see the same sort of thing happening with Christine Todd Whitman?

The definition of political liberalism or conservatism is all done in social terms. We define someone as a liberal because they have liberal social views, so Whitman was described as a liberal ubiquitously --

Because she was pro-choice?

Yes. But her actual economic record was very different. She came to the governorship of New Jersey promising to cut taxes by 30 percent in three years, and she did it, and that made her the darling of tax cutters everywhere. She was the belle of the Republican ball at the convention of 1996. Not because of her position on choice, but because of her fiscal views. It's the same with the environment. She's given a lot of credit for protecting open space, but talk to inner-city environmentalists and they say, sure, she helped set aside some land for hiking and canoeing, but when it comes to urban pollution and the degradation of inner-city environments because of local corporations, her record in New Jersey stinks to high heaven.

She shut down the local ombudsman's office, she created an ombudsman for business to help them navigate the state's environmental laws -- like Dick Cheney, frankly -- and yet she came to the EPA with this reputation as a liberal and left with it too. She doesn't have a bad thing to say about Bush policy, except for "the way" it was carried out.

Of course, you talk about how right after Sept. 11 she allowed everyone [in lower Manhattan] to go back to their homes, and she bears responsibility for that mistake.

Well, she played a critical role in that moment. And I'm hoping that down the road we may see some serious self-criticism from Whitman. I'm not holding my breath, but the burden on her is very great. She was the Cabinet secretary who came to New York and told us -- I live very close to the World Trade Center -- that the air was safe to breathe and the water was safe to drink. Even within her own EPA, they were saying, "We can't possibly know that. How could we know that? We've never seen a situation like this before; our protocol would be to say to evacuate the area until we can be sure."

And yet it was critically important to send the message that it was safe. Who was it important for? For the people of New York? For Wall Street, which needed to reopen as soon as possible? I would suggest that the more responsible message would have been we don't know, we're testing, we're going to keep working on this, here are your options. But that wasn't the message, because that wouldn't have satisfied Wall Street.

It's impossible to look at that situation and separate it from the fact that she and her husband had personal financial investments in the Travelers insurance corporation, which stood to lose millions in the Trade Center disaster. Really, she should have recused herself from the entire situation. She was also invested in the Port Authority of New York.

And Elaine Chao is the other one who has some pretty egregious conflicts of interest, right?

I don't know what you even call them when the woman who's the head of the Labor Department, which is the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is married to the top senator from Kentucky who has in his stable of supporters some of the top mining interests in the country. Conflict of interest hardly comes close to defining what we're talking about here.

I wanted to get to Karen Hughes, because she seemed an exception here -- she didn't pretend to be anything else but a bulldog.

I have to say I have a lot of respect for Karen Hughes. She does an incredible job, she's supersmart, and out of all of them she was the only one with the courtesy to tell me she wouldn't sit down for an interview.

Hughes, though, is the one who's responsible for this notoriously private White House, isn't she?

Yes. I kick myself for not paying more attention to the 1994 governor's race in Texas. A lot of the routines we saw brought to Washington were given a trial run then. As an attack dog for the Republican Party in Texas, Hughes was able to attack Gov. Ann Richards in a way that the good ol' boys in Texas probably couldn't have done. By the time George Bush came to run for office he didn't need to engage in personal attacks on this beloved grandmother governor, because she had already been weakened by years of criticism and relentless attack by the Hughes-Rove spin machine.

And is she the one who started this good vs. evil paradigm Bush is so fond of?

I think so. She is somebody who has seen that if you can define the lines very simply, and eliminate the critical thinking and gray areas, then you present the public with harsh, sharp options that make it difficult to have the informed, complex debates that we need to have. That was genius for her candidate, and tragedy for democracy.

And you say she's really not gone?

She never left. She's a campaigner. She likes war. This is a woman who said she would have liked to work for Exxon after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. She likes a fight.

One last thing: Was it Laura Bush who sold us the idea that the war in Afghanistan was about women's liberation?

I'm not sure she thought up the idea, but she was the perfect mouthpiece for it. At the height of the bombing in 2001, when the U.S. was dropping the biggest bombs ever dropped on any country -- those enormous 15,000-pound bombs, so large they have to be dropped out of a cargo plane -- the first lady came out on the radio to say that this war wasn't about revenge but that this was a war against a powerful force, the Taliban, who sought to dominate and repress the women of the world. That was a critical message to send when many people were saying the most powerful country in the world is dropping the most powerful, devastating bombs that kill everything in a 900-foot radius on one of the least developed countries on the planet. She put a feminist glow on some of the most brutal bombing of the war.

And the Bush administration's failure to follow through on their promises to Afghan women is one of the great shames of this administration. Today, actually, a coalition of women's groups gave Bush, in respect to what he's done for women in Afghanistan, an A for rhetoric and a D for reality.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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