The nag, the witch and the media

Democratic women tend to support Hillary Clinton. Female pundits? Not so much.

Published October 1, 2007 1:16PM (EDT)

Sen. Hillary Clinton's strong lead with Democratic female voters has undermined the media myth that women might be toughest on a Clinton candidacy. But there's one group of women Clinton is still having a hard time with: female pundits. I winced Sunday when I read Maureen Dowd calling Clinton a "nag," and Joan Vennochi, in the Boston Globe, comparing Clinton's suddenly controversial laugh to the cackle of "hens" and "witches." If David Brooks or David Broder started throwing around terms like "witch" or "nag" when talking about Clinton, they'd be castigated as sexist throwbacks, but Dowd and Vennochi can get away with it? To be fair, both female columnists could try to argue that they were just playing off male doubts about Clinton, but the two nasty columns served to reinforce stereotypes, not dispel them.

Dowd's column was noteworthy for embracing another silly stereotype that, in a better world, the New York Times columnist would have instead debunked: the notion that the Clintons are some kind of "dynasty," comparable to the Bushes. I didn't like the dynasty language when Kevin Phillips used it about the Clintons. Of course, it doesn't literally fit the Bush family either, since the country elected both Bush presidents, but it makes more sense given the enormous wealth and political power both men were born into. Like them or not, both Clintons come from families not marked for worldly power. Only in a country as deluded about class and history as this one would people call the Clintons a dynasty. But the Irish-American Dowd, in particular, should know better than to use the language of royalty to describe people who worked their way into the highest reaches of power and influence, up against people who were born into it. Or maybe that's my working-class Irish-American stereotyping.

For the record, I thought Clinton had one of her weakest performances at the Dartmouth debate Wednesday night. On MSNBC afterward, I called John Edwards the winner. I thought she looked arrogant answering Tim Russert's question about Social Security; while I loved her laugh at Chris Wallace on Fox the Sunday before, I thought it seemed fake when directed at Mike Gravel's valid (if typically overstated) criticism of her vote designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard a "terrorist organization." I was particularly bothered by that vote; coming on the heels of her mildly courageous refusal to castigate MoveOn for its "Betray Us" ad, it smacked of timid and predictable politics, a desire to tack right having just tacked left.

But I'm also hyperconscious of the predictability of media cycles: We're due to find Clinton lacking right around now, because we don't like the story line of invincibility. Besides, she's been riding exceptionally high because she exceeded the media's low expectations out of the gate. Reporters declared her brittle and unlikable, then expressed surprise that voters like her, and that her political experience -- especially fighting the media-abetted Clinton wars -- is serving her well in the campaign. I actually thought it helped Clinton when Sen. Barack Obama jumped into the race, both because it ensured she'd get into political fighting shape in a tough primary season, but also because it would dispel the air of inevitability about her nomination that would motivate the media to make itself her chief opponent. With Obama and John Edwards not doing much to cut into Clinton's lead -- or at least, not yet -- her media doubters have decided to make the race Hillary vs. them for a while.

Of course, the GOP front-runner has even bigger problems, as Michael Scherer revealed Sunday, with religious right leaders threatening to blackball Rudy Giuliani for his pro-choice views. Focus on the Family's James Dobson has now ruled out support for Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson, leaving only Mitt Romney as an acceptable top-tier candidate for religious conservatives. What if GOP voters fought back, and decided to throw off the theocrats' control of their party? That seems as likely as Hillary Clinton getting fair coverage from Maureen Dowd, but in this great country, anything is possible.

By Joan Walsh

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