Keith Olbermann apologizes for his Clinton remark

"It is a metaphor. I apologize." Thanks, Keith -- and thanks to everyone who made it an issue.

Published April 25, 2008 7:30PM (EDT)

Rachel Sklar is my hero today for this blog post calling out Keith Olbermann for his vivid, seemingly violent comment about how to get Hillary Clinton out of the Democratic primary race on Wednesday night. (In case you missed it: Howard Fineman suggested that some unnamed super superdelegate was going to have to find a way to persuade her, and Olbermann answered: "Right. Somebody who can take her into a room and only he comes out." Video here.)

Today, Olbermann apologized. "It is a metaphor. I apologize: the generic 'he' gender could imply something untoward," Olbermann said, in a statement MSNBC spokesperson Alana Russo forwarded me a few minutes ago. "It should've been 'only the other comes out -- from a political point of view.'" Reading Sklar this morning I realized I pulled my punches (no pun intended) when I wrote about it that night. But it was tacked on to the end of a blog post that I had written carefully, to be fair to both sides of this split-almost-perfectly-down-the-middle Democratic race, and I didn't want to risk being shrill. I want to be one of the people who, at the end of this race, facilitates Democrats coming together. I like and admire both Clinton and Obama. I strive for balance in our coverage and in my personal blog posts.

But I admit I get pulled sharply off balance by the nauseating sexism that has pervaded Clinton's coverage, and it happened again Wednesday night. Even though I've gotten used to Olbermann's unfair coverage of Clinton, I winced at his remark. So I just wrote up a quick "note" about it and tacked it onto a post I'd just completed. Honestly, I would differ a bit with Sklar's headline: I don't think, as she put it, his idea for beating Hillary was "literally beating Hillary." Not literally. But the figurative Hillary bashing, and the creepy tone of violence, did cross a line, and I should have been stronger about it. A reader called me on it this morning, and s/he is right. I apologize for wimping out. I've been thinking a lot about why. Some of it is just being weary of the "Sexism is worse! No, racism is worse!" argument. Some of it is just me.

If I had to list the top five reasons I've succeeded in what is still a male-dominated profession, I'd say 1) hard work, 2) reasonable smarts, 3) a father who made me think I could do anything I wanted to, 4) I love baseball and am conversant in other sports, 5) I'm not a humorless feminist. (Bonus: I'm 5-foot-11.) I'm proud of everything but 5. Even parts of 5 are good things: I have always been put off by victim feminism, a strain of '70s thinking that saw misogyny, rape and violence everywhere. I've always thought (don't we all) that I have a balanced approach to feminism and sexism: I'll stand up for myself and other women -- but don't worry, I won't bust your balls for the occasional dumb sexist comment! And boy, have I heard them over the years.

Consciousness-raising came before my time -- I didn't need it! But this campaign has truly been consciousness-raising for me. The sexism Hillary Clinton has faced has blown my mind. I'm proud of Sklar for having the courage to lay out what was wrong with Olbermann's remark (just as I'm proud of our own Rebecca Traister for all of her smart, perceptive coverage of campaign sexism). It took a special moxie for Sklar to do it in the Obama-friendly confines of the Huffington Post, where my friend Arianna has made clear her own disdain for Clinton -- though, to her credit, she continues to publish the posts of Obama critics like Taylor Marsh and Joe Wilson. (Shameless self-promotion: You can listen to me and Arianna disagree about the Clinton campaign on the Air America radio show she co-hosts with Mark Green this weekend.)

As I said Wednesday night, I like and respect Keith Olbermann. I edited him when he was a Salon columnist; I've appeared on his show. I admire the way he seized an opportunity and showed MSNBC there was an audience for coverage that was critical of the Bush administration. And I am heartened he has apologized. I couldn't imagine that he wouldn't -- especially given that David Shuster was forced to, twice, and was later suspended for his "pimped out" remark about Chelsea (and again, Shuster, like Olbermann, was using colorful, thoughtless, tasteless language; nobody thought he was suggesting Clinton was "literally" pimping out her daughter, making her turn tricks for money). "Hardball's" Chris Matthews had to apologize for saying Clinton won her Senate seat because her husband cheated on her.

Part of me -- not just the part that wants to be one of the boys, but the free-speech, civil libertarian part -- thinks all the apologizing is overkill. But I think the "apology" has come to be a ritual step on the journey to real enlightenment and understanding. And that's OK with me; maybe it's my Catholic upbringing, but I think ritual serves a role. I really believe we will look back on this campaign as a milestone in getting us to a new understanding of the colorless, odorless toxicity of a lot of the sexism that persists in our society -- the casual "I'm fine with a woman candidate but I just don't like Hillary because" she's a harridan, harpy, nutcracker, lesbian, bitch or she reminds me of my disapproving mother, ex-wife or high school math teacher.

And I also believe in working the refs -- on behalf of all women, in this case, not the Clinton campaign. I think Chris Matthews has had on more female guests (many of them Hillary critics) since his consciousness was raised. I think these guys want to do the right thing, but they need a lot of help. Sklar helped, and I want to help, however belatedly. Say it loud -- I'm a humorless feminist, and proud! And now I can watch "Countdown" again without feeling like a self-hating feminist.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections