Gloria Steinem began her January 8 New York Times Op-Ed piece (“Women Are Never Front-Runners") with a simple, but compelling, premise.
If Barack Obama had the exact same biography, but was an African-American woman rather than a man, would he/she have stood a chance to be elected to the United States Senate in 2004, or been considered a “viable candidate” for the presidency in 2008?
Steinem’s question is a good one, but she stacks the deck against Obama by underselling his résumé. She fails to note that, in addition to working as an attorney and respected community organizer in Chicago, he was the first-ever African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, a distinction which earned him national attention even at the time. She fails to mention that by 2004 he was also a published author, and that his eight years in the Illinois Legislature were spent in the State Senate, a more exclusive and high-profile body than the State House. Given all these credentials, and his riveting keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, is it really so hard to imagine that a female Obama could have ascended to the U.S. Senate?
For the sake of argument, let’s flip the premise and ask this: If Hillary Clinton had been a white man, without the celebrity-by-association boost that comes with being the spouse of a sitting president, how would her/his résumé have played with the New York electorate in 2000? Remember that this male version of Hillary had devoted much of his career to working with the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas, had never held elected office, and had never lived in the state of New York prior to the 2000 campaign. Would New Yorkers have elected such a candidate to the United States Senate?
When dealing with general themes, Steinem makes some valid points in her column. As she notes, “gender is probably the most restrictive force in American life,” and sex barriers in our culture are generally not taken as seriously as racial ones. What Steinem apparently doesn’t - or chooses not to - see is that Hillary Clinton makes a very poor case study for these theories, because Hillary is an exceptional case, a candidate of power and privilege who entered her first political campaign with great fame, a formidable vote-getting organization, a stack of endorsements, instant press coverage, and bulging campaign coffers. How is this comparable to the challenges faced by any other woman seeking elective office in this country?
In fact, the trajectory of Clinton’s political career most closely resembles that of a high-profile man, Robert Kennedy, who, like Hillary, worked behind the scenes to help a family member (in this case, his older brother) reach the pinnacle of American political power, used nepotism to gain influence in that administration (in his case, an appointment as Attorney General), and parlayed his celebrity-by-association into a successful, carpetbagging run for a U.S. Senate seat in New York.
Given the intelligence and drive of both Hillary Clinton and Robert Kennedy, it’s easy to speculate how far their political careers might have taken them if they had not spent years subjugating their own ambitions to realize the aspirations of their loved ones. But neither Robert nor Hillary possessed a natural talent for campaigning, with both tending to be stiff, awkward public speakers. Taking the long, slow route to political success, as Bill Clinton, and, yes, Barack Obama, did, wouldn’t have worked so easily for them.
Hillary tries to make a virtue of her weak oratorical skills by reminding audiences that she’s a “doer, not a talker.” This rationale ignores the fact that part of being an effective doer is being an inspiring talker. Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t have pushed his legislative agenda through Congress if his fireside chats hadn’t sold the public on his ideas. And Ronald Reagan convinced a Democratic House of Representatives to pass his tax cut only by using television to appeal directly to the nation’s voters. Leadership isn’t simply about being the wonk-in-chief or the nation’s CEO, it’s about employing what Teddy Roosevelt famously called “the Bully Pulpit.”
By all accounts, Hillary has always been a no-nonsense pragmatist, concerned with action above ideals. But in her memorable 1969 Wellesley College commencement address, she castigated the previous speaker, Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, by saying: “For too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”
It’s hard to reconcile that Hillary with the one who recently complained that Obama was filling the nation with “false hope.” It suggests that, for all the idiotic and sexist media windbaggery about Hillary’s wrinkles, marriage, displays of emotion, and presumed ball-busting toughness, the real contest in the Democratic Party this year falls along generational - not gender - lines. Hillary is battling Obama, and, in doing so, she’s also battling a younger version of herself. •