No sooner had Hillary Clinton proceeded from the Democratic presidential debate to a speech at Wellesley College last week than the wailing began. Barack Obama hit the Today show accusing her of playing the “don’t pick on me” woman and a chorus line of media pundits denounced her for having hurt the cause of feminism by acting like the injured girl and dealing the “gender card.”
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd contended that Clinton was trying to show “she can break, just like a little girl…. If she could become a senator by playing the victim after Monica, surely she can become president by playing the victim now.” FOX News’ Mort Kondracke preached: “I think it is very unattractive for a general election candidate, who wants to be the Commander in Chief of the free world, to be saying ‘They’re ganging up on me!’ I mean, this is the NFL. This is not Wellesley versus Smith in field hockey.”
These indictments were conjured from the slimmest of evidence. Even the New York Times, while “piling on,” had to do contortions to pin the victim label on Clinton’s comments. As a November 5 Times article put it: “Mrs. Clinton denies playing the gender card–at least in the traditional sense of saying that as a woman she should be exempt from the traditional rough-and-tumble of campaigns–and her remarks on the subject have certainly been oblique.” For oblique, read frustratingly nonexistent. What she did say–at her alma mater before a whooping and roaring crowd of more than 1,000 young women–was: “In so many ways, this all-women’s college prepared me to compete in the all-boys’ club of presidential politics…. Fear is always with us, but we just don’t have time for it, not now. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work together. We’re ready to shatter that highest glass ceiling.”
What about that was so girl-with-her-finger-in-her-mouth frail? The indignation of Clinton’s opponents may have a motive more genuine than their desire to defend feminism. They are mad because they feel robbed. Clinton, in fact, didn’t play the victim card. The gender card she played was the one every successful recent male presidential candidate has played–the rescuer card.
Keep in mind: The gender card is always played. It’s even played in presidential campaigns where all the candidates are men (or rather, as Kondracke prefers, quarterbacks). Given the political culture–and for reasons embedded in our history–that card usually involves a morality play in which men are the rescuers and women the victims in need of rescuing.
Bill Clinton understood the power of that formula when he showcased his boyhood efforts to “stand up” to his abusive stepfather and shield his mother from blows. When facing George H.W. Bush, Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis learned this lesson too late–after he failed to fly into a vigilante-style rage in response to an infamous televised debate question in October 1988 that went like this: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis’ un-Duke-like reply about his wife–“No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life”–whacked his approval ratings from 49 percent down to 42 percent overnight and was pivotal in denying him the election; as was that other failed protection drama that dominated the campaign: the specter of black convict Willie Horton (“every suburban mother’s greatest fear,” as one of the Republican ads that inundated the airwaves put it), who raped a woman after being furloughed in Massachusetts while Dukakis was governor. His campaign belatedly, lamely, tried to counter in kind–with an ad about a convict who escaped from a federal treatment program and raped and killed a mother of two.
Post-9/11, with the nation facing the constant threat of “savage” attack, the inclination to play the gender rescue card became an imperative–as was in full evidence during the 2004 presidential campaign. “Every suburban mother’s greatest fear” was now not a black man’s mug shot but a Muslim terrorist’s, and every suburban mother was recast as a Security Mom (a mythical creature, as it happened, but that’s another story).
Victory on Election Day went to the candidate who best understood how to deal from that deck. Both George W. Bush and John Kerry worked hard to position themselves as the King of the Wild Frontier. (Both granted long interviews to hunting and fishing magazines; both bragged about their gun collections; Bush whacked at sagebrush and tree stumps; Kerry stalked wild animals and waved their bloody pelts at journalists.) Kerry’s handlers, however, failed to put into play the female part of the rescue equation. They counted on the Senator’s decorated service in Vietnam to qualify him for the hero role, especially in contrast to Bush’s AWOL record. What they were missing was a woman to rescue. Bush’s advisers knew better, as was apparent in their political commercials. In Wolves, set in a dark forest invaded by a pack of wolves (read: terrorists), a trembling female voiceover warned voters that Kerry would make cuts in US intelligence “so deep they would have weakened America’s defenses–and weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.” Kerry, in fact, had no plans to make such cuts, but that hardly registered. “Wolves” engaged America’s terror-dream, which the GOP was going to vanquish with a cowboy swagger…. and a commanding daddy “hug.”
In the final weeks of the race, Bush’s backers unveiled Ashley’s Story, a sixty-second commercial featuring the President hugging a teenage girl named Ashley Faulkner, whose mother had died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Ashley–shown lying in a hammock in her backyard, reading a novel with a Victorian lady on the cover–says: “He’s the most powerful man in the world and all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe.”
The $14 million worth of air time purchased made it the single most expensive political ad of the race. Broadcast more than 30,000 times, it achieved saturation level in the crucial swing states. In Ohio alone, the spot ran 7,000 times, a bombardment intensified by an Internet, phone, and direct-mail campaign that distributed 2.3 million brochures showcasing The Hug. Exit poll studies later concluded that “Ashley’s Story” was critical to the election results. Political analysts scored it “the most effective ad” of the political season and post-election surveys found it to be one of the two most remembered ads (the other being its evil twin, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth commercial attacking Kerry’s combat credentials).
Like Dukakis’ campaign, Kerry’s belatedly went looking for women to protect. “No American mother should have to lie awake at night wondering whether her children will be safe at school,” Kerry insisted in a Philadelphia stump speech in September, seizing upon a much-publicized school hostage crisis in Russia as an eleventh hour opportunity to position himself as America’s guardian. “When we look at the images of children brutalized by remorseless terrorists in Russia, we know that this is not just a political or military struggle–it goes to the very heart of what we value most–our families. It strikes at the bond between a mother and child.” As president, he said, he would regard it as “my sacred duty” to be able to say “I am doing everything in my power to keep your children safe.”
After Ashley’s Story aired, the Kerry campaign struggled to catch up with two commercials featuring Jersey Girl 9/11 widows. In one, Kristen Breitweiser said, “We are no safer today. I want to look in my daughter’s eyes and know that she is safe”; in the other, Mindy Kleinberg tartly noted that her three children needed more than a “hug” to feel safe. But when the Kerry’s strategists raced to air the ads, they discovered they’d been trumped: The Bush campaign had bought up the commercial time in the big swing states.
It’s doubtful the ads would have helped, anyway. Throughout the presidential race, the media largely ignored the Jersey Girls’ efforts on behalf of the Kerry campaign. Their grueling traveling and speaking tour for the candidate yielded little coverage, and they were quickly deemed, in the words of The New Republic, “virtual nonentities.” By reminding Americans that their protectors had failed them–“We are no safer today”–the Jersey Girls’ testimony not only violated the terms of the rescue formula, but essentially put their guardians on trial. The point is: this had as much to do with gender as security, something any successful candidate understood.
In this election, the gender card has proved harder to play than usual. No one’s talking about security moms anymore. For their part, Democratic candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards have not been running security-scare–and, by extension, gender-scare–campaigns. And the GOP candidates, while playing the security card for all it’s worth, have yet to find a way to assign a little Ashley to their twenty-first century John Wayne–though, no doubt, that will come.
A Feminist John Wayne
So far, the only person who has a lock on rescuing women is the one female candidate. Accusations that she was promoting herself as a feminine victim were not only ludicrously overplayed, but often outright inaccurate, and in any case missed the point. Take for instance, ABCNews.com’s attempt to give new legs to the victim canard with a November 5 headline: “Pelosi: Clinton Camp Played Gender Card.” Actually, as a quote in the article made clear, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made the opposite point: “[Sen. Clinton] said it best: They’re ‘piling on’–or whatever the words were–‘because I’m the front-runner.’ That’s why they’re piling on…. If she was in third place, they wouldn’t say, ‘Let’s go attack a woman.'”
Hillary Clinton’s rescue of women departs from the previous male version. In the old model, helpless women were saved from perilous danger by men. In the new, women are granted authority and agency to rescue themselves. Understanding the distinction is essential to an evaluation of current American politics.
The clash between these two rescue scenarios was on vivid display in late 2001, when President Bush signed the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act (before a window-dressing crowd of invited feminists) and declared that “the central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women.” His concern for women’s rights came to a halt, however, as soon as the Taliban was driven from power and Afghanistan was theoretically secured.
“Right now we have other priorities,” a senior administration official told the New York Times when asked (only two and a half weeks into the Afghan war) what role women’s rights would have in a future government. “We have to be careful not to look like we are imposing our values on them.” Tellingly, even as the President was trumpeting female oppression as a casus belli and part of his global rescue scenario, his administration was deep-sixing an initiative that would have provided financing for women-run NGOs in Afghanistan. After all, if women proved capable of fending for themselves, if they laid claim to self-determination instead of violation and dependency, the rescue drama fell to pieces.
The Bush Administration was no more inclined to promote female strength at home than overseas; witness the ways it sought to roll back women’s progress on many fronts–from reproductive rights and employment equity to military status. By hugging girls while trying to gut equal-opportunity programs, the White House was working hard to institute its own cult of victimhood. But in the end, 1,001 Ashleys couldn’t save Bush–nor the Republicans who will inherit his mantle–from the electorate’s knowledge of his multiple rescue failures, culminating in the image of our Commander-in-Chief playing guitar while the citizens of New Orleans, female and male both, cried for help.
This year, as always, the presidential candidates must contend with the rescue formula, complicated by the fact that Bush has so devalued its currency. In this climate, Hillary Clinton can do what her male counterparts cannot. She is, indeed, reaching for the gender card–just as her accusers claim. It’s just a different card than they imagine. She is auditioning for the role of rescuer on a feminist frontier.
She returned to Wellesley to tell the female undergraduate “hostages” that she was there to free them; she was there to help them “roll up our sleeves” and “shatter that highest glass ceiling.” As such, she latched onto a crucial element of presidential races past, and possibly to come–that at the core of all American political rescue fantasies is a young woman in need.
In the general election, whoever the candidates may be, they will be tempted, perhaps required, to show just those bona fides. Clinton may be the only one who can do so without betraying the signature of a disgraced cowboy ethic.