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“You’ve Come A Long Way, Maybe”

November 1, 2009

When Nisha Chittal of Politicoholic asked if I’d be willing to review Leslie Sanchez new book, “You’ve Come A Long Way, Maybe” about the media coverage of the women in the 2008 presidential election, I of course said yes.

I posted my review over at Blog Critics yesterday and just thought I’d put it here also, for anyone that is interested:

The historic election of 2008 may be over but the discussion about its implications is clearly not, and that’s not an altogether bad thing. For those of us who supported either McCain-Palin or Hillary Clinton, we may find ourselves continuing to wonder what role, if any, sexism may have played in some of the media coverage of the women candidates and perhaps more importantly, what role that media coverage may have played in the result.

Now enter Leslie Sanchez, Republican strategist, former adviser to President George W. Bush and CNN contributor. Sanchez has just published a book, “You’ve Come A Long Way, Maybe” analyzing the 2008 election and using it as a backdrop for looking at not only how Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain (to a somewhat lesser extent) were portrayed in the media but also what the election means for future women in politics who aspire to occupy the nation’s highest office.

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I’ll freely admit that as a progressive Hillary-supporting Democrat part of me was apprehensive about the book, not because I doubted Sanchez handling of the topic but rather because re-living some of the lower points of the election might be a self-defeating exercise in frustration. That said, I’ll admit I was also curious about how Sanchez, a Republican strategist with an insider’s take on the media, viewed the candidacy of Clinton and Palin. It turns out my curiosity won out and Sanchez provided a compelling and nuanced look at just how far women have come when in politics and just how far we have left to go.

Overall, I agreed with much of Sanchez’ analysis and in particular, with the common thread which wove it’s way throughout most of the book- her view that regardless of ideology or party affiliation, the fact that many men and women only seemed to get outraged when it was their candidate being skewered by the media in an arguably sexist way, was both shocking and frustrating. Sanchez recounts many instances of the media’s obsession with clothes and cleavage. She describes the very gendered references to Hillary Clinton’s “cackle” and “nagging” voice. As an example, Sachez describes a commentary from Mike Barnacle during an appearance on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ which I had actually forgotten about- Barnacle describes Hillary this way: “she reacts to [Senator Barack] Obama with just the look, the look toward him, looking like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court.” Nice.

One of the real strength’s of “Long Way Maybe” is Sanchez’ ability to be quite objective when analyzing the media coverage of all four of the women profiled and she’s not afraid to criticize Republican pundits and media personalities along with their counterparts on the left. The effect of this is that it gives the book credibility, particularly at a time when rabid partisanship is the mainstay of political discourse.

In addition to analyzing the media coverage of Clinton and Palin, she also turned a critical eye on how, at times, it seemed that Clinton and Palin’s own advisers at times seemed to play right into the gender trap. Sanchez points out the irony of what she says was the Clinton campaign’s insistence on focusing on their candidate’s “toughness,” as if Americans didn’t already realize that Hillary could scap with the best of them if need be. Sanchez also points out another bit of irony that hasn’t gone unnoticed by others who have dissected the campaign- that many of these advisers who were so obsessed with projecting Clinton’s toughness, were men. In fact, based on Sanchez’ analysis, Mark Penn and company did such a good job of trying to bury Clinton’s more “human” side, at least until it was almost too late, that she was tagged as the traditional, status quo candidate, the anti-change if you will. Sanchez points out that her campaign’s decision to run her as the “safe” choice was inexplicable at a time when polls overwhelmingly showed that both Democrats and Republicans wanted some kind of change and a more hopeful message. Sanchez puts it this way:

“No matter how often Clinton repeated the feminist mantra at campaign stops to underpin the historic nature of her campaign, her run, like McCain’s, was rooted in the traditional patriarchal model of “toughness.” (p. 104)

Irony, indeed.

Sanchez also points out the same sort of inexplicable treatment of Palin by her campaign staff. As I was reading Sanchez retell the story of how Palin’s aides seemed to misjudge Palin’s strengths and instead put her in situations where her weaknesses would be disastrously apparent. For example, the painful prime time interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric which took place over several days. Sanchez rightly points out that those venues did not play to her strengths. And then there was the decision to essentially keep Palin in hiding after her convention appearance. If that doesn’t strike one as particularly sexist, think of it this way- can you imagine if McCain had announced Joe Lieberman as his running mate and then after a successful convention speech proceeded to promptly keep him hidden from reporters except for a few prime time interviews? Of course not.

Sanchez also asks whether the focus on Palin and Michelle Obama’s mothering credentials was the result of media and pundit sexism. After all, no one really questioned whether Obama would be able to juggle raising two little girls and the Presidency. I do agree with Sanchez that the endless commentary about whether it was appropriate for Palin to seek the Vice Presidency given she had several children including one very young one with special needs, to be infuriatingly sexist.

While I generally agree with Sanchez that Palin’s advisers didn’t do her any favors on a variety of fronts, I personally think Palin, unlike Clinton, had a very real knowledge deficit when it came foreign policy and politics on a national scale and not all of that can be explained away by sexist commentary and poor campaign advice. At one point in the book Sanchez takes issue with the media’s obsessive focus on Palin’s wardrobe instead of more substantive issues. She notes that few women in the media rarely came to Palin’s defense and when they did, she gives them credit for it. As an example, Sanchez gives props to CNN’s Campbell Brown for calling out the media on the double standard with respect to the coverage of Palin’s clothing and appearance and for urging the media to focus on substance. Sanchez then says this:

“Of course, this was the same Campbell Brown that took a McCain-Palin spokesman to task on air over the way in which her leadership of the Alaska National Guard qualified her to be the U.S. commander in chief.” (p. 91)

When I read that passage I was confused- was Sanchez saying that a discussion about leadership and qualifications aren’t considered “substance?” Or was Sanchez saying that the question should have been asked of Palin directly instead of through a campaign surrogate? If it’s the former, I don’t see much difference between that question posed to Palin and the questions raised about whether Obama’s community organizing background was adequate preparation to be commander in chief. In other words, I think both questions were fair game.

When discussing Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain Sanchez points out the “damned if you do damned if you don’t” nature of being a woman in politics or in the case of Michelle and Cindy, being married to someone in political life. For example, if a woman is confident, opinionated and driven she may be viewed as “strident” or even a “bitch.” If she wears traditionally feminine clothes she risks being seen as too sexual or being reduced to a fashion statement. If a woman foregoes fashion and isn’t traditionally “feminine” then she can be viewed as sexless and not feminine enough. And while Sanchez didn’t say this in her book, don’t forget the lesbian factor. Pretty much any woman in politics who is seen as nontraditional in any way will at some point in her career, married or not, be called a dyke. You can count on it.
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I did have one small beef with Sanchez’ interpretation of how women should respond to sexist attacks against women politicians. As I said in the beginning of this piece, sexism is sexism, regardless of ideology and thus for example, as a liberal feminist I should be just as concerned about Palin’s sexist treatment by some in the media, the blogosphere and by the D.C. pundit class, as I was/am by the treatment of Clinton. That said, nothing is going to get me to vote for a candidate with whom I disagree on key issues. In other words, I am not going to vote for a woman simply because she is a woman. And I am a bit perplexed when Sanchez makes statements such as this (talking about the potential of a voter backlash against the sexism):

“Sadly, apparently not enough women were truly aware of how demeaning this was to Palin- at least not enough of them to get angry and stand in solidarity and vote her into office.” (p.91)

I do believe that voter backlashe can occur but the idea that the anger should be the sole reason for voting for Palin (or Hillary) irrespective of whether or not one agrees with their stand on the issues, seems a bit superficial. In fact, some women I talked to after McCain picked Palin, felt that they were being condescended to in that they felt McCain seemed to think independent and democratic women would flock to him once Hillary was out of the race, simply because he selected a woman for the ticket. At the same time, as Sanchez points out in her book, some Hillary supporters ultimately voted for McCain-Palin but apparently not in large enough numbers to make a difference.

Overall I would say “You’ve Come A Long Way Maybe” is a must-read for anyone interested in how far women have come in politics and how far we have yet to go, irrespective of ideology. If anything, Sanchez makes clear that the lesson of the 2008 election is a bitter-sweet one- we have come a long way towards electing a woman to the nation’s highest office but as some of the events in 2008 make clear, we just aren’t there yet.

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