Tuesday, February 13, 2007

"Are Clinton's hair, voice and marriage vital to her campaign?"

Steven Thommas, McClatchy Newspapers:
Is Hillary Rodham Clinton's hair out of bounds as an issue in the presidential campaign? How about her voice? Or her marriage, namely, whether she got where she is because she married Bill?
Some people think those and other questions or comments about her are out of line. They want the news media to knock it off.

I agree with some of the complaints. This column will never make an issue of her hairstyle. But others have, as the group mediamatters.org, complains:

-New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote recently that when Clinton was first lady, she "showed off a long parade of unflattering outfits and unnervingly changing hairdos."

-MSNBC host Chris Matthews commented recently that Clinton in one appearance "was calm, she was charming, her hair looked just to be cosmetic, her hair looked great, she looked great."

Something new? Not really.

Remember Al Gore's bald spot? The debate over whether Ronald Reagan dyed his pompadour? Or how about potential Hillary rival Rudy Giuliani's comb-over?

Silly? Sure. Demeaning? Probably. Human? Inevitably.

Then there's the question of how Clinton got to be the first woman with a very real chance of winning the presidency.

Media Matters for America, which usually devotes itself to monitoring what it calls the conservative media, singled out ABC anchor Charles Gibson for a question that he'd asked Clinton a few weeks back.

"You are a strong, credible female candidate for president of the United States, and I mean no disrespect in this, but would you be in this position were it not for your husband?" Gibson asked.

"The justification for Gibson's question of Clinton is presumably that she would not have the national profile that enables her to run for president if not for her husband," Media Matters said. "Given Sen. Clinton's own accomplishments, that's a debatable premise."

That's ridiculous.

Does anyone honestly believe that New York Democrats would have cleared the primary field for their open Senate seat in 2000 for a woman from Arkansas - even an accomplished lawyer with a record of working on children's issues - if she weren't first lady?

And does anyone remember when Robert F. Kennedy did exactly the same thing, moving to New York to seek a Senate seat that he'd then use as a springboard to a presidential campaign? Bobby Kennedy also was an accomplished lawyer who might well have made it on his own, but he became a political phenomenon because his brother was a martyred president.

Then there's the complaint that The Hotline, a roundup of political news, singled out Clinton for criticism for raising her voice to a yell five times during a recent appearance with other Democratic candidates. Media Matters said male candidates yelled, too, but didn't get the same treatment.

Sorry, but voice matters. And Clinton's voice might strike some analysts as discordant, particularly when she yells. Some politicians have the big rally voice. Some don't. Ask anyone who heard Howard Dean's speech the night he lost the 2004 Iowa caucuses.

Finally, there's the complaint that the media are overanalyzing how Clinton balances a soft side with the toughness needed in a commander in chief.

"The assumption that tough and feminine are mutually exclusive is a sexist preconception," wrote Ramona Oliver of the group Emily's List, which raises money for Democratic women who support abortion rights - and which has endorsed Clinton.

For example, Oliver said, one recent New York Times analysis "relegates the embracing of our roles as mothers to a cynical calculus of political assets and liabilities. Does anybody question the ability of a man to simultaneously be a caring father and a strong leader?"

I tend to agree. What's more, it might be better for the country to ask how well a politician would treat other people's children rather than his - or her - own.

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