Sarah Palin

Review: Rebecca Traister's new book Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women

The 2008 election will be noted in American history as much for its destination as its journey.  The composition of the candidates and supporting characters prompted long overdue conversations about gender, race, and what it means to be an American.  In her new book, Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, writer Rebecca Traister revisits these conversations and begins a new conversation by arguing that the 2008 elections were ultimately good for women.

Good for women?  That might be difficult for any one who watched the gender dynamics of the 2008 Election to believe.  What about the incessant pantsuit talk?  The Mom-in-Chief backlash? Are we even going to talk about Palin's faux feminism? Traister manages to comprehensively chronicle these events, thoroughly analyze what she calls "campaigning while female," and argue that the path to progress requires us to move forward, despite setbacks.

Traister separates herself from other writers in this arena by offering smart and pointed criticism of unlikely characters from members of the center-Left media to feminist leaders.  Traister takes on Chris Matthew's "premature jubilation" in response to Clinton's Iowa primary defeat and the subsequent crescendo of male-bashing that ensued. "The eagerness to trash Clinton had been laid bare," Traister writes, "and it reeked of a particular kind of relief: relief from the guys who had thought they were going to have to hold their noses and get pushed around by some dame."  In addition, Traister recounts various exchanges between Gloria Steinem and younger feminists such as Shelby Knox that capture the generational tensions around Clinton's candidacy.    

Unlike Clinton's failed-Iowa strategy - where her campaign took women voters for granted -  Traister courts her target audience by presenting herself as both a keen cultural observer and the reader's witty best friend. Traister augments her analysis by skillfully weaving in the tale her own emotional rollercoaster:  an early Edwards supporter who found Michelle Obama too cool to be objective about, and who in the face of male-dominated media's scourge of Hillary Clinton found herself rooting (though not voting) for the former-first lady.  "I didn't want Hillary to win the Democratic nomination," Traister writes, "I didn't want John Edwards out of the race.  I didn't want Barack Obama to suffer a hope-squelching loss.  But I knew with primal surety that if I had been a New Hampshire resident on January 8, I would have pulled a lever for the former first lady with a song in my heart and a bird flipped at Chris Matthews, Roy Sekoff, Keith Olbermann and every other guy who'd gotten his rocks off by imagining Hillary's humiliation."  If I have one constructive criticism of the book, it is that I only wish there had been even more of Traister in it. 

After reading the book, I had a few questions for the author.  I hope you find Rebecca's answers as illuminating as I did. 

AM: It seems that neither Clinton nor Palin found a way to be simultaneously authentic and likable to a broad swath of women, much less Americans. You write about Clinton, "[T]he success of her ego-stroking strategy provided a disheartening lesson about how easily a powerful woman can change the mind of men if only she's willing to conform to power models that reassure rather than threaten them." Of Palin you write, she "gained her power by doing everything modern women have believed they did not have to do: presenting herself as maternal and sexual, sucking up to men, evincing an awshucks lack of native ambition. She met with such adulation because her posture reinforced antiquated gender norms."  Is the lesson to choose authenticity over cultivation?  Is there any way to marry their models?  And if both models requiring conceding power to men, what does that say about our political structure?

I actually do believe that there were moments at which Clinton managed to present her authentic self, and break free of the set-ups for how women are expected to act (in order to be taken seriously politically, to be "likable enough," etc). Several people in the book noted that, for example, in New Hampshire, when her loss was all but assured by press and polling, Hillary began to behave like herself more than ever before (and more than she would for some time after). She kind of told Chris Matthews where to get off, cracked jokes about sexism to the Iron My Shirt guys. Everyone only thinks about the moment when she teared up, but in fact her days campaigning in New Hampshire were Hillary at her loosest and most direct. She got a lot of that energy back toward the end of her campaign, when she was just plowing forward, when everyone was telling her to drop out. Those were the moments -- when, perhaps, it seemed she had nothing to lose -- that Clinton let go a little bit and really seemed to bring her unadulterated self to the trail. I do hope that there is a lesson there, since not coincidentally, those were the periods during which she was met with cheers and approval.

I would hope that looking back at that pattern would allow women candidates to have some more confidence in their own abilities to be themselves more of the time. But the other inescapable fact -- and one that I think of all the time when people talk about Palin's persona as if it's extra-fake or something -- is that the public persona constructed by most politicians, male or female, is just that -- a construction. We demand that our politicians perform for us, put on a show -- whether that show is of familial devotion or cross-partisan cooperation or just folksiness. The show that women put on, and that you quote me describing above, is of course colored by and shaped by gender expectation, which makes our analysis of it a bit more acute, perhaps? Or novel.

AM: You don't pardon your own behavior. "None of us were above thinking about how Clinton sounded or looked or what she wore," you write.  "We were like babies first encountering a new object: a potential president who had breasts and hips and a high voice, who was once pregnant and whose female skin changed as it aged.  It was only natural that we were sometimes going to get tripped up and befuddled in how we talked about her."  So where does that leave modern media?  Where did you draw your own line in terms of what you were willing to comment on and what you were not?"

RT: Alas, there's no firm answer to that question. I drew my own lines by gut. Stuff that dismayed many -- reactions to the lines in Clinton's face, her pantsuits -- dismayed me as well, but also fascinated and cheered me because I was so anxious to /have the conversation/ that acknowledged that in Clinton we were seeing a potential president who was different from all those who had preceded her. I was tired of pretending that there was nothing different about her, because that was dishonest. But of course the desire to acknowledge her difference is very different from saying "Hey, let's all pile on her outfit!" And people who objected to the attention to her clothes or hair or voice (and I was among them too!) were very right to raise their objections. They key is to be able to say -- let's talk about what's messed up about this, or where the double standards are, or why this bothers us, or when it might be appropriate to notice a candidate's physical or sartorial attributes and when it's not...It's all an evolving discussion of how we talk about public women.

AM:  You sketch out the limitations of the media including the crimes of the Leftist blogosphere and traditional media alike.  I particularly enjoyed Maddow's pointing out how tired and lazy cable news can be. How do we change those dynamics?

RT: It's about expanding the perspective of the mainstream media to include people of more colors, genders, ages, and ideologies. It's about having a commentariat that reflects the electorate.

AM: Amen.

Purdum on Palin

Todd Purdum drops ten thousand words on Sarah Palin in the latest Vanity Fair, and they hit pretty hard.  The profile is anything but flattering, and casts an image of Palin as a cagey, egocentric, aggressive politician characterized by a deep mistrust of others and a very informal relationship with the truth.

Purdum's new reporting focuses on her record as Governor of Alaska-- a tenure dominated by personality conflicts and a bulldozer approach to getting what she wanted. Her record in Alaska was a pretty clear predictor of her behavior on the campaign, and Purdum concludes that John McCain could have learned everything he needed to make a better decision if he had done a more careful review of her gubernatorial record.

A few gem quotes from the article:

This sort of slipperiness—about both what the truth was and whether the truth even mattered—persisted on questions great and small...

In every job, she surrounded herself with an insular coterie of trusted friends, took disagreements personally, discarded people who were no longer useful, and swiftly dealt vengeance on enemies, real or perceived...

More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin’s extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of “narcissistic personality disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—“a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy”—and thought it fit her perfectly.

The whole epic article is worth a read.

Keys to the Fall: Obama Leads, McCain Stumbles

Robert Kaiser has an interesting piece in the Washington Post today that makes the case that Senator Obama's strong performance in the debates has been the key to his success this fall. I agree, but think there several other factors.  Remember that McCain came out of his convention ahead and with momentum and a fresh life. It really looked liked it would be a close general election, or that McCain might have a shot to pull this off. So what happened?

Their Reactions to the Financial Crisis - At moments of crisis, leaders are tested. Obama passed this test, looking steady, strong, engaged. McCain stumbled, "suspended" his campaign, changed his message, and in general, looked a little desperate and out of it. He failed this critical test of leadership, which significantly undermined the entire McCain narrative of "proven, tested, ready." 

The Debates - Based on post-election polls, Obama and Biden each overwhelmingly won their debates. And as Kaiser argues, the debates became critical for Obama, for they allowed him to fill in the gaps and to address the very real concerns many had about whether he was up to the job. Again, he looked in command, smart, steady, ready.  McCain, on the other hand, while showing flashes of effectiveness, again came across as a slightly addled and occasionally an angry old man, struggling to keep up with his younger, smarter and more compelling opponent.

All About Sarah - It was her rise that lifted McCain, and with her collapse, came McCain's fall. I predicted in a pre-convention post that McCain would pick a vibrant, telegenic running mate to help make up for his not-so-appealing grumpy old man persona. Well he did, but man, when that teenage belly bump arrived on the scene, it became clear that the Palin vetting was, let us say, a little "mavericky."  They clearly had no idea what they were getting into with her. Tina Fey then gave the nation permission to start saying what they were sensing with her, that seeing Russia from her front porch was not really adequate prep to be VP for a man unlikely to finish out his time in office. The comparison between her vacuousness and Biden's experience became a true black mark on the McCain campaign while doing a great deal to undermine his brand.

A Superior and More Modern Campaign - There can be no doubt now that the Obama campaign is the best run and most innovative Presidential campaign of the modern era, and clearly the model for a new 21st century era of post-broadcast, people-based advocacy and politics. Their commitment to this new Dean/Trippi inspired Internet model gave them the resources to overwhelm McCain these last few months on the airwaves and on the ground in the battlegrounds, and to produce a primetime video seen by an amazing 34 million viewers in the final week of the election. For more on this new political model and the emergence of what we've been calling a virtuous cycle of participation, see this recent post

The Issues - Obama has stayed relentlessly focused on the most important issue facing Americans today - the struggle of every day people to make ends meet. McCain and his campaign have seemed weirdly preoccupied with peripheral issues, political issues - Paris Hilton, Bill Ayers, sex ed and baby killing and now Jeremiah Wright - rather than focusing on the stuff that really matters to people. These divisive, distracting ads - straight out of the Southern Strategy GOP playbook - reinforced the very things that the public has come to dislike about Republicans: their willingness to put politics above solving problems. These ads and attacks helped undermine McCain's brand, and suggested instead that McCain was just another one of "those" Republicans after all.  

Finally, incredibly, McCain's economic plan has been so similar to the approach Bush took in his years in office that it has been stunning to watch. The GOP's economic strategy this decade has left the average American making less money while giving huge tax breaks to the most privileged among us. The inability of the Republicans to come to terms with this outcome of their years in control of government has been central to their dramatic fall from power.  That John McCain did not understand this, and did not offer any real proposals to deal with the struggle of every day people, is what allowed Obama to successfully tie him to President Bush and his failed Presidency. I think McCain never really believed that the Democrats would pull off making him a Bush clone because of his own hatred for Bush. But the ideological blindness of the modern GOP to the struggle of every day people is what drove the GOP from office in 2006, and will likely be the central cause of their defeat once again in 2008. 

In early September, John McCain led the race. In the weeks that followed, both candidates were given a series of tests. Clearly, the American people believe Senator Obama passed his tests. Senator McCain, on the other hand, did not. And it was this disappointment with McCain that gave Obama his opening, an opening that he and his focused, disciplined campaign successfully exploited.

7:30 am Update - DemFromCT's morning poll roundup shows no real change of the closing dynamic we've been describing these last few weeks - a slight uptick for McCain but Obama holding steady and retaining a commanding lead. 

Ad Wars: "His Choice"

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama has a new TV ad out today, entitled "His Choice." The ad manages to combine two of U.S. Sen. John McCain's greatest perceived weaknesses in opinion polling of voters, the economy and Gov. Sarah Palin. It's quite good, and even a little cheeky. Check it out:


Time Is Running Out for McCain-Palin

In reviewing DemFromCT's am poll roundup there is no evidence that the fundamental dynamic in the election - a convincing win for Obama - is changing in any way.  There is now as much evidence that Obama is opening up his lead as there are signs of gains for McCain. 

$75,000 at Neimans

Okay, Simon, so why does this matter? 

It matters because in this one shopping trip, Sarah Palin spent more on her clothes than an average American family makes in an  entire year. And of course Sarah "Living Large" Palin didn't stop there - she just kept on going and spent another $75,000 at two more stores. All the while, her campaign was attacking Obama for being un-American, a socialist, an enemy of Joe Six Pack. I mean, she couldn't have spent $10,000?  $15,000? That wasn't enough? My God, what do you get for $75,000? I'm not sure I've spent $75,000 on my clothes in all my years put together.   

Somehow to me, this whole episode sums up the terribly disappointing era of late stage conservatism - long on marketing and short on governance. Palin looks good, excites the crowds, puts on a good show - but underneath it all are wacky and uninformed ideas (she still is not convinced global warming is manmade!), a willingness to degrade public discourse and lie lie lie about opponents and when in power, repeatedly abuse the public trust. I've come to believe that whatever its origins, late stage U.S. conservatism has become simply unconcerned about the common good; unwilling and unable to advance the interests of every day people over those with power and privilege; and much more concerned about politics than governing, more concerned about the appearance of governing than governing itself. 

In these last few years, this type of Republican has offered: an economic strategy that has left a typical family with less income while giving enormous tax breaks to the most privileged among us; millions more in bankruptcy, poverty and without health insurance; soldiers dying due to inadequate body armor in Iraq; as much new government debt as we had accrued in all 200 plus years of American history together; people dying in front of our eyes, on live television, in New Orleans while the government sat; a warming planet and nothing done; charging women who had been raped for rape kits; and the most systemic corruption of Congress in the last 100 years of American life.

How could this be?  Could it be that we have leaders, and a political party so unconcerned with the common good?  I have thought a great deal about this over the last few years and have become to believe, at a very basic level, that they just don't care about us. Career politicians all, guided by an anachronistic and bankrupt philosophy, they have come to care only about themselves, their power, their pals, their politics, their privilege, their Party.

Their $75,000 at Neimans.

Palin to Appear on Spanish-language TV

As promised, Palin did give an interview to Jorge Ramos, of Univision, which will be aired on the network's Sunday morning political show, Al Punto, this weekend.  Here's a sneak peek of the interview: she talks about Hugo Chavez, Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama, and Immigration.  On immigration, Gov. Palin accepts that it's impossible to deport all the undocumented, and she emphasized Sen. McCain's view of "enforcement first" as the appropriate path to follow.  When asked if she'd stop the immigration raids, Gov. Palin said she couldn't say that she would, but rather would need to take a case by case approach. 


More Powell

After his Meet the Press Interview this morning, General Powell did an informal presser, where he repeated some of what he said earlier, but also added some additional observations.  I saw it live on CNN and found it very powerful.  You can watch it here on Daily Kos.

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