By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—The national media have reveled in self-congratulation over Barack Obama’s historic ascent to become the first African-American to have the nomination of a major party within his grasp. Racism, we have been told, is now a supposed irrelevancy in American politics, a vestige of those past battles that Obama pledges earnestly not to fight.
So as soon as Hillary Clinton defied the polls and won an upset victory in New Hampshire Tuesday night, the pundit chorus immediately cried ... what? Racism!
The pre-election polls were wrong, many declared, because white voters must have lied to pollsters about supporting Obama and then went into the booth to vote for a white candidate. Yet there is scant evidence of this: When pre-election polls were averaged, Obama was predicted to get 38 percent of the New Hampshire vote; he got 37, a statistically insignificant difference. Obama beat Clinton soundly among white men. Clinton beat Obama among white women and—significantly—among nonwhite women, whose vote she carried by 12 points.
We have tried mightily as a country to banish race as the -ism none dare to publicly speak. But the national media during this campaign have ignored, if not heartily encouraged, an ugly -ism no one is squeamish about.
To recount the sexist double (and triple and quadruple) standards and misogynist insults to which Clinton has been subjected would take double (or triple or quadruple) the usual column space. Consider this an abbreviated account: Television commentator Chris Matthews suggested last month that prominent male politicians who endorsed Clinton are “castratos in the eunuch chorus.” His MSNBC colleague Tucker Carlson declared that there’s something about Clinton that “feels castrating, overbearing and scary.” Why, Carlson said, “when she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs.”
Think, for a moment, of what might happen if a well-known media personality were to say of Obama: “Every time he comes on television, I involuntarily reach for my white hood.” Would even Don Imus survive?
A wholesale rewrite by both the media and Clinton’s opponents transformed her tenure as first lady into a useless credential, and made winning two Senate terms in New York—a state not known for softball politics—the moral equivalent of achieving nothing on her own. Yet back when she actually was first lady, the media depicted Clinton as the most powerful presidential spouse since Eleanor Roosevelt. Clinton’s groundbreaking foreign travels, her discussions with foreign leaders, her rebuke to Chinese dictators, and her failed attempt at overhauling the health insurance system were chronicled as evidence of her unprecedented reach. The right wing spewed vitriol; the left took approving notice.
Yet once she ran for president, Clinton was portrayed as an observer to her husband’s administration—why, The New York Times pointed out, she hadn’t even attended National Security Council meetings. Can you imagine the ruckus if she had?
Such a revelation would likely have caused a bigger stir than did the videotape of an impeccable woman attending a November campaign event for John McCain leaning forward determinedly to ask, “How do we beat the b——?” An excellent question, McCain replied. The exchange never drew the abundance of national analysis given to Hillary’s cleavage, her alleged “cackle” or those wrinkles that were so pronounced in a photograph that zoomed around the Internet.
Twenty-four years have passed since Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic vice presidential nominee, the first—and only—woman to have a spot on a major party’s ticket. Ferraro was subjected to George H.W. Bush’s post-debate taunt that he’d kicked a “little ass,” while first lady Barbara Bush assessed Ferraro as someone who “rhymes with rich.” A supposedly enlightened generation later, Clinton has had it far worse.
The senator’s emotional moment in a diner, when her voice caught as she answered a sympathetic question, was immediately dissected as a possible Clintonian calculation. No doubt New Hampshire women thought differently, and brought their—how to say it?—difference of opinion into the voting booth.
Obama’s candidacy may yet deliver us to the promised land of post-racial politics. Right now the idea is either irrational exuberance or a fascinating theory, still to be tested. Neither racism nor sexism has disappeared from American life, and we’d best admit it.
But standards of public discourse should not differ depending on the candidate. If you—or the media—wouldn’t hurl racist insults at Obama, it’s time to call out those who have made Clinton’s candidacy a celebration of their own sexism.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group