Archive for February 2008

The most interesting Clinton success story has not been shared.

February 26, 2008

The Reasonable Reporter can only wonder what it’s like to be so influential that highly-placed campaign officials make a personal appearance to flog you for the tone of your coverage. The vicarious experience is available thanks to Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who shares an account of a meeting where an angry Clinton spokesman cited a skit from Saturday Night Live to a group of major-league political journalists, as proof that they’ve shown a bias in favor of Barack Obama.

(In the SNL skit, located on YouTube, three worshipful journalists grovel before Obama on the set of a debate. He forgives them their favoritism, as Hillary Clinton looks on, never given the opportunity to speak.)

Milbank relates the incident to make a point about the degree to which the Clinton campaign is grasping for a way to explain failure. One way is to blame the media, where Obama shines brighter as a projection of collective hope than Clinton as a workhorse for better bureaucracy.

But who’s fault is that? When they made Hillary less toxic, her handlers also made her less interesting, in the mass-market sense. Having now filed down all the sharp edges that made Hillary fascinating,  her pre-campaign bout of self-improvement might be one of her greatest success stories.  But it hasn’t been shared.

Eighteen months ago, Hillary Clinton was one of the most cruelly caricatured people in the country. Talk shows used to drop the sound of cawing crows behind her voice. Whole subsections of joke websites were devoted to her. She’s been analogized to the Wicked Witch of the West; she’s been portrayed as a dominatrix dragging a dog-collared Bill around on a leash; she’s been productized as a doll with a nutcracker between her thighs.

Few of the caricatures are surviving at the mass level, because her campaign persona doesn’t support them. And this is the interesting story. You want change? Female viewers could be glued to the tube watching how Hillary Clinton made the transition from perceived she-monster to smiling, accessible PTA mom with a hairdo that never droops and a flattering executive wardrobe.

This is not about fashion, although fashion isn’t an unimportant element. It’s about a Pygmalion-like transition that must have begun with appearance, but clearly extended to voice coaching, cadence training, and body language adjustments. Who knows what else was involved, or how many people played Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle? The point is that it worked.

This is no small accomplishment, and in fact, it capsulizes the strong-woman struggle the campaign has labored in vain to convey. Many’s the tough, competent woman who’s been told to “pull back” if she wants to succeed. To curb her assertiveness, to smile more, to be more feminine. It’s advice that goes down hard for smart women who grew up with the drumbeat of feminism always in the background. It’s also hard as hell to do. Try changing your natural demeanor for even an hour-long meeting.

American women support a magazine industry that thrives month after month,  shouting self-improvement instructions to us while we’re in line at the supermarket. Some of the instructions are about our physical appearance, but many are about changing our relationship to the world. We have also supported the creation of a new television genre – the makeover show. Judging from the way those shows are proliferating, we must love them.

Hillary’s problem is her insistence that voters want meat and potatoes when they are showing a clear preference for something more creamy and less filling. Telling the story of her reinvention might seem risky, but it’s no more so than any other imaging gamble. If Obama can run from event-to-event with Oprah on his arm, and still be taken seriously as a potential commander-in-chief of the American armed forces, then why not?


Do you all need your mouths washed out with soap?

February 18, 2008

Jane Fonda. Wasn’t she married to a man who owned a television network? Seems like she’d know there are words you don’t say on TV.

But on a visit to the Today Show, Fonda dropped one of the most vile words in the English language. Fonda said the C-word on a fluffy morning news show watched by millions of women who think dodge ball is too violent a playground pastime for their kids. Effortlessly, she said it, and without an apparent second thought. The word rolled right out of her mouth, like it was the primary ingredient in a cookie recipe, or the name of the shop where her hair stylist works.

Feminists of Fonda’s generation have a love-hate relationship with the C-word, and some have declared that it’s liberating to say it. Letting it slip on the Today Show was a verbal malfunction of major proportion, brought on by Fonda’s involvement in a much-acclaimed stage play with the unfortunate name “The Vagina Monologues.” The Reasonable Reporter has never seen the Vagina Monologues, and is unable to say whether the show is as revolting as its name.

In other news of 1960s feminists versus the English language, Hillary Clinton got huffy with MSNBC when one of its reporters suggested the Clintons “pimped out” their daughter, Chelsea, by putting the young woman on the campaign trail. Hillary scolded MSNBC for allowing the P-word to be used in conjunction with her daughter. “I became Chelsea’s mother long before I ran for any office,” she said in a letter.

Hillary’s outrage was, of course, momma-bear posturing, but it says two interesting things. First, that she is quite out of touch with pop culture. “Pimp,” a word once doubly loaded for its sexual and criminal connotations, has been defanged and defined downward through repeated use in other contexts. (That doesn’t mean reporters acting in their professional capacity should use it.)

The second thing it says is how damn smart Condi Rice was to resist Republicans who wanted her to seek the presidency. Some in the party thought she’d make a great candidate. We’ll see your first viable woman, and we’ll raise you a viable black woman with actual foreign policy experience.

But Condi squelched the idea immediately, and the Reasonable Reporter wonders whether she foresaw the endless situations in which momma-bear could have favorably compared herself, because she is a mother, to Condi, who isn’t. Childless women know one thing well. We know that our key deficiency, in the eyes of many parents, is childlessness.

Dr. Rice is a brilliant scholar, Hillary might say. But does she know what it is to sit up at night with a sick child and wonder whether her health insurance will cover the problem? Dr. Rice has built an admirable career, but has she ever had to worry about whether her child is reading at grade level? Ad infinitum.

This disqualifying technique would rock the Richter scale with Hillary’s target demographic. It would be pulled out at every opportunity, and would come without the kind of blowback that resulted from the Martin Luther King- couldn’t-do-it-without-LBJ potshot.

Finally, Time Magazine’s Mark Halperin said on a radio show that John Edwards thinks Obama is “kind of a pussy.” For crying all night, people, do you all need your mouths washed out with soap? The Reasonable Reporter is a First Amendment absolutist, and, by the way, has more than a passing acquaintance with profanity. But not on the air. People who appear on news programs – reporters, hosts and guests – have a responsibility to exercise some judgment when they choose their words.

Personal tragedy can be a useful tool.

February 8, 2008

At the 2007 legislative session there was an ACLU lobbyist named Joey Turco. Joseph Turco, to be more correct. After law school, Turco began to identify himself as Joseph, because, he said, you can’t be taken seriously in court if your name is Joey.

If the Nevada Legislature were a movie, Turco would be an offbeat character, engagingly portrayed, in a fleeting scene that would draw notice from critics for its delightful quirkiness.

His suits were slightly rumpled. Sitting down to testify, he would lay his notes out, then straighten his tie, and take a breath, as if to start speaking — only to stop short just as his first sentence was anticipated.

Next, he might look down at the table, and then up at the ceiling. A hand would move to his brow. An impatient room would wait while he adjusted himself in his chair. After what seemed like eternity, Turco, an earnest civil libertarian, would speak.

Elaborate preludes notwithstanding, Turco was no Clarence Darrow. But once, he tossed out a phrase so perfectly crafted that it echoed for hours.

“Lawmaking by personal tragedy,” he said to the Reasonable Reporter, after both houses passed a bill permitting DNA collection from a broader assortment of criminals. The bill’s initial hearing had featured the mother of a murdered New Mexico college student whose killer was found through a DNA match when he committed a subsequent crime. The mother has successfully advocated in a number of states for expanding the range of situations in which biological samples are taken by the police.

Lawmaking by personal tragedy finds parents of tragic victims using the law to make a broad category of people pay for a narrow set of horrors. Candy Lightner comes to mind, the original Mother Against Drunk Driving. So energetically did she pursue statutory vengeance for her daughter’s death at the hands of an unrepentant drunk, that there are places now where casual wine sippers are in the sights of law enforcement before they’ve left the restaurant parking lot.

Turco’s phrase floats in the background, as Reno suffers through a fruitless search for the missing Brianna Denison. At the moment, the personal tragedy takes the shape of frustration for so many, who want so much to rescue the girl, but feel increasingly helpless as the weeks pass and hope dims.

The Reasonable Reporter would like to say this carefully, but it’s an observation laced with crudeness, and there’s little that would make it more gentle. Whole segments of the community are now ordered around this tragedy. On many days it drives the news, and even if Brianna does “come home,” to use the parlance of her searchers, her tragedy will be a driver at the next the legislative session.

The 2007 legislature authorized expanded DNA collection, but not the money to process the samples. Washoe County’s crime lab has gathered close to three thousand biological specimens, which have mostly sat on the shelf for lack of funds.

County law enforcement established $150,000 as the cost of clearing the DNA backlog, and decided last week to appeal to the public for help. The effort was barely underway when several prominent community members stepped forward with nearly two-thirds of the total, and turned it over to Washoe County for expenses related to processing all 3,000 specimens.

This massive infusion of private cash, announced in the context of the Brianna investigation, will support more than just a search for Brianna’s abductor. It’s reasonable to ask whether all 3,000 of the shelved DNA samples are of interest in this case. Are they all kidnappers and sex offenders? A there no embezzlers in the bunch? Nobody who sold Toyotas to a chop shop?

Of course there are, given Nevada’s expanded DNA policy. There are no doubt many biological samples from crimes with a non-biological basis. This probability greatly rankled Joseph Turco. (Although it should be noted that there is no testimony from Turco regarding this matter on the legislative record. The ACLU submitted its proposed amendments in writing, and they are not reflected in the public record.)

In a climate where government’s goals outpace tax collection, personal tragedy can be a useful tool. Brianna’s case may be solved by this effort, but the net it casts will be much wider. Brianna’s personal tragedy, in effect, paved the way to overcome a larger law enforcement hurdle.

Washoe County’s sheriff has suggested that when the 2009 session rolls around, the largess of a few community leaders who contributed their own money will be presented as the will of the public-at-large to fund regular DNA processing. It’s a benign distortion, because right now, the will of the public is to discover Brianna’s fate, and to bring the culprit to justice.

Carson City will no doubt find the DNA-processing money in 2009. Because who in his right mind would argue that it makes sense to collect biological samples from criminals and then allow them to languish on a shelf while crimes remain unsolved? And who in his right mind would risk seeming insensitive to personal tragedy?

Snapshots: from Hillary’s cleavage to Michelle Obama’s derriere

February 1, 2008

Some months back, when Hillary seemed inevitable, she donned a top with a neckline that revealed a bit of cleavage. While it’s pretty certain Mrs. Clinton’s cleavage didn’t cause Playboy to come calling, it got lots of attention.

If Hillary’s cleavage was not presidential, then Michelle Obama’s pink fanny-hugging skirt at the South Carolina victory speech was decidedly un-firstladylike. The suit was fashionable, and feminine, and revealed an enviable derriere. But a prospective first lady – even one as stunning as Mrs. Obama — might want to rethink future displays of that particular asset.

Nobody’s asking her to be Barbara Bush, but her shapely backside did distract from the purpose at hand.

Other snapshots from post-Nevada campains: The Republican debate at the Reagan Library, during which the candidates sat in front of what appeared to be the hulking body of Reagan’s retired Air Force One. (Also a distraction from the purpose at hand.)

Mitt Romney might have been able to taxi a Boeing 747 through the hole available to him when the conversation turned to an early statement of his regarding a “timetable” for withdrawal from Iraq. But he missed his shot. Since Romney staunchly maintains that McCain is deliberately distorting the quote, it would have been a fairly simple matter – and an effective move – to accuse McCain of engaging in Clinton tactics.

They were, after all at the Reagan library, before a crowd that might have (debate protocol be damned) roared appreciatively had Romney said something to this effect:

“Senator McCain, you’re using Clinton tactics to try and misrepresent my record, and I won’t indulge you in it. The video in question is posted on my website for anyone who wants to see it for themselves. I will clarify my position one final time here, and then I’d like to move on.” Then he should have done it, in two or three sentences, and met any further questions about it with his URL.

Instead, he sank into a demeaning yes-you-did-no-I-didn’t exchange that diminished both candidates, and made the Reasonable Reporter wish for a flight attendant to appear with a drink and some headphones.

Back to South Carolina and the spectacular pink-suited Michelle Obama. No, wait a minute – Back to South Carolina and the victory speech given by the inspiring husband of the spectacular pink-suited Michelle Obama.

Barack Obama started slow, but came to life about a third of the way into his speech, and yes, he inspired hope and all the other goodness that lives in the mysterious part of the psyche from which human beings draw their political preferences. He was spine-tingling. And the next day brought endorsements from the Kennedy family.