Hating Hillary

Gloating, unshackled sexism of the ugliest kind has been shamelessly peddled by the US media, which

History, I suspect, will look back on the past six months as an example of America going through one of its collectively deranged episodes - rather like Prohibition from 1920-33, or McCarthyism some 30 years later. This time it is gloating, unshackled sexism of the ugliest kind. It has been shamelessly peddled by the US media, which - sooner rather than later, I fear - will have to account for their sins. The chief victim has been Senator Hillary Clinton, but the ramifications could be hugely harmful for America and the world.

I am no particular fan of Clinton. Nor, I think, would friends and colleagues accuse me of being racist. But it is quite inconceivable that any leading male presidential candidate would be treated with such hatred and scorn as Clinton has been. What other senator and serious White House contender would be likened by National Public Radio's political editor, Ken Rudin, to the demoniac, knife-wielding stalker played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? Or described as "a fucking whore" by Randi Rhodes, one of the foremost personalities of the supposedly liberal Air America? Could anybody have envisaged that a website set up specifically to oppose any other candidate would be called Citizens United Not Timid? (We do not need an acronym for that.)

I will come to the reasons why I fear such unabashed misogyny in the US media could lead, ironically, to dreadful racial unrest. "All men are created equal," Thomas Jefferson famously proclaimed in 1776. That equality, though, was not extended to women, who did not even get the vote until 1920, two years after (some) British women. The US still has less gender equality in politics than Britain, too. Just 16 of America's 100 US senators are women and the ratio in the House (71 out of 435) is much the same. It is nonetheless pointless to argue whether sexism or racism is the greater evil: America has a peculiarly wicked record of racist subjugation, which has resulted in its racism being driven deep underground. It festers there, ready to explode again in some unpredictable way.

To compensate meantime, I suspect, sexism has been allowed to take its place as a form of discrimination that is now openly acceptable. "How do we beat the bitch?" a woman asked Senator John McCain, this year's Republican presidential nominee, at a Republican rally last November. To his shame, McCain did not rebuke the questioner but joined in the laughter. Had his supporter asked "How do we beat the nigger?" and McCain reacted in the same way, however, his presidential hopes would deservedly have gone up in smoke. "Iron my shirt," is considered amusing heckling of Clinton. "Shine my shoes," rightly, would be hideously unacceptable if yelled at Obama.

Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, American men like to delude themselves that they are the most macho in the world. It is simply unthinkable, therefore, for most of them to face the prospect of having a woman as their leader. The massed ranks of male pundits gleefully pronounced that Clinton had lost the battle with Obama immediately after the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, despite past precedents that strong second-place candidates (like Ronald Reagan in his first, ultimately unsuccessful campaign in 1976; like Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown) continue their campaigns until the end of the primary season and, in most cases, all the way to the party convention.

None of these male candidates had a premature political obituary written in the way that Hillary Clinton's has been, or was subjected to such righteous outrage over refusing to quiesce and withdraw obediently from what, in this case, has always been a knife-edge race. Nor was any of them anything like as close to his rivals as Clinton now is to Obama.

The media, of course, are just reflecting America's would-be macho culture. I cannot think of any television network or major newspaper that is not guilty of blatant sexism - the British media, naturally, reflexively follow their American counterparts - but probably the worst offender is the NBC/MSNBC network, which has what one prominent Clinton activist describes as "its nightly horror shows". Tim Russert, the network's chief political sage, was dancing on Clinton's political grave before the votes in North Carolina and Indiana had even been fully counted - let alone those of the six contests to come, the undeclared super-delegates, or the disputed states of Florida and Michigan.

The unashamed sexism of this giant network alone is stupendous. Its superstar commentator Chris Matthews referred to Clinton as a "she-devil". His colleague Tucker Carlson casually observed that Clinton "feels castrating, overbearing and scary . . . When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs." This and similar abuse, I need hardly point out, says far more about the men involved than their target.

Knives out

But never before have the US media taken it upon themselves to proclaim the victor before the primary contests are over or the choice of all the super-delegates is known, and the result was that the media's tidal wave of sexism became self-fulfilling: Americans like to back winners, and polls immediately showed dramatic surges of support for Obama. A few brave souls had foreseen the merciless media campaign: "The press will savage her no matter what," predicted the Washington Post's national political correspondent, Dana Milbank, last December. "They really have their knives out for her, there's no question about it."

Polling organisations such as Gallup told us months ago that Americans will more readily accept a black male president than a female one, and a more recent CNN/Essence magazine/ Opinion Research poll found last month that 76 per cent think America is ready for a black man as president, but only 63 per cent believe the same of a woman.

"The image of charismatic leadership at the top has been and continues to be a man," says Ruth Mandel of Rutgers University. "We don't have an image, we don't have a historical memory of a woman who has achieved that feat."

Studies here have repeatedly shown that women are seen as ambitious and capable, or likeable - but rarely both. "Gender stereotypes trump race stereotypes in every social science test," says Alice Eagley, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. A distinguished academic undertaking a major study of coverage of the 2008 election, Professor Marion Just of Wellesley College - one of the "seven sisters" colleges founded because women were barred from the Ivy Leagues and which, coincidentally, Hillary Clinton herself attended - tells me that what is most striking to her is that the most repeated description of Senator Clinton is "cool and calculating".

This, she says, would never be said of a male candidate - because any politician making a serious bid for the White House has, by definition, to be cool and calculating. Hillary Clinton, a successful senator for New York who was re-elected for a second term by a wide margin in 2006 - and who has been a political activist since she campaigned against the Vietnam War and served as a lawyer on the congressional staff seeking to impeach President Nixon - has been treated throughout the 2008 campaign as a mere appendage of her husband, never as a heavyweight politician whose career trajectory (as an accomplished lawyer and professional advocate for equality among children, for example) is markedly more impressive than those of the typical middle-aged male senator.

Rarely is she depicted as an intellectually formidable politician in her own right (is that what terrifies oafs like Matthews and Carlson?). Rather, she is the junior member of "Billary", the derisive nickname coined by the media for herself and her husband. Obama's opponent is thus not one of the two US senators for New York, but some amorphous creature called "the Clintons", an aphorism that stands for amorality and sleaze. Open season has been declared on Bill Clinton, who is now reviled by the media every bit as much as Nixon ever was.

Here we come to the crunch. Hillary Clinton (along with her husband) is being universally depicted as a loathsome racist and negative campaigner, not so much because of anything she has said or done, but because the overwhelmingly pro-Obama media - consciously or unconsciously - are following the agenda of Senator Barack Obama and his chief strategist, David Axelrod, to tear to pieces the first serious female US presidential candidate in history.

"What's particularly saddening," says Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton and a rare dissenting voice from the left as a columnist in the New York Times, "is the way many Obama supporters seem happy with the . . . way pundits and some news organisations treat any action or statement by the Clintons, no matter how innocuous, as proof of evil intent." Despite widespread reporting to the contrary, Krugman believes that most of the "venom" in the campaign "is coming from supporters of Obama".

But Obama himself prepared the ground by making the first gratuitous personal attack of the campaign during the televised Congressional Black Caucus Institute debate in South Carolina on 21 January, although virtually every follower of the media coverage now assumes that it was Clinton who started the negative attacks. Following routine political sniping from her about supposedly admiring comments Obama had made about Ronald Reagan, Obama suddenly turned on Clinton and stared intimidatingly at her. "While I was working in the streets," he scolded her, ". . . you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart." Then, cleverly linking her inextricably in the public consciousness with her husband, he added: "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."

One of his female staff then distributed a confidential memo to carefully selected journalists which alleged that a vaguely clumsy comment Hillary Clinton had made about Martin Luther King ("Dr King's dream began to be realised when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964") and a reference her husband had made in passing to Nelson Mandela ("I've been blessed in my life to know some of the greatest figures of the last hundred years . . . but if I had to pick one person whom I know would never blink, who would never turn back, who would make great decisions . . . I would pick Hillary") were deliberate racial taunts.

Another female staffer, Candice Tolliver - whose job it is to promote Obama to African Americans - then weighed in publicly, claiming that "a cross-section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of some of these statements" and saying: "Folks are beginning to wonder: Is this an isolated situation, or is there something bigger behind all of this?" That was game, set and match: the Clintons were racists, an impression sealed when Bill Clinton later compared Obama's victory in South Carolina to those of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 (even though Jackson himself, an Obama supporter, subsequently declared Clinton's remarks to be entirely inoffensive).

The pincer movement, in fact, could have come straight from a textbook on how to wreck a woman's presi dential election campaign: smear her whole persona first, and then link her with her angry, red-faced husband. The public Obama, characteristically, pronounced himself "unhappy" with the vilification carried out so methodically by his staff, but it worked like magic: Hillary Clinton's approval ratings among African Americans plummeted from above 80 per cent to barely 7 per cent in a matter of days, and have hovered there since.

I suspect that, as a result, she will never be able entirely to shake off the "racist" tag. "African-American super-delegates [who are supporting Clinton] are being targeted, harassed and threatened," says one of them, Representative Emanuel Cleaver. "This is the politics of the 1950s." Obama and Axelrod have achieved their objectives: to belittle Hillary Clinton and to manoeuvre the ever-pliant media into depicting every political criticism she makes against Obama as racist in intent.

The danger is that, in their headlong rush to stop the first major female candidate (aka "Hildebeast" and "Hitlery") from becoming president, the punditocracy may have landed the Democrats with perhaps the least qualified presidential nominee ever. But that creeping realisation has probably come too late, and many of the Democratic super-delegates now fear there would be widespread outrage and increased racial tension if they thwart the first biracial presidential hopeful in US history.

But will Obama live up to the hype? That, I fear, may not happen: he is a deeply flawed candidate. Rampant sexism may have triumphed only to make way for racism to rear its gruesome head in America yet again. By election day on 4 November, I suspect, the US media and their would-be-macho commentators may have a lot of soul-searching to do.

In this comment piece on sexist language in the US media in relation to Hillary Clinton Andrew Stephen suggested that Carl Bernstein had publicly declared his disgust for Hillary Clinton's thick ankles. We are informed that Carl Bernstein intended, in his biography of Hillary Clinton, to refer to comments made by others about her when she was at high school. We are happy to accept that Carl Bernstein was not motivated by sexism, and we are sorry for any embarrassment caused.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

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The Brexit plague

Theresa May is just the latest victim of a virulent political malady that has already destroyed David Cameron and destabilised Britain.

Theresa May thought she had a shrewd plan for how to make Brexit work – first of all, for her. Having said almost nothing during the toxic 2016 EU referendum campaign (much to David Cameron’s dismay), she was well positioned – only superficially, it turned out – to benefit from the political devastation that followed. With Remain defeated and Leave destroying itself, May’s combination of saying nothing while projecting steely competence was artfully presented as just what the country needed.

No more pandering to the 24-hour news cycle, no running commentary, no flashy headline grabbing. That May didn’t chase headlines became the new headline. It was a seductive narrative, given the shouty unpleasantness that had come before. The Prime Minister’s moral authority became subtly bound up with avoiding saying too much: a void had entered a vacuum and it was being presented as a virtue. “He posits a principle,” as Nietzsche quipped, “where he lacks a capacity.”

But the Brexit strategy that won May power during the post-referendum carnage – there’s been an earthquake: everyone lie down very still under a table – turned out to be inadequate as a plan for contesting a general election. The longer the campaign dragged on, the clearer the contours of the gaps and inadequacies became. Conservative MPs, most of whom are Remainers, were asking the country to vote in a parliamentary majority in order to smooth the path of a hard Brexit. Over the course of the campaign, voters sniffed expediency and called it out.

The convenient narrative now in vogue – that the election was scuppered by May’s advisers – is a displacement activity. In fact, May’s advisers had initially done almost too good a job at turning her deficiencies into virtues. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t make enough of May; they had made too much. The shortfall between myth and reality added to the look of a politician who had been rumbled. During the election campaign, an uncomfortable alternative crystallised: the absence of style does not guarantee the presence of substance.

It is hard to imagine a swifter or more complete collapse in political standing. The wild swings in May’s reputation, however, offer a kind of mitigation. She must take responsibility for the campaign, but not for the national mood, especially how it has been coarsened and confused by Brexit. Just as May didn’t deserve her stellar ­pre-election personal polling, she doesn’t deserve the opposite arrangement now.

Is Britain becoming increasingly ungov­ernable? Some argue that the electorate has internally contradictory desires: first it votes for Brexit, then it votes to deprive the government of a majority as it tries to effect Brexit. A rival theory holds that the country has been let down by poor political leadership. But the two explanations, apparently opposed, in fact interact in a compound ­effect: erratic leadership unsettles the judgement of those being led.

***

A friend of mine mischievously likened this to a familiar rural scene: “Anyone who has observed a large flock of sheep being marshalled by a young or incompetent sheepdog will have noticed how, with each badly executed move by the sheepdog, the flock becomes ever more frightened and rebellious.”

Confusion also manifests itself as a thirst for someone to blame, and it has briefly settled on May. She is just the latest victim of a virulent political malady: the Brexit plague.

Given that many of us are getting used to being wrong so much of the time – I anticipated a Remain win and then a May majority – I was pleased to chance upon an old column I wrote for this magazine, the central argument of which I’d almost forgotten: “The Brexit crown won’t stay on anyone’s head for more than a few days . . . Like a superbug, Brexit inhabits its host spokesmen and women before choking the life out of them. The illness takes a horrible course, first imbuing the victim with great energy and enthusiasm, as though the ailment was in fact a cheering tonic . . .

“To adapt the celebrated lines spoken by ­Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, does Brexit, politically speaking, spot and kill everyone it touches”?

I wrote those lines in July 2016, when Theresa May had been Prime Minister for one week. It was one thing, I argued, to win referendum support for Brexit as a story about what Britain should or could become (or what it once was). But any politician ­trying to make Brexit a political reality would be left “floundering amid tectonic shifts in the political landscape that they helped to initiate”.

During this year’s general election, however, I failed to follow my own logic. If I had done so, I would have seen that May would find it much harder than everyone predicted to win an election while keeping the Brexit Question under control. She tried not talking about Brexit, and that sounded disingenuous. Then she tried talking about Brexit, but there wasn’t much appetite for listening.

May’s Brexit strategy and the rest of her electoral pitch were in contradiction. On the one hand, there were the reassurances to the Brexit constituency: May the steely deliverer of promises, the “bloody difficult” woman of her word, with an unflinching desire to follow things through. Brexit means Brexit; sighs of relief all round.

Then there was the usual play to the bottom line: the Tories are the only people you can trust with the economy. In other circumstances, even a relatively flat and uninspiring Tory leader who promised “strong and stable” leadership amid economic uncertainty – a firm hand on the tiller and all that – would surely have defeated the Corbyn-McDonnell-Abbott axis comfortably.

But these are not normal circumstances, because the economic uncertainty is bound up with a choice and a policy: namely Brexit. So May, in effect, was promising to provide strength and stability in order to deliver certain uncertainty. She made a big play of being just the person who could calmly and unshakeably steer the ship inexorably towards what will surely be a huge storm.

You can be totally confident it’s going to happen, that thing which inspires little confidence, but you can’t trust Labour with the numbers: this was the Tory party’s idea of a trump card. The second part is definitely true, but it loses its lustre after the Brexit bit.

Here there were similarities with the 2016 US presidential election (albeit a different result). Donald Trump was gifted the ­perfect opponent. He is a vulgar fraud who is professionally dodgy, yet his easy defence was: “But what about the Clintons?” For the establishment also had reputational problems, only with the added burden of lacking both the entertainment factor and an outsider narrative. The ideal candidate to beat Trump would have been self-evidently principled, which has never been a strong suit for the Clintons.

***

The Tories, with their strong and stable pursuit of a hard Brexit, were tainted by subliminal economic uncertainty. And Corbyn’s Labour, vide Diane Abbott at the calculator, was also inevitably tainted by economic uncertainty. Labour, however, could sugar the pill with a lot more free stuff. The lesson here is not, as some Conservatives have argued following Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Theresa May’s debacle, that it is no longer possible to win as a stability candidate. But it is true that a stability candidate cannot easily succeed if he or she shares a sufficiently similar weak spot with a more novel and superficially intriguing electoral outsider.

It turned out that Labour had chosen a strangely effective moment to take refuge in frivolous dissent. In these serious times, unseriousness proved a harbour for them. Though it sounds absurd, it is possible that a more credible opposition would have done worse at the polls because the Tory scare story would have felt more plausible. Labour has another advantage: even though the party played its part with its feeble referendum campaign, the electorate doesn’t blame Labour for the Brexit-induced political crisis. Nor should it.

Given that backdrop, my conjecture is that for all the flaws of May’s campaign – the defensive catenaccio, the bleak tone, the lack of wit and charm – the election could never have been properly about the Prime Minister. Ironically, by trying to turn the election into a vote of confidence in her competence, May in fact made it less likely that she would become the personification of Brexit.

Instead, she will now probably end up as a bit-part player in a much bigger story: the tale of Britain’s increasingly ham-fisted attempt to leave the EU on tolerable terms. For a quiet Remainer whose catchphrase became “Brexit means Brexit”, that is an appropriate decline in influence.

When the election was called, initially it seemed like another pragmatic masterstroke; the Tory party, which understands power better than any other party in the world, was doing what it does best: reorganising itself to benefit from the new political reality. Yet there was a different kind of shy Tory during this election: not the shy Tory who doesn’t want to own up to Toryism, but the shy Tory who sought a modest win. Many Conservative supporters I know wanted May to win the election but not too handsomely. They feared a landslide would lead to a resurgent Europhobic Tory right. Far from the original spin that the election was needed to create a bulwark against the hard Brexiteers, Tory-Remain voters feared the opposite. And when lots of your own potential supporters don’t want a big win, you scarcely win at all.

It is often said that early elections backfire because the electorate resents the disruption. In this instance, that resentment was especially deep among Tory-leaning Remainers.

There is always a deeper rhythm and May is not entirely responsible for the beating drum. It is not quite true that, in her words to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs, she “got us into this mess”.

The Brexiteers, most of them Conservatives, created the mess. Their relentless obsession with Europe pressed David Cameron into holding a referendum. Strands of the Leave campaign pandered to mob elements that they then couldn’t appease. Then came the Brexiteers’ inability to settle on a realistic candidate after the referendum, leaving a Remainer to do their bidding.

My first instinct after the referendum was that the process of Brexit had to be fronted by a Brexiteer. It was their show: over to them. When that person became Andrea Leadsom, I recoiled and changed my mind. Now I think I was right first time. Brexit must anoint one of its own. I’m also beginning to suspect that the electorate’s desire to see the right people blamed for Brexit will prove stronger than the desire to actually brexit. The superficial logic said: Corbyn can’t be PM, so call an election. A quite different disquiet was revealed: who is to blame for this annoying chaos?

That is an augury for the immediate future of British politics – blame. When a new economic reality bites, there will be a lot of Brexit anger to be redirected. In the process, the old political parties and alignments will be pushed to breaking point.

Perhaps the pull of political justice will demand that the cracks, when they come, ought to be in the appropriate places. That craving for justice may trump the need for competence. If Brexit does turn into a disaster movie, who would be a suitable protagonist? It is hard to escape the logic that the most apposite outcome – even if it is unappealing, especially for the long-term health of the nation – is that Brexit should be delivered by those who initially won the popular argument.

When the mood turns, however, the same movement that craved a populist hero will need a panto villain.

Step forward, Boris Johnson: your country needs you. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?