November 15, 2008
This political season has brought us a pair of females who ask to be taken seriously. They rose like cream toward the tops of their respective tickets, and, although they are polar opposites, they may have changed the landscape of presidential politics forever.
Hillary Clinton is serious, intelligent, demanding, competitive, perhaps more than a little strident. As the wife of a favorite president, she garnered support for her own run as a U.S. senator and took the post as a stepping stone toward her dreams of higher office for herself. I said no to her all along, but after her fierce and relentless primary campaign for her party's nomination, I came away with some admiration for her along with increased conviction that she has as many political liabilities as she has strengths, the main one being an inability to work with people or see them clearly. Her campaign was a shambles almost from the first, with her operatives dropping along the wayside like flies as she became more determined to topple Barack Obama, himself a phenomenon in many ways not unlike her husband.
It was a painful campaign to watch, yet Obama held steady and gave her as good as he got, albeit with more restraint and grace. Pundits on the tube hounded him to turn ballistic, make the horse race more exciting (to them) and give the audience more fire. Instead, he worked directly with the American people and with his own organization in building a constituency based on respect for him and desire to have a brave and wise person as president of the embattled and weary nation.
Then came John McCain's choice as Sarah Palin, governor, to be his vice presidential running mate. We all made her acquaintance one night when she appeared as brightly as a shooting star on the horizon, making a sarcastic, bitter speech with a plastic smile on her face and in her voice. Here was a new political creature, pretty and with no baggage, the polar opposite to Hillary Clinton. She bragged about being a soccer mom, and told us that was like being a pit bull. She denigrated the Democratic candidate as being inexperienced compared to her, although the more we learned about her the more we saw what a lie that was.
By now Hillary was on the sidelines, and we had a couple of months to examine the Palin resumé and find it wanting. Day after day my email contained heaps of communications from women all across the country, all with more information about the ineptitude of Ms. Palin and her colorful dealings and family in Alaska. There was a certain amount of fear in these notes, fear that this interloper might actually win. She was too much like the women we had known in our youth, those clever incompetents who liked nothing so much as proving the advantage of looks over intellect.
Clinton's whole life has been a testament to her brain power. She famously met the coming young star of Harvard Law School, Bill Clinton, in the library, having been the smartest girl in her class everywhere she had ever matriculated. He has often called her one of the smartest people he has ever known, and few have disputed that. Her personal style, however, has needed an overhaul from time to time, and she has endured it for the sake of her ambition. She did not share her husband's enormous skill with people, although she was not without wit and a certain charm as she cultivated an impressive career in the wake of his.
Sarah Palin went from beauty contestant to sports news wannabe and on to the office of mayor of a minor town in a state quite remote from Washington, D.C. Defensive about appearing ignorant, she took neutral questions to be an attempt to insult Alaska, all the while looking like a million bucks (or at least $150,000) and allowing her party to play that up with a wardrobe to match. She was a lot of style with very little between the ears, while over in the Democratic Party there was still Senator Clinton, an example of the contrary.
The country has rejected both these women for the posts they were seeking, marginalizing them at least for the nonce, and I think that's a good thing. Clinton will surely find a solid place in President Obama's coterie (as long as it's a place high enough for her comfort), and Palin is not likely to go away in the near future either.
Neither of these contenders has the potential to be a great leader. But in a weird way both have blazed a trail for women of the future. And their participation in the process has prepared us all for the bumpy ride toward a real hole in the glass ceiling.