Last fall, author Ron Suskind infuriated the White House with his book “Confidence Men,” a thick volume on the Obama administration’s struggles with the economy. Not to mention its struggles with gender relations in the White House workplace.
The book quoted former communications director Anita Dunn as saying, “But looking back, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. . . . Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”
That quote became a Washington phenomenon in late September. Dunn all but recanted it, claiming it was taken out of context. Her objections merged with an offensive coming from the White House itself, which claimed that Suskind’s work “uses a combination of out-of-context quotes, exaggerations, mixed-up facts, and errors big and small to paint a picture that bears little resemblance to what actually happened.”
In an effort to beat back the attacks, Suskind told this blog what Dunn had said to him just prior to that quote about the hostile workplace. “What preceded the quote was the discussion where she pointed out that senior officials were saying ‘f-you’ a lot to the women,” recalled Suskind. (I’ve reached out to Dunn and am awaiting a response.)
Now please take out your copy of Jodi Kantor’s “The Obamas.” Turn to Page 252. The scene is a 7:30 a.m. meeting in September 2010, led by then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Press secretary Robert Gibbs is informed by top aide Valerie Jarrett that the first lady was dissatisfied with how he’d handled a potential PR fiasco.
“What the [expletive] do you mean?” Gibbs fumed, in Kantor’s telling.
When told the first lady wouldn’t appreciate his comportment, Gibbs reportedly fired back, “Then [expletive] her too!”
So maybe that’s the sort of behavior that Dunn was referencing when she spoke of a hostile work environment. Was this further evidence of a boys club with its lodge at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
Kantor declines to explore the question in her book. Her interpretation defaults to inside baseball: “This was what the once famously cohesive Obama campaign team had turned into: people who could no longer work productively together and long streams of [expletives].” The White House trashed Kantor’s book with some of the same terms that it deployed against Suskind’s.
Maybe there’s really no evidence of sexism at work here. Maybe everyone at the White House abuses each other irrespective of gender. White House spokesperson Eric Schultz responds this way: “Sometimes in the heat of moment staffers unfortunately use coarse language which I’m sure does not happen in any of the pristine newsrooms around town.”
However: After Mark Leibovich, a New York Times colleague of Kantor’s, wrote about a fraternity atmosphere at the White House and after Suskind added more meat to that particular bone, you’d figure that Kantor would deliver the definitive take on the issue. She did write about a meeting between President Obama and female staffers concerned about workplace issues but managed to pooh-pooh the affair.
Does omission amount to dismissal? That is: By failing to include a full airing of the hostile-workplace allegations, is Kantor essentially saying they’re baseless? If she is, why on earth did the White House raise such a fuss about the book? Kantor declined to comment.
One passage in the book raises questions as to Kantor’s ability to assess the gender environment. She talks about a little dispute over whether the White House would do a Halloween celebration in 2010 (not the Johnny Depp Halloween, mind you). She encountered some opposition from Gibbs. Take it away, Kantor:
But Michelle told aides she felt strongly about celebrating the holiday, David Axelrod backed her, and the White House hauled out the orange lightbulbs and candy bags as planned. Like her husband’s introduction of her at the Clinton event, it was a small sign of the newfound power she wielded inside the White House.
Are we really saying here that the first lady’s freedom to do something squarely within her ceremonial ambit is evidence of power?
Ditching consequential issues such as gender, Kantor spends much of her book chasing inconsequential ones. The signature moment comes at Page 134, when the story hits a dead end of pointless conjecture and false drama. Kantor relates how the Obamas were celebrating Halloween at a White House party. (Halloween gets enough rotation in this book that, had I been publisher, I would have insisted on a subtitle: “Trick or treating with the first couple.”) Here’s how Kantor breaks down the scene:
Michelle looked upbeat and composed during the party, as she almost always did in public. What almost no one knew is that even as she was chafing at the constraints around her, she was beginning to reassess her whole approach to her role.
No way! At that very moment? Cable news producers, how did you miss this one?
Other transparent attempts at pumping drama language into a humdrum political narrative virtually grabbed the pen out of my hand and highlighted themselves. Like this: “Cheryl Whitaker said she actually had a pretty hard time even broaching the subject of racially inflected attacks with the first couple. It was too painful; it cut too deep.”
This: “The more the president’s voice disappeared, the more the first lady’s emerged.” Prove it.
This (in reference to veterans): “ ‘It’s hard to spend years serving your country, only to find that the value of that service isn’t fully understood,’ she continued. ‘It’s hard to give so much, for so long, for a cause greater than yourself, only to come home and find that there’s nowhere you quite fit in.’ She sounded as if she might have been speaking about herself and her husband — especially her husband.”
Now do you see why the White House said the following? “The emotions, thoughts and private moments described in the book, though often seemingly ascribed to the President and First Lady, reflect little more than the author’s own thoughts.”
More grist for that mill: “The expression on Michelle’s face was one of deep satisfaction. He had given the kind of speech she knew he could give. The look on her face said: this is the president I wanted you to be.”
Sappy, unjournalistic, overreaching, annoying italics in original.