It is a strange world in which a person is compelled to announce her withdrawal from consideration for a position for which she has not been nominated.
Strange and, more to the point, ugly. I know Susan Rice only a bit. I have no strong view about whether she would have been a good secretary of state. But I do believe that the lengthy public twisting-in-the-wind process of her non-nomination reflects badly on nearly everyone involved — on Republicans, most obviously, but also on the president.
I’ve had my say, previously, about the Republican piece of the Rice debacle. The preemptive attack on her was unfair. The Benghazi scandal is not about whether Rice, or the intelligence reports on which she based her Sunday TV show appearances, correctly stated the nature of the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. It’s about whether the security for them was adequate in the first place. The venom of the assault on Rice was way disproportionate to her alleged crime.
And, though I do not think this was conscious on the part of her critics, I cannot help but believe that the attack had something to do with Rice’s gender, and her sharp elbows and sometimes sharper tongue. Men can have those flaws and still succeed; women find themselves marked down. This is a new, subtler sexism: Rice failed to fit the modern model of collegial, division-healing woman.
But then there is the president’s treatment of Rice, and the odd language, redolent of a more chivalrous age, that he used in an impassioned defense of Rice at his post-election news conference. If Rice’s Republican critics “want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” Obama proclaimed. “For them to go after the U.N. ambassador . . . and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous. . . . When they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me.”
I am not saying that the president is sexist, not at all. But I think that phrasing is telling — besmirch her reputation, go after me, easy target — and I doubt that he would have used that language in coming to the defense of a man who was a potential nominee. In coming out so gallantly in support of Rice, Obama also unwittingly upped the expectational ante over her prospects: Why would he be so adamant if he didn’t know he wanted her?
Which leads me to the real unfairness to Rice: After the chivalry came the abandonment. How could the administration have left her twisting for nearly a month while it calibrated the likelihood — and likely costs — of pressing the nomination?
Perhaps Rice herself added to those costs: first, the unusual decision to make the rounds of Senate courtesy calls as a non-nominee; second, the amazing outcome of having such courtesy calls put her in a seemingly worse position than where she started.
But, really, Mr. President, either nominate her or pick someone else — like, two weeks ago. Don’t leave her out there, fending for herself.
Thursday’s humiliating denouement fooled no one who has been around Washington for more than a minute and a half. If the president wanted Rice, her withdrawal never would have been accepted.
It never should have been allowed to come to this. On that score, Mr. President, as you say, I’ve got a problem with you.
(Updated 9:40 p.m. Dec. 14)
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