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Pretty Formidable in Pink

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Toward the end of the CNN-YouTube debate Monday night, the Democratic candidates were put through the goofy exercise of saying one thing they liked, and one thing they didn't, about the candidate standing to their left.

At his turn, John Edwards faced Hillary Clinton and said he admired what she and her husband had done for America. Then he offered a joking appraisal of the senator's coral pink quilted jacket: "I'm not sure about that coat."

Barack Obama, ever the conciliator, joined in. "I actually like Hillary's jacket," he said. "I don't know what's wrong with it."

Clinton laughed it off. "John, it's a good thing we're ending soon," she said.

You've come a long way, baby, when they're talking about your fashion choices at a presidential debate. I mean this both snarkily and sincerely: Surely we have better things to talk about than "Hillary's jacket," but hey -- whatever they think of her clothes -- she's the front-runner.

Edwards will get some grief about whether his remark was sexist. I didn't take it that way, partly because I spent part of the debate looking at Clinton, a flamingo among the dark-suited crows, pondering the jacket.

But the interchange illustrated the still uncomfortable status of women at the highest reaches of American politics. In the 2008 race, the country appears more open than ever to the notion of a female president -- but uncertain about how, and how much, to talk about it.

Elizabeth Edwards treaded into this dangerous gender territory last week when she suggested that Clinton was tamping down her discussion of issues interesting to women out of a desire to appear tough.

"Look, I'm sympathetic, because when I worked as a lawyer, I was the only woman in these rooms, too, and you want to reassure them you're as good as a man," Edwards told Salon.com."And sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women's issues. I'm sympathetic -- she wants to be commander in chief."

Edwards's specific criticism of Clinton was misplaced, but her general point is important. Clinton has a three-decades-long record of working on issues related to women and families, and she's seeking the presidency at a time when national security is paramount. If she's talking more about Iraq than family and medical leave, that's less about trying to overcompensate for the inconvenient fact of her gender than what issues are at the top of voters' agendas.

But as a columnist who happens to be a woman -- you may have noticed, there aren't too many of us -- I understand what Edwards means. In fact, I initially resisted writing about her comments, reluctant to be pigeonholed as a "woman columnist" and not taken seriously by the Big Boys.

Clinton faces that challenge on a grander and more complex scale. Any woman in the post-Sept. 11 world faces an extra hurdle in convincing some voters that she's strong enough to be commander in chief. Clinton has the extra challenge of appearing simultaneously formidable and likable, commanding and not cold, smart and approachable.

Indeed, even as Clinton was getting slapped by Edwards for playing down her gender, she was being dissected by Post fashion critic Robin Givhan for showing cleavage: "It was startling to see that small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative -- aesthetically speaking -- environment of Congress." Givhan contrasted Clinton's decolletage with the more abundant display by Jacqui Smith, the new British home secretary, and her complaint seemed to be that Clinton was showing too little, too unassertively.

Might I suggest that sometimes a V-neck top is only a V-neck top? As a person of cleavage, I'd guess that Clinton's low-cut shirt simply reflected a few centimeters of sartorial miscalculation, not a deliberate fashion statement.

Breasts may be an advantage in certain settings; the Senate floor isn't one of them. If you're giving a speech on higher education, as Clinton was, you don't want Ted Stevens thinking about -- and you certainly don't want to think about Ted Stevens thinking about -- your cleavage.

The upside of all the attention Clinton gets as the most serious female presidential candidate ever is all the attention Clinton gets as the most serious female presidential candidate ever.

It was telling that, among all the videos submitted by the candidates for airing Monday night, the one the Clinton campaign chose ended by celebrating Clinton's gender: "Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman."

That's an important selling point for Clinton -- even if she has to put up with more than her share of fashion advice along the way.

Subscribe to the podcast of this column here. The writer's e-mail address is marcusr@washpost.com.


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