By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007
A journalistic assessment of Hillary Clinton's cleavage became the most improbable presidential campaign controversy yet as her team yesterday rolled out a fundraising letter calling a Washington Post column on the subject "grossly inappropriate" and "insulting."
One week after the piece, by fashion writer Robin Givhan, took note of the Democratic candidate's relatively low neckline during a speech on the Senate floor, senior Clinton adviser Ann Lewis urged donors to "take a stand against this kind of coarseness and pettiness in American culture."
Givhan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism last year, said she disagreed "that there was anything in the column that was coarse, insulting or belittling. It was a piece about a public person's appearance on the Senate floor that was surprising because of the location and because of the person. It's disingenuous to think that revealing cleavage, any amount of it, in that kind of situation is a nonissue.
"It's obviously not the most important thing in the campaign. It's obviously not the most important thing Hillary Clinton has ever done, by any means."
Stories about the physical appearance of candidates, from Al Gore's earth-tones wardrobe to John Edwards's $400 haircut to a bathing-suit shot of Barack Obama in a People spread on "Beach Babes," have long been an entertaining sideshow. But since no journalist has plunged into this particular territory, given the predominantly male nature of past White House contests, Givhan's Style column has sparked plenty of reaction, much of it negative. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote yesterday that Givhan "managed to make a media mountain out of a half-inch valley."
Lewis said in an interview she was "appalled" by the column but initially dismissed it as "an inside-the-Beltway story."
"I didn't realize the attention and the anger it was setting off nationally," Lewis added. "Women either read it or heard about it. They were indignant on Hillary's behalf and also on their own." Lewis says she has not discussed the matter with the New York senator.
Lewis's fundraising letter begins: "Can you believe that The Washington Post wrote a 746-word article on Hillary's cleavage? . . . I've seen some off-topic press coverage -- but talking about body parts? That is grossly inappropriate.
"Frankly, focusing on women's bodies instead of their ideas is insulting. It's insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting. It's insulting to our daughters -- and our sons -- who are constantly pressured by the media to grow up too fast."
For candidates, using criticism -- real or perceived -- to raise money is catching on as a political maneuver. In last year's Virginia Senate race, after Republican incumbent George Allen got into trouble for using the word "macaca," his campaign sent a letter to supporters blaming the media, and particularly The Post, for creating a "feeding frenzy . . . over something that did not warrant coverage in the first place." After conservative author Ann Coulter mocked Edwards in March, describing him with a slur used against gays, the former North Carolina senator featured the attacks in a fundraising pitch.
Givhan regularly patrols the intersection of fashion and politics. About two years ago, she chastised Vice President Cheney for wearing a fur-trimmed parka rather than more formal attire to a somber ceremony in Poland marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In April, Givhan scrutinized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her "generous collection of scarves" during a tour of the Middle East. The column on cleavage described Clinton's clothing choice, as spotted on CSPAN2, as a "small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity" that departed from her usual "desexualized uniform" of black pantsuits.
"With Clinton," Givhan wrote, "there was the sense that you were catching a surreptitious glimpse at something private. You were intruding -- being a voyeur. Showing cleavage is a request to be engaged in a particular way. . . . It does suggest a certain confidence and physical ease."
"Robin has consistently raised similar questions over the years about both men and women who are in the public eye," said Steve Reiss, The Post's deputy assistant managing editor for Style. "We know these people take a great deal of care in how they present themselves on TV and in public, and that is fair game for analysis." Noting that the newspaper has run dozens of articles on Clinton's policy positions and background, Reiss said, "I don't feel we have anything to apologize for."
Politicians often rip the media over what they see as unfavorable coverage, hoping to score points against an unpopular institution. But the cleavage letter is undoubtedly a first in the annals of campaign counterpunching.
"I would never say the column was about a body part," Givhan said. "It was about a style of dress. People have gone down the road of saying, 'I can't believe you're writing about her breasts.' I wasn't writing about her breasts. I was writing about her neckline."
Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.