Femme Fatale

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007; 1:12 PM

Boy, that didn't take long: Hillary Clinton is now being depicted as a girl.

With stunning swiftness, the media have bounced from ripping her performance at the Williams/Russert debate to questioning whether she is a perpetual fudger to charging that she's playing the gender card in complaining about the men ganging up on her.

I always wondered what it would look like when a woman was a serious White House candidate, and now we're finding out.

There are advantages, of course, to being a female politician. Male candidates say it is difficult to attack a woman without arousing sympathy for her. And Hillary is drawing considerable support from the sisterhood.

But it can be harder for a woman -- especially a potential commander in chief -- to project toughness without being seen as harsh and shrill. And at the moment the press seems to have put the New York senator in something of a box: If she complains about rough treatment, she's acting like a whiny daughter who's had her Barbie taken away.

The initial wound is certainly self-inflicted. Hillary did sound like someone trying to have it both ways by praising Eliot Spitzer's plan on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants without endorsing it, by saying that she and her husband aren't blocking release of her first lady records when they've certainly slowed it down.

It's the damage-control phase, though, that's really striking. Was it wise for Hillary strategists to gripe, on background, about Russert's questions? And would the media reaction have been the same if Rudy had been grilled by Tim and complained afterward about unfair treatment? Somehow I doubt it.

Salon's Tim Grieve goes right to the gender issue:

"Is there something a little disappointing in the way the Clinton campaign is explaining away what happened at this week's Democratic presidential debate?

"To wit: The boys ganged up on the girl.

"Clinton has said before that while she's proud that her candidacy might result in the country's electing its first female president, 'I'm not running because I'm a woman. I'm running because I think I'm the best qualified.'

"But in spinning away her unsteady performance at Tuesday night's debate, a Clinton advisor tells the Washington Post: 'Ultimately, it was six guys against her, and she came off as one strong woman.'

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