What's Fair Game With Sarah Palin?

By Anne E. Kornblut
Sunday, September 7, 2008

Watching Gov. Sarah Palin explode onto the national scene over the last week got me thinking back to a cold evening earlier this year, just before the New Hampshire primary. I was half-listening to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speak at an auditorium when a strange noise interrupted the event: two young men shouting, in muffled voices, "Iron my shirt!"

At first, Clinton seemed as taken aback as the rest of the audience, unsure of what was going on. Then she saw the yellow "Iron My Shirt!" sign one of the young men held, figured out what was being shouted and brushed the interruption aside. "Ah, the remnants of sexism, alive and well," she said, then continued with her remarks. When security officers removed the young men from the audience, I joined several other reporters in following them outside to find out who the hecklers were and what had motivated them to make such a spectacle.

Little did we know that the bizarre incident was a precursor of what was to come -- of the debate over sexism, feminism and the role of women in public life that would emerge as one of the defining aspects of the 2008 campaign. My fellow reporters and I never really did resolve the mystery of the "iron my shirt" episode; the two young men refused to give us their names and offered strangely vague reasons for being there. But we were put on notice that night: Gender politics was going to be a part of this race in ways that no one could foresee.

After following Clinton on the campaign trail for more than two years, I have been watching the Palin story with some wariness -- especially the conservative charges that the treatment she's received has been overwhelmingly sexist. With each new development, I keep wondering: What if?

What if, back in the 1990s, Clinton had announced the pregnancy of an unmarried, teenaged daughter? Would the Republicans have declared it an off-limits family matter and declined to judge her, or would it have turned into a national scandal that hurt her chances as she decided to pursue her own career in elected office?

What if, instead of the GOP's new vice presidential candidate, Clinton had been the one to run for national office without any international experience to speak of? (After all, Clinton's rivals diminished the relevance of her eight years as first lady, saying they counted for little on her résumé.)

And what if Clinton had rejected questions about her record by calling such lines of questioning sexist? What if she had refused to name any national security decisions she had made, as a spokesman for Sen. John McCain did on Palin's behalf last week, on the grounds that the question was unfair?

What if, simply, the roles had been reversed?

Howard Wolfson, Clinton's former communications director, said he is confident that the Republicans "would have attempted to destroy her" if she were in Palin's shoes -- as, in fact, some Republicans tried to do to Clinton throughout the 1990s, and were preparing to do again if she had won the Democratic nomination this year.

At the same time, Wolfson said, Republican attempts "to defend Palin from sexism lost a fair amount of credibility when Carly Fiorina refused to acknowledge that her party had ever been sexist toward Hillary Clinton." (Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief turned McCain economic adviser, told a "hear-me-roar" press conference with other Republican women Wednesday that Republicans were not responsible for any mistreatment of Clinton.) I have had my share of major disagreements with Wolfson over the last few years, but on this one, he is probably right.

It may seem a pretty pointless exercise -- envisioning the "would haves" if Clinton and Palin had somehow swapped roles, parties and lives. But it is a useful tool as a reporter, a way of contemplating what is fair game now by comparing it with what was fair game then. Even the issue of "Would you ask a man the same question" (raised so indignantly last week by senior McCain adviser Steve Schmidt and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani) falls slightly short, simply because there are so few templates for female candidates running for higher office -- and the ones who have, including Clinton, Palin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have tried to use their roles as mothers and women as part of the overall package in ways that men do not.

That is not to say that every awkward detail of Palin's personal life is an acceptable target -- or that Democrats, reporters and bloggers ought to pursue Palin in all of the aggressive ways that Clinton has been grilled for most of her political life. It is also not to suggest that Clinton always openly answered questions about her own record or did not manipulate her femininity to her advantage when it suited her political needs.

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