By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009
With her abrupt exit this week from consideration for the Senate, Caroline Kennedy added her name to a growing list: women who have sought the nation's highest offices only to face insurmountable hurdles.
Like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin before her, Kennedy illustrated what some say is an enduring double standard in the handling of ambitious female office-seekers. Even as more women step forward as contenders for premier political jobs, observers say, few seem able to get there.
In less than two months, Kennedy, 51, was transformed from a beloved, if elusive, national icon into a laughingstock in the New York media, mocked for her verbal tics and criticized for her spotty voting record. After she withdrew from consideration, speculation floated that she had done so to avoid discussion of an illegal nanny and back taxes, charges that people close to Kennedy disputed and that New York Gov. David A. Paterson's office indicated in a statement yesterday were not factors. Paterson plans to name a successor today to Clinton, who vacated the Senate seat to become President Obama's secretary of state.
Many political observers dismissed the notion that Kennedy's difficulties had anything to do with gender, noting that she came across as a novice and sought appointment just as the national tolerance for family dynasties seemed to ebb. Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist, said any suggestion that Kennedy was treated unfairly because of her sex was "nonsense." "The New York press corps is an equal opportunity candidate-basher," he said. "New York politics is rough and tumble, and she was too much of a lady for it. This is a very tough place to do politics in."
Nonetheless, during Kennedy's candidacy, three other Senate vacancies were filled with far less drama by little-known men. Michael Bennet (D), a 44-year-old schools superintendent from Denver who had never held elected office, was sworn in yesterday to take the Colorado seat vacated by Ken Salazar (D), who became interior secretary. In Delaware, Vice President Biden was replaced by his own chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, widely seen as a placeholder so that Biden's son can run for the seat in 2010, after he returns from Iraq.
And in Illinois, Roland W. Burris (D) ultimately gained the seat vacated by Obama, despite being picked by a governor charged with corruption and the open opposition of both the Democratic majority and the incoming president.
"There's something different about when women run," said Bob Shrum, a Democratic consultant and a close ally of Kennedy. Echoing the complaints of many other family friends, Shrum noted that much of the criticism of Kennedy centered on her demeanor -- her soft voice and use of the phrase "you know" -- similar to the types of complaints that were so prevalent during the campaigns of Clinton and Palin.
At the outset of the presidential campaign, Clinton was widely favored to win the Democratic nomination, as well as the presidency. But her quest was trumped by Obama. Palin was initially celebrated as John McCain's running mate, before questions about her qualifications weighed down the Republican ticket.
Advisers to Clinton and Palin -- and the candidates themselves -- complained at various times about treatment they considered biased. But their rivals said their problems had nothing to do with gender, but rather with personal flaws.
Women did little better in congressional elections, as their numbers remained virtually stagnant. The House added four women, bringing the total to 75 of the 435 members. The number of women in the Senate -- 16 -- will either stay the same or go up by one, depending on who replaces Clinton.
Some female candidates say they face media scrutiny and public criticism on questions that rarely derail male contenders.
For example, another prominent New Yorker, Timothy F. Geithner, withstood questions about more than $30,000 in unpaid back taxes and an improperly documented household helper but has moved ahead as the future Treasury secretary.
Kennedy's stumbles began not long after the former first daughter expressed her interest in the job. Initially, she ducked the news media and then seemed to do so in fits and starts. She also failed to garner support from many powerful women in New York who might have backed her had she sided with Clinton over Obama in the Democratic primary.
To some, the clunky way she withdrew from the race early yesterday -- after hours of speculative reports that she was pulling out, followed by contradictory reports that she wasn't -- showed that she was unqualified.
"There's just a high degree of frustration in our camp with how things unfolded yesterday, and it typifies why Caroline was not going to be his pick," said a person familiar with the governor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.
Kennedy cited a "personal, private matter" that is not related to the poor health of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), her uncle, who has brain cancer, people close to her said.
But among her allies, it was clear that harsh assessments of her performance and her sagging poll numbers played at least a partial role.
Several Democratic strategists said the Kennedy conundrum was in part unique to her and in part reflective of what other high-profile women encountered this year. Dee Dee Myers, press secretary in Bill Clinton's White House, said it was difficult to untangle questions about scrutiny Kennedy faced as a woman from those she faced as a New Yorker, where attention is fierce, or as a celebrity or member of the fabled Kennedy family.
But Myers said that "questions about her résumé absolutely have to do with her gender."
"I don't see it as thin, I see it as unconventional," Myers said of Kennedy's résumé, which includes work as an author and schools fundraiser. "I don't see why running a hedge fund is better preparation for doing the people's business than writing books or working in the school system and raising a family."
Political strategist Donna Brazile noted the contrast between the excitement surrounding Obama's inauguration this week and the general public attitude toward women in office, one that she said helped drive Kennedy out of the running.
"Obama inspired us to turn the page, and now women seem stuck in the table of contents," she said.
Noting that women still make up less than 20 percent of both houses of Congress, Brazile said: "The elevator to our future growth in the Congress is still stuck in the lobby. It's time we hurry history."
Many are eagerly watching to see whether Paterson picks another woman, Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, when he names his appointment today.
Staff writer Keith B. Richburg in New York contributed to this report.