Bar remains high for a woman who wants to be president

(Courtesy Of The Crown Publishing Group - Courtesy Of The Crown Publishing Group)
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By Al Kamen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The 2008 election gave the country its first African American president. But did the campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin signal further movement toward electing the first female president in the not-too-distant future?

Don't hold your breath. In fact, after a burst of electoral momentum for women in the early '90s, the movement appears to have peaked. In some places the numbers have even dropped. And for all the talk of progress in overcoming blatant sexism, gender bias is alive and well in the land.

That's the message of a new, eminently readable and thought-provoking book -- "Notes From the Cracked Ceiling," by our colleague Anne E. Kornblut, who covered both the Clinton presidential primary campaign and the Palin vice-presidential bid and now covers the White House.

The subtitle is "Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win." The answer, Kornblut writes, is that it will take a lot for women to overcome a minefield of often conflicting prejudices so as not to offend one group of voters or another.

For example, voters may shy away from a woman who's especially unattractive -- male superstuds such as Ross Perot didn't have that problem -- but there's also the "problem of perfection," which finds attractive Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's campaign using black-and-white photos rather than color. If the candidate's clothing is too good or too pricey, or if she's overly credentialed, then blue-collar women may be unable to relate.

Male candidates with little kids don't have to answer, as Palin constantly did, the question of who'll take care of the kids, or constant investigations into spouses' finances. And men are hardly confronted with the constant need to answer voter questions about whether they're "tough enough" to be leader of the free world or even governor.

But an excess of toughness opens you up to charges that you are "unlikable," as critics said of Clinton. And, as the last election clearly showed, all those predictions that women will overwhelmingly vote for women simply didn't pan out.

It's not all bad news, however. Kornblut, in interviews with leading women in politics -- including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and mega-business executive and California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman -- offers pointers on what women can do to navigate to victory. For one thing, she finds that becoming a state or federal prosecutor is often a proven way to overcome the "tough enough" question.

The book is a serious survey of the electoral landscape for women, but there are many moments of fun, such as Napolitano's riposte to a question about whether a woman could hack it: "As opposed to, you know, what? Look at these yahoo guys that have been in public office for two hundred years. You think we cannot do as well as they do? I mean, give me a break."

Many seconds over Tokyo

Now that health care has been voted on in the Senate, the jets are warming up in earnest at Andrews Air Force Base to wing our nation's lawmakers off in search of those elusive facts. The Senate Appropriations Committee's chairman, Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), and ranking Republican, Thad Cochran (Miss.), are off to Japan next week. (Weather is not that great -- Wednesday's forecast high in Tokyo was only 50 degrees -- and the Japanese economy isn't that hot, either, but 50 degrees is better than here.) The miljet is actually picking up Inouye in balmy Hawaii.

The trip is to discuss defense issues, economic matters and the disturbingly rocky relationship between the two longtime allies. But maybe there'll also be a chance for the two top appropriators themselves to fix a little rocky patch in their longtime relationship.

Seems the duo, who've worked together for a long time, wrote the recent Defense Department approps bill together. It included about $167 million in earmarks that Cochran wanted. But Cochran then voted to filibuster the bill as part of a Republican-leadership-driven effort to block Democrats from returning to the health-care debate.

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