Book review: 'Notes from the Cracked Ceiling' by Anne Kornblut

By Connie Schultz
Sunday, January 31, 2010


Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, And What It Will Take for a Woman to Win

By Anne E. Kornblut

Crown. 280 pp. $25

It is hard to imagine a more discouraging landscape for female candidates and the women who support them than the terrain unearthed in the first half of Anne E. Kornblut's new book. Here, in a nutshell, is her take on the doomed 2008 candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin: "They may not have lost because they were women -- and no one, in the dozens and dozens of interviews I conducted, ever argued they had -- but their sex played an outsize role in the year's events, coloring every decision they made, every public perception, and every reaction by their campaigns." Old news, perhaps, for activists who followed the campaigns, but Kornblut's book is a necessary tutorial for those who didn't pay enough attention to learn crucial lessons.

Exhibit A is the process behind John McCain's surprising choice of the nationally untested Palin as his running mate. Turns out, the selection was as clueless as it was cynical -- and one made only by men. Not a single female strategist was involved in the selection process, for the simple reason that McCain had so few women on staff. Big mistake, Kornblut writes. "Had a council of Republican women met to discuss the Palin choice ahead of time, they might have cautioned McCain that women are usually held to a higher standard, especially on questions of toughness and competence -- and that women won't switch party affiliation just to vote for a woman." Expanding her analysis, Kornblut pushes the pressure point: "Female candidates also have to remember that women can be deeply suspicious and critical of one another. . . . [A] group of female advisers could have gently reminded the McCain men that women are not always thrilled to see a young, attractive woman step into the limelight, and they might need to prepare for the long knives."

The first half of the book is a downer for anyone who wants to believe that the milestone candidacies of Clinton and Palin eliminated barriers. Let us interrupt this mournful hand-wringing to remember: Clinton was the first woman to win a Democratic presidential primary and came very close to winning her party's nomination. Palin was the first woman to be nominated on the Republican presidential ticket.

Even so, Kornblut argues that their failed attempts illustrate just how far we have to go, and may prove to be a collective setback. One of her most persistent themes is that women in politics are often their own worst enemies, and she offers plenty of evidence. She stretches credulity, though, when she blames Clinton for not wooing the press. "Why, many of us in the press corps wondered afterward, had no effort been made to cultivate reporters, or to try to allow Clinton a connection to the press?" This journalist wonders why they, including Kornblut, needed the invitation.

If Kornblut only offered a rehash of bad news, it would be hard to recommend her book, especially with her over-reliance on campaign coverage committed by the big guys -- the New York Times, The Washington Post, the networks -- on the East Coast, where only a small slice of American voters lives. Fortunately, she shifts gears in the second half, using her considerable interviewing skills to show how more women might get elected. She skillfully coaxes candor from guarded women, including U.S. senators Amy Klobuchar and Claire McCaskill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Here Kornblut gets to the heart of why women run and how they win. In a poignant passage, McCaskill admits to Kornblut that she came on too tough, too perfect, in her failed 2004 race for governor of Missouri: "[I] thought about it and I realized that, in my rush to be smart and competent, I'd probably forgotten that it was important for people to see me as a well-rounded person who had the same fears and hopes that they have, and that I have the same problems in my family and same concerns and worries about my kids. . . . I quit worrying so much about giving the smartest answer and tried to make sure people saw that I really did understand Missouri, and the people of Missouri, and what they worried about and what they looked for." At such moments in her book, Kornblut illustrates why more women should be covering politics, and why it matters that she is one of them. Too much of traditional political reporting still depicts women candidates as generic and as interchangeable as sensible shoes. Kornblut knows better, and the results of her reporting offer irrefutable proof.

Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company