Real Life Politics

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, May 21, 2008 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, May 21 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.


Ruth Marcus: Hi everyone. Lot's of questions so I'll plunge right in.


Minneapolis: Ms Marcus, thanks, as always, for having these chats. Do you think it is fair or unfair to characterize Sen. Clinton as helping to exacerbate the alleged misogyny in this campaign season? From my perspective (as a male independent voter), it seems that her claiming victimhood based on gender rather than focusing on the issues is nothing more than a campaign tactic that very effectively has rallied her supporters -- while further alienating people who might prefer other candidates for reasons other than gender.

Ruth Marcus: This is a hard question, but I think there are both heartfelt reasons (they really believe the campaign has been laced with sexism) and tactical ones (it helps rally the base and maybe tamps down some commentary) for the Clinton campaign raising the issue. I think Sen. Clinton did a lot to move the ball down the court for women this election cycle, but there were steps back as well.


Savannah, Ga.: Great column last week. If I were ever granted the opportunity to moderate a presidential debate, one question I would ask McCain (or any Republican, for that matter) is how he feels about "judicial activist" decisions in cases like Loving or Brown v. Board of Education. Maybe I'm too cynical, but "Judicial Activist" seems like a code word for "judge who makes decisions Republicans don't like." Or do you think there is a real principle behind there that I'm too partisan to see?

washingtonpost.com: High Court Caricature (Post, May 14)

Ruth Marcus: Thanks! There are some principles about whether and when courts should intervene, and about how broadly to read constitutional guarantees, but I think a lot of judicial activism is in the eye of the beholder. The Rehnquist/Roberts court could be considered activist in many ways. I hope there is more of a debate about this as we enter the general election season.


Mt. Jackson, Va.: Obama is the most liberal of the candidates and John McCain is the most conservative. Don't you agree that Hillary Clinton is a moderate and as such can win the national election? In the end, Obama will be found to be too liberal and John McCain will walk away with the election. To that, can't we say that the Democrats have done themselves in again, by selecting the wrong candidate?

Ruth Marcus: I don't think we can say that yet. I doubt that anyone is going to be "walking away" with this election. I suspect it will be very close, and I'm not sure you could say that any of the three remaining candidates would be an obvious winner.


Columbus, Ohio: I'm interested in your thoughts on the basis for why it's "it's infuriatingly more acceptable to make cracks about gender than about race." Is this a numbers game? African-Americans represent a clear numerical minority in comparison to women, so there's less restraint in commentary on the more numerically equal population. Subconscious profiling? Expanding the idea of "you're hardest on the ones you love" to -- playing off the numbers -- "you're hardest on the people you know (women) more than those you don't (African Americans)"? Comparative history (in parts of the country simply being African American imperiled one's life and women did not have a similar threat to life)? Not sure if I buy any of these, and obviously it wouldn't make it right, but just spinning out ideas.

Ruth Marcus: I think racism and sexism -- that is, making offensive statements based on or referring to people's race or gender, are equally offensive. I think we as a society tend to diminish the offensiveness of sexism, and that's what I was trying to say.


Bethesda, Md.: Ruth, when people say Hillary Clinton is not a perfect candidate or a flawed test of feminism, doesn't that prove the sexism right there? Do we ever get to choose from perfect male candidates? Didn't George W. owe his presidency to his father's having been president? Lyndon Johnson was president because Kennedy died, Truman because of Roosevelt dying. The list goes on. Men achieve the presidency through "flawed" methods, and so can women.

Ruth Marcus: I was just saying that as the potential First Woman President, she was going to be a somewhat odd role model because of her route to power. Someone else would be less, well, complicated. That doesn't mean she wasn't qualified to be president or wouldn't make a good one.


Kansas City, Kan.: I know they are not the same, but I just can't sympathize with Clinton's battle with sexism when I have seen her consistently using racially tinged language and tactics ("hard-working, white Americans," etc.) and benefiting from the latent racism of certain segments of the U.S. population. If she took a stand against those who vote for her for racist reasons, she would have a moral high ground.

Ruth Marcus: I thought that was a poor choice of words, and I suspect she did too. But I don't think she is "consistently using racially tinged language."


Culver City, Calif.: How can you say that Clinton has been elected to the Senate "in her own right"? Do you really believe that Hillary Rodham even would have been considered for a New York elected position without the "Clinton" after her name? I don't. Her so-called "baggage" from the White House years (and the prior years as First Lady of Arkansas) are her entire resume. Meet with foreign leaders? Conduct a disastrous attempt to reform health care? She would have done none of that if she didn't have Clinton in her name. No responsibility, no authority, no accountability. That's her much-touted "experience." I do believe we can and will have a woman as president, possibly in my lifetime (I'm 62). My hope is that it will be one who is qualified. If you believe just any woman who can get elected would be a good leader, I have two words for you: Margaret Thatcher.

Ruth Marcus: Well, she was elected to an office as the candidate, so my point was that -- in contrast to her White House years -- this was not a derivative or ancillary position. Of course it's impossible to imagine that she would have been elected senator without having been First Lady, but she also has been, from my perspective, a good senator.


Washington: Please explain how your opinion of Hillary Clinton is affected, if at all, by her explicit appeal to "white" voters. I believe there has not been an explicit racial appeal like this in presidential politics since Strom Thurmond's in 1948, although of course some -- particularly Richard Nixon -- have made veiled racial appeals. Thanks.

Ruth Marcus: Oh, please. It is completely unfair to Sen. Clinton to compare her to Sen. Thurmond in 1948. I think she, her campaign and her husband have said some dumb things, but they are not segregationists or anything close.


New York: As a thoughtful individual, how do you feel about working for a newspaper that believes "separate but equal" is acceptable for gays?

washingtonpost.com: Meddling in Gay Marriage (Post, May 20)

Ruth Marcus: As a member of the editorial board, I feel really good about working for a newspaper that believes in the importance of gay rights and is extremely supportive of same-sex marriage but has qualms about the impact of court involvement.


Rockville, Md.: Just a comment: Thank you for your columns from the woman's, even girl's, perspective. They have been most helpful for this father of a teenage daughter -- who, incidentally, is preparing for her bat mitzvah. Your columns often remind me of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's statement after being nominated by then-President Clinton, when she said that she wished her mother had grown up in this era when women have the same opportunities as men -- and daughters are cherished as much as sons.

washingtonpost.com: The Mitzvah and the Mania (Post, May 7)

Ruth Marcus: It's awfully kind of you to compare me to Justice Ginsburg. I happened to be in the Rose Garden when her nomination was announced and I have to confess to getting a little teary about her moving statement about her mother. I didn't have daughters then, so I would probably be even more moved today. And thank you for your comment, which I think is proof that even men (!) are interested in these topics. Mazel Tov!


Oviedo, Fla.: Do not take a buyout! I am a cliche, I guess -- a 49-year-old white Catholic single mom who is pro-Hillary big time. The rallies for Obama seem to me to be taunting her, as do the comments of "reminds me of everybody's first wife." My teen girls are baffled at the seemingly accepted level of sexist attack on her and the pass he has gotten on some occasions. It will be hard to vote for Obama. I just don't want to. Does this make me a saboteur? Is my boycott meaningless to Democrats and helpful to the GOP, whose policies I detest?

Ruth Marcus: I can't give you advice about how to vote but I am a believer in exercising the franchise -- otherwise you don't have much standing to complain. As to sexism -- of course there has been some, and it's deplorable, but compared to what? Imagine what things would have been like 20 years ago.


Kensington, Calif.: I do appreciate your busting Hillary for trying to have it both ways. Maybe you were just trying to throw the old dog a bone with that line about it being "more acceptable to make cracks about gender than about race," but I have to say, that's a pretty poor line. Friendships between the sexes result in cracks about their differences all the time. All that happens to be is a sign of affection, and that's just human nature. People of different races don't generally get together just because they are attracted to the other's racial differences. La difference is the very essence of attraction between men and women, at least those who are heterosexual, and probably a good many who are homosexual.

I don't believe you really find that infuriating, but if you do, maybe you should consider re-reading Shulamith Firestone's old book "The Dialectic of Sex," and think about calling for 21st Century technology to start rearranging chromosomes. Could you please find another bone for poor Hillary and help us get beyond these pseudo-feminist word games? You may not have noticed, but the planet is burning up right before our eyes. Nero is fiddling away. If we don't stop the trivial pursuits and start doing something, we won't be around to talk about anything much longer.

Ruth Marcus: I mean offensive cracks. I am a big believer in humor -- and sometimes even a practitioner of it -- and I certainly think life, and even the workplace, would be pretty boring if we all had to be safe about everything we say. But ... my favorite legal quote is from Justice Holmes, who said that even a dog knows the difference between being tripped over and being kicked. Women do too!


Arlington, Va.: While I respect Kennedy's work in the Senate, I think Robinson is going overboard with some of the praise he gives the senator. A person still directly lost their life because of his mistakes. Can we just recognize someone had a distinguished career without always saying they are the best ever?

washingtonpost.com: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood: The Best of All the Kennedys (washingtonpost.com, May 20)

Ruth Marcus: I haven't read what Gene wrote, but we had an editorial today about Sen. Kennedy that acknowledged his life has not been flawless, and then praised his many achievements. I hope that got the balance right under the sad circumstances.


Washington: As a thirtysomething male, one of the things I've found striking about this race is the divide between older and younger women. I'm not sure I realized how bitter (sorry, but there isn't another word) older women were until now. I don't think I appreciated how much my mother's generation had to struggle to overcome sexism until I was confronted with how partisan they'd become on issues of gender (and, of course, we're seeing a similar divide on race issues too). In a perverse way, it's somewhat hopeful -- it shows how much less scarred we younger citizens are by race and gender.

Ruth Marcus: I think this newly-turned-50-year-old is going to bristle at the use of the term bitter. How about realistic? How about calling the younger women who seem blissfully ignorant about the lingering sexism -- that, yes, even they may face -- naive?


Helena, Mont.: Regarding sexism, wasn't it a woman in South Carolina who asked McCain "how do we stop the bitch?" I think one reason why sexism is alive and well is that so many high-profile women -- Anne Coulter, Laura Schlessinger and Phyllis Schlafly come to mind -- enable it. They either bring it up themselves or approve it when others do.

Ruth Marcus: I totally agree., it should stop. That woman was disgraceful, and it was really jarring -- she was an older woman, very elegantly dressed, etc., and should have known better.


Washington: I appreciated the points you made in your column today. I also think the charges of sexism -- and racism, for that matter -- have been overblown in the Democratic primaries. But I do have one thought -- plenty of Obama supporters disparaged Hillary's "experience" by dismissing her as only being First Lady. It seems to me that many wives who don't work outside the home but may have gained a great deal of knowledge about their husband's business would find that offensive.

washingtonpost.com: The Ground Clinton Broke (Post, May 21)

Ruth Marcus: Hmm, interesting -- that may be a demographic that he does not do well with. Having covered Clinton in the White House for a bit, I thought that it did not make a lot of sense, tactically or based on the facts, to disparage her experience there.


Pelham, N.Y.: Are you concerned about the main stream media's role in the election outcome, with their lack of investigative reporting about the candidates and the presentation of opinion masquerading as news? The bedrock of our democracy is a free and fair media. There is pro-Obama bias -- particularly on MSNBC and CNN -- with a strong bias against Sen. Clinton. I actually don't think it is because she is a woman, it is because she is her own person and can't be bought by the big businesses that own the TV, radio and newspaper outlets. They are using gender as a smokescreen to get what they want. What is going on is very dangerous to our democracy.

Ruth Marcus: I think there has been a lot of good investigative reporting, but there can always be more of it, and I would also like to see more serious substantive reporting about policy. As a person who now makes her living expressing opinions, but spent a lot of years on the news side trying to suppress them and be as fair as possible, I sometimes am appalled by what I hear on cable TV (and on talk radio, for that matter). I think there is a very dangerous merging of news/opinion there.


Niles, Mich.: I am glad that some of the media still mention pioneering women who have run for president -- young voters and pre-voters seem to be getting a biased "Campaign Update" that mentions repeatedly that Hillary is the "first." There is a lack of coverage of Shirley Chisholm and Elizabeth Dole as viable candidates, at least for primary voters!

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, but they didn't turn out to be very viable.


To Oviedo, Fla.: I'm a 48-year-old married mother of a son, and last year felt torn among Clinton, Edwards and Obama. Like a lot of women, I have complex and conflicting feelings about Hillary Clinton, and ultimately have become an Obama enthusiast. The sexism in the campaign, particularly early on, was horrifying, and led a number of my fellow feminist friends to vote for her. Her divisiveness and pandering totally turned me off. That said, I would vote for her in a heartbeat if she somehow won the nomination. Ending the destruction of the past eight years is a lot more important than my own disappointment.

Ruth Marcus: An interesting journey. I wonder if some people ended up going in the other direction as they got angrier about sexism?


Winnipeg, Canada: I don't agree with the chatter who characterizes Obama as the most liberal candidate. I have seen an analysis of the two Democrat senators' voting records that shows him to be more conservative than Clinton, and almost as conservative as McCain. I also have seen an analysis of the American voters that showed them to be more liberal than either candidate in 2004. Besides, a candidate's place on the political spectrum isn't the only valid criterion -- which would you prefer, a liberal dolt or a conservative crook? A conservative who is totally indecisive, or a liberal who makes every decision according to partisan interest?

Ruth Marcus: I would find it hard to make the argument based on voting records in the state and U.S. Senate that he is more conservative than Clinton, and certainly not "almost as" conservative as McCain.


Seattle: You may not wish to speculate on this, but how has the Democratic campaign been affected by the "racism vs. sexism" dynamic, wherein each candidate has an -ism to call upon? How would the campaign have been different if this were not the case?

Ruth Marcus: Hard to say in the brief span of a chat, impossible to know in the heat of the moment. I think we'll be writing about that for months, if not years, to come, and I'm not set enough in my thinking yet to say. Sorry to be wishy-washy.


Not a question, just a gripe: I'm a youngish woman (27 years old) and I've considered myself a feminist for a long time. I thank women like Sen. Clinton for creating a climate in which every woman more easily can choose her own fate. However, when I hear Clinton or her surrogates crying sexism lately, it just makes me cringe. Ms. Clinton came into this primary race the front-runner with extremely strong name recognition, an enviable fundraising machine behind her, and claims that she was the inevitable candidate. Throughout her career in Washington, Clinton has been held to a double standard because of her gender or her unwillingness to adhere to traditional gender roles or identities, but she came into this race with many advantages that transcended these ideas. This race was hers to lose.

Clinton knew the math -- she knew coming into this race that she had negatives with the media and voters that she needed to overcome, and she knew how the delegates and eventually the nomination could be won. When everybody follows the rules and you lose, or when you aren't getting the press that you want when you're running a campaign that is mathematically nonviable, you cannot in good faith blame the sexist attitudes of others for your own failings. It ain't sexist ... it's politics.

Ruth Marcus: I agree with pretty much every word you said here, even though I'm an old-ish woman. There has been sexism in this campaign, but it's not the reason for the outcome. If anything, she was helped by the preponderance of women voters in the Democratic primaries.


Dryden, N.Y.: Very interesting column. My twentysomething lawyer daughter and I (middle-aged woman who always has worked) frequently have viewed this election with an eye for sexism. It definitely has been there. Still, as a woman who was sexually harassed in "the bad old days," I cannot get past the way Sen. Clinton condoned (and enabled) her husband's sexual harassment of women in the workplace going back to Arkansas. How do you reconciled this very big contradiction?

Ruth Marcus: Boy, President Clinton always complicates the equation, doesn't he? I think you're going too far in saying she "condoned and enabled" harassment -- but I would point you to a very smart piece that my late friend Marjorie Williams wrote for Vanity Fair about the unattractive phenomenon of feminists staying quiet about President Clinton's behavior.


Washington: Regarding people who wear "Iron My Shirt" T-shirts to Clinton rallies, isn't this just merely reflective the typical gender conflict we see in almost every television commercial, in which a white suburban dad usually is portrayed as a moron?

Ruth Marcus: A lovable moron, maybe. Look, "Iron My Shirt" is intended to demean. It's not funny -- and I say this as someone who actually likes to iron.


Columbus, Ohio: As a follow up to the earlier post, I fully appreciate that racism and sexism are equally offensive. I don't think there's many who would disagree with you. But what do you think the reasons are behind society diminishing the offensiveness of sexism? It seems much of the sexism/racism commentary I've seen focuses on the what -- that there's a disparity in offensiveness -- as opposed to getting to the why, which seems like a more interesting and valuable question.

Ruth Marcus: You're right -- I think people do think it's "safer" to make the joke, partly because there is so much less tolerance for racism these days (that's somewhat circular but plays a role, I think). The flashing danger signs that enter people's minds when race is involved don't necessarily come up when gender is implicated, partly because of familiarity: some of their best friends, or best wives, or best daughters, are women -- so how could anyone view them as sexist? My theories, anyway.


Anonymous: Personally, I'm tired of Obama playing the victim. First he says Wright is his "spiritual mentor" -- he said that, the press and his opponents didn't. Then, when Wright is exposed, suddenly it's very unfair to associate his comments/beliefs with those of Obama. He made the "bittergate" comments -- the press and his opponents didn't -- but it's unfair to call him on those either. His wife claims America is a "mean country" and makes other comments that sound like she agrees with Wright. She's speaking in his campaign, apparently to get people to vote for him, and no one put words in her mouth -- but again, it's unfair to ask her to explain herself.

Ruth Marcus: I'm not sure I would lump this all under the rubric of victimhood.


Seattle: I was disturbed by the Post columnist Kathleen Parker, who writes about Obama not being a full-blooded American, how people who trace their ancestry back further in the U.S. are more worthy, and how Obama and Edwards are "girly" -- and insults Clinton as well for being steelily unfeminine. Opinion is one thing, but this is racist and sexist -- not worthy of The Post -- and contributes (particularly given the source, a reputable paper) to the unnecessary nastiness that goes on in the campaign (and American life in general). Why is The Post doing this?

washingtonpost.com: The Democrats Hug It Out (Post, May 17)

Ruth Marcus: I need to go back and reread the column. It didn't jump out at me that way, but I know it has created some controversy. Kathleen Parker is not a regular Post columnist, by the way, though she is syndicated by the Washington Post Writer's Group.


Re: "Merging of news/opinion": I would agree with you there, but would also like to offer an alternative: Stop pretending that there isn't one. Take the leash off media personalities to make it clear: "Yes! This is my opinion and my analysis and I'm reporting on it because I'm interested in the subject." It's situations where journalists keep saying that there is man behind the curtain that really turns people off, and it's one of the strengths of "The Daily Show"/"The Colbert Report" that endlessly mock those denials.

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, I'm old-fashioned on this. Of course you can't -- at least I can't -- ever be completely objective, but there is a difference between trying hard and just throwing it all to the winds and filtering everything explicitly through the lens of your own biases. If we don't have people trying -- trying! -- to offer unbiased reporting of facts, what are people going to use to form their opinions? Even in the age of the Internet, we can't all rely on primary sources all the time.


New York: What do you think of Geraldine Ferraro's comment about voting for McCain?

Ruth Marcus: My first reaction was to say "stupid," but I think I'll revise that to "ill-advised." Does she really think that John McCain's White House would be better for the things she believes in than Barack Obama's? Hillary Clinton doesn't!


Winston-Salem, N.C.: You article makes some very good points, but I would like to say that in my opinion Hillary Clinton has not been treated fairly -- especially by the media. I don't know if that is because she is a woman or if it is because she is a Clinton, but I have seen so many negative articles about her during this entire process. I thought the "Saturday Night Live" skit of the debate right before Ohio and Texas was right on.

As a woman, you can't deny that it is very sad that it's business as usual, the good ol' boys win again. I have been so unhappy with women who have told me that "a man really should be president"! As a young male myself, I'm very disappointed in how this primary season has turned out and until Obama asks Clinton to be vice president, I don't know what I'm going to do come November.

Ruth Marcus: I think it is impossible to tweeze apart what piece of press hostility -- and there is some -- is Clinton-related and what part is gender-related. But a few loud apples really have distorted the perception of the whole bunch.


Arlington, Va.: To the Californian who thinks Hillary was elected because of the "Clinton" after her name, I'm a New Yorker, and we vote for the person not for the name ... or maybe they just vote for movie stars out there in Shallowland? Geez! Hillary is great!

Ruth Marcus: Ooh, is there a new -ism called Coast-ism? I think we've just seen an example of it.


Santa Fe, N.M.: What is missing in this summary of your observation is the class differences between the candidates. Clinton found her way to those more often underrepresented. This is not simply women and men wanting a candidate who sees them in their lives. Hillary spoke to women who still are seen as girls and men who are seen as the work horses, neither meriting equality in the work place.

Their work places are not in corporate offices or universities -- they are the people pouring your coffee or diverting traffic in the orange vests. These people are no seasoned politicos, but they show up with their votes for Hillary Clinton. I agree that her run is not totally together, but in spite of the some off-color treatment and her response, Hillary is doing a great job as a serious candidate. I for one am very proud to support this effort.

Ruth Marcus: I agree, the exit polls show striking differential in educational status, income of Clinton vs. Obama supporters, and not necessarily what I would have predicted at the start of the campaign. For instance, the idea that Clinton had more appeal to working-class women than to highly-educated women was not obvious to me.


Re: Disparity of Offensiveness: In this age of "Girls Gone Wild," Paris Hilton and "Sex and the City" -- all examples of women putting themselves in less than honorable or respectable situations -- doesn't it make it more difficult for the public to take a female candidate seriously?

Ruth Marcus: Really, without endorsing any of those, I don't think so. It's also an age of women on the Supreme Court, as Secretary of State, in (a few, anyway) Fortune 500 companies. And, as I wrote, I think this campaign goes a long way to helping the public take a female candidate seriously. They did!


48-year-old married mother: I don't know anyone who made the journey in the other direction (from Obama or Edwards to Clinton). I personally found Obama's hopeful message to be really inspiring, and like the way he has dealt openly with race as a factor in his life. I think that racism is more acceptable than sexism, because it is easier and more common to live in a segregated world than in a world without the opposite sex. Everyone has a mother, daughter, sister, etc.; not every white person has a black friend to whom they are close and whose encounters with racism are made clear and poignant. I do agree with you that things have improved immeasurably in the last 20 years. Look at the awful coverage Geraldine Ferraro got during the 1984 campaign -- she never was taken seriously, unlike Hillary Clinton.

Ruth Marcus: Anyone who went the opposite way? Bueller?


Richmond, Va.: The thing I find most shocking about the Clinton campaign is there seeming ridicule of "educated" voters. Yesterday Bill Clinton derided Hillary's opponents as having college degrees and being out of touch elitists. Since when is the lack of an education something to be proud of? I fear that the Clinton campaign strategy values the dumbing-down of America, and that is exactly the kind of electorate that allows a guy like Bush to get elected and re-elected. Your thoughts?

Ruth Marcus: I missed his comments so I'll withhold my own judgment ... until I'm back in a few weeks. Until then, thank you, as always, for the careful reading and interesting questions.


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