Real Life Politics

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, May 28, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, May 28 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss her recent columns and the latest news.

A transcript follows.


Ruth Marcus: Hi everyone. Glad to be back after only a week!


Arlington, Va.: How much damage has Bill Clinton done to his reputation and his legacy with the things he has said and done in this campaign? I liked him when he was president, but the ridiculous things he has been saying lately have really soured my own impression of him.

Ruth Marcus: A good bit, I'd guess, but not irreparably. Clinton was having a good ex-presidency, doing a lot of good works, and he can certainly get back to that, but this campaign has been less kind to him and his reputation than, I think, to any other Clinton. And his wounds have been self-inflicted.


New York: Ruth, I am reading Carl Bernstein's biography of Hillary Clinton, and I've been struck by how the decisions she made decades ago to defer her own ambitions are relevant now.

As a Yale Law graduate, she had a national profile and was believed to have a brilliant career in public service in Washington. She put Bill's career before her own, however, and now figures it's her turn, so I understand why she's fighting so fiercely in this campaign. Just FYI.

Ruth Marcus: An interesting point. It was a somewhat different time, though she definitely had a choice to make that does have implications now.


Arlington, Va.: The longer the Democratic nomination mess goes on, the more Hillary Clinton looks like a sore loser with a scorched-earth plan.

I don't buy into her plans to get Michigan and Florida counted, because she's essentially asking the Democratic Party to ignore their own rules just to benefit her in, at best, a marginal way. Why hasn't anyone taken her to task on this point?

Ruth Marcus: I'd say a lot of people have taken her to task, but I'm not sure I buy the "sore loser" characterization. Let's see what happens next week.


Huntington, N.Y.: Ruth, this is a very interesting story and findings. However, I have to question the "cockiness gap." I wonder if women get discouraged somewhere along the line and stop pushing forward with their ambition. I know that I was very discouraged during a protracted job search recently and thought to myself, "Maybe I just have to accept second-class citizenship after all." Meaning I didn't think I could rise any higher in my career and function well as a mother. There were few jobs that would accommodate that dual commitment. I found one, after a very long search (two and a half years). But the discouragement was real and caused me to give up a couple of times and put the job search on hold. Is it possible that women lose the faith? How does one stay cocky given the seeming constant need to fight for every small patch of ground?

Ruth Marcus: I'm sure there is some discouragement at work, too, but I would say that from my experience, women (me included) tend to be more tentative about their conclusions, more questioning of their own abilities, less assured and confident, or less assured and confident-seeming, which may amount to the same thing. I am a big believer in the cockiness gap.


Sacramento, Calif.: Ruth -- about female ambition, you're both wrong and right. Yes, we don't go for the top jobs as much as men do, for the good reason that fighting for the middle jobs on the way up took amounts of energy that men didn't have to spend because of their sense of entitlement. There was a study on college achievement and later career expectations between men and women where it was found that the higher achieving, A- grade average, women believed that they would get high-paying jobs at about the same rate as B-grade average or lower men. Men don't worry about it, because they know they'll get good jobs; and they do. Women worry about it a lot, because we're afraid we won't. So when the time comes and we're looking at the last rung (or two) in the ladder, we're pretty tired and the payback doesn't seem enough to make it worth while.

Being smacked down whenever showing ambition doesn't help either, by parents and teachers, as I was, growing up in the '60s. I hope that's not the case for girls now. I hope that they're finally allowed to believe in themselves.

Ruth Marcus: See, there's that cockiness gap again.


New York: Ambition can change its objective. In your case you found that you wanted to direct your energies toward your children. You became ambitious for that outcome. It's possible that Michael Bloomberg's mother is a fulfilled woman.

For me, Sandra Day O'Connor's decision to leave the Supreme Court to take care of her husband was a particularly and perhaps peculiarly womanly decision. Is there a parallel among prominent men?

Ruth Marcus: If there's a parallel, I'd love to see it. But I resist seeing my relationship with my children in terms of ambition. My career -- I know what I want to do and want to achieve things for myself; my children -- my job is just to try to be a good mother to them not for myself but for them. The more interesting question, though, is why ambition doesn't, as you say, change its objective so much when men are concerned.


Scottsdale, Ariz.: I'm a 68-year-old white woman, and gender or race had nothing to do with my choice. I voted for Obama because he represents a break from the divisiveness of the past 20 years. I have to say, I'm very uncomfortable with the Clintons blaming Hillary's (impending) loss on gender bias. The facts is that the Clintons made some huge campaign blunders -- the biggest one was believing in Hillary's inevitability and not planning past Super Tuesday. Do you think Clinton's "bad-sport" behavior could hurt the chances for future female candidates?

Ruth Marcus: It could, but as I wrote last week I think overall her candidacy has been very good for women and has shown that a woman can be as tough/wonky/etc. as a man.


"But I'm not sure I buy the 'sore loser' characterization.": You mean that she may ultimately lose but she won't be sore about it, or you don't think she's going to lose? Heaven help the planet if she turns out to be a sore winner -- like the current guy. Good session today.

Ruth Marcus: No, I don't think she's going to win. I just think it's too early to brand her a sore loser.


Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada: My students and I read Lawless and Fox's book in a senior undergraduate seminar last semester. Interestingly, while many of the book's arguments resonated with my students, they had strong objections to the thesis that women lack political ambition. In short, the students' consensus was that calling women "politically unambitious" unfairly places blame on women for their underrepresentation, when, as is clear (although underemphasized) in the Lawless and Fox's book, there are a whole lot of underlying social structures (socialization, social networking opportunities, family responsibilities) that serve to stifle women's "political ambition."

My own concern reading this opinion piece is that however much it resonates, women are explicitly blamed for their under-representation (or poor salary bargaining skills, or what have you). Again.

Isn't it time that we have a public discussion of what can empower women and girls to become politically involved and possibly achieve the political heights reached by Hillary Clinton or Gov. Sarah Palin instead of deciding a priori that we just don't have what it takes?

Ruth Marcus: I think you make an interesting point. It is fair to say that calling it an ambition gap may make it seem like the woman's fault, but Lawless and Fox point out very clearly that one reason for the ambition gap is social organization (lack of equal child care division, etc.) and failure to equally recruit women. So their gap is not a solely self-created or self-inflicted one.


New York: Ruth, seems to me that Hillary would be much happier on the Supreme Court than in the White House, given the job's insularity from nasty public discourse. Do you think this is a real possibility? Thanks.

Ruth Marcus: I'm not sure she'd be very happy on the Supreme Court at all. She is much more of a political animal who's interested in achieving public policy results than an intellectual type who would be content reading briefs and writing opinions. Not to take anything away from her intellect, but she doesn't strike me as the judge type.


Kensington, Md.: Now that one of the president's closest aides has admitted in his book that the Iraq War was sold to the American people via a deliberate "propaganda campaign", and nearly a million human beings have lost their lives as a result of this deceitful crusade, will impeachment be back on the table in official Washington? Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials says that Bush should be tried for war crimes. How long does this stage of denial last in our public consciousness?

Ruth Marcus: Impeachment back on the table? No. I don't think propaganda is a war crime. You're going to have to just hang in until January -- at least.


Savannah, Ga: Great column. It's so complicated, isn't it? Women often refrain from tackling the bigger jobs because they fear they'll lack support. They'll still end up making dinner five days out of seven, still be the only ones doing laundry or vacuuming, still be the one who has to remember when soccer and piano practice are. But only some of that is external. We put all these requirements on ourselves regarding marriage and parenting, and a job is usually secondary. And maybe it's a good thing. The ambitious, absent father and husband is almost a cliche, but would it be better to replace him with the ambitious, absent mother and wife?

Ruth Marcus: Sometimes I think of it in terms of life chapters -- you can have it all, just not at the same time. I can work much harder now than I did a few years ago when my kids were younger; that said, I'm not willing to take the killer jobs that I once considered.


Greenville, S.C.: Ruth -- caught a little bit of "Meet the Press" last Sunday; thought the roundtable panel was well-picked, ideologically. Six liberals (yes I'm including Tim Russert) and one faux conservative. Is it fun to be part of such a fair and balanced panel?

Ruth Marcus: It was really fun, thanks! I don't buy your characterization, though. And we did manage to disagree about quite a bit -- for instance, Clinton's comments on assassination.


Washington: A question on Hillary's RFK statement. She used, she says, the RFK example to show how things can change. However, correct me please if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that even with RFK's win in California in June '68, his path to the nomination was anything but certain; indeed, it has been argued that while RFK was gaining momentum, he wasn't going to go into the convention with enough delegates to win the nomination outright without a credential and floor fight. I say this because her explanation for mentioning it as a chronological reference for her own case seems even more dubious or deluded.

Ruth Marcus: As a historical matter, the reference was factually accurate but fundamentally misleading. In 1968, the New Hampshire primary was on March 12, not Jan. 8. RFK only started running after that. So June then is much different from June now. More like April now, at most.


Stafford, Va.: Re: Huntington, N.Y.: "Meaning I didn't think I could rise any higher in my career and function well as a mother."

Hello -- There is nothing wrong with being a mother. Yet another disservice to women and families by the feminists. (And mothers have plenty of power in the home -- just ask any henpecked husband!)

Ruth Marcus: Oh, please. I'm just posting this so everyone can respond to hen-pecked husband. What are we, back in the 1950s?


St. Simons Island, Ga.: The "cockiness gap" -- that's funny, and true. That men can be both profoundly wrong and self-confident must drive women bonkers. Men don't know what they don't know, whereas women don't know what they know. Scott McClellan's new book does, however, correct a misconception about the man currently occupying the White House. Although often described as cocky, according to McClellan, "Bush is plenty smart enough to be president," but is unable to be reflective about the job and lacks the self-confidence to acknowledge failure or mistakes. That's right, he doesn't know what he doesn't know and doesn't care to find out. A "real" man.

Ruth Marcus: Isn't lack of self-reflection an element of cockiness?


Anonymous: Do you think Hillary would have done better if she had divorced Bill and shown herself to be a fully independent and confident woman ? I know many of my friends questioned her judgment for being such a doormat.

Ruth Marcus: I don't think that's what she wanted. I think her choice was not a choice driven by political ambition. And as a political calculation, he helped in many ways, and could -- if he had more discipline -- been pretty much entirely a positive force.


Huntington, N.Y.: About the cockiness gap, I agree, it exists. I'm saying that men may have reason to be more cocky because they succeed more easily. They expect to succeed, and women have to fight -- whether we expect it or not.

Ruth Marcus: Chicken? Egg?


Re: Cockiness Gap: Nature or nurture? Are women born with less self-assurance or is it taught? What do you think?

Ruth Marcus: Not to demonstrate my own cockiness gap, but who am I to say? I don't think women are born with less self-assurance, and I do think they are not necessarily rewarded for demonstrating cockiness; probably quite the contrary. Nonetheless, there may also be something in the, pardon the generalization, way women tend to approach things -- trying to find common ground, smooth things over, the doll-playing model instead of the stick-swinging model, that may contribute to the appearance of less self-assurance.


Seattle: I found the column interesting but a little shallow in spots. Isn't the idea that women are being handicapped by choosing to stay home with the kids, or that child-care limits their upper-level potential itself sexist because society says that is a woman's job?

Ruth Marcus: Society? Self-imposed? Hard to know. I do know that "society" didn't tell me that I had to work part-time when my kids were younger, and my husband certainly didn't want me to do that. But I did, because I wanted to. Based on social norms? Maybe, though as I said, it was a rather unexpected reaction on my part.


Silver Spring, Md.: How much is Hillary Clinton attempting to use the quite real sexism other women have experienced as a crowbar to try to get them to the polls for her? I almost hear between every breath she utters an exhortation: "Yes, I voted for the Iraq War, I'm divisive and polarizing and will get the GOP base motivated like nobody's business -- but remember that misogynist slur you got at the water cooler a few months ago? Act on that."

Ruth Marcus: There's an element of that, I believe.


Kensington, Md.: You obliquely mentioned Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in your "ambition" piece. Did you know that she's profiled occasionally in the "veepstakes" columns I see on the Web? Although she's not considered a "short-lister" (like several other women are for the GOP), it made me wonder how the country would feel about having a new mother in such a high office -- i.e. would they assume she would either shortchange the country or the newborn's needs (either of which would be a no-no)?

Ruth Marcus: It would be pretty interesting. I didn't mention this in the column because I thought it would be distracting, but her newborn has Down Syndrome.


Oakton, Va.: Here we go again! A fundamental premise of feminism is that women lack power in society. This is clearly false because -- as almost any husband will say -- women have plenty of power, as girlfriends, wives and mothers, within the home, child-rearing and domestic sphere. They also have power in romantic relationships as they decide whether to grant or withhold sexual relations (thus acting as if they didn't have any physical desires, because that would undercut their true power source). Women don't want to talk about these sources of their power because that might undercut their effectiveness if they were more publicly exposed. But men know all about these sources of power and how women use them to get ahead, and men pay dearly for them in terms of relationship frustration and failure during their formative social years.

This is one major reason why men don't tolerate all the politicized feminist victimization talk being so easily bandied about these days. They don't see women as so victimized on a personal level.

Ruth Marcus: Okay, powerful in our little corner of the world. That's reassuring.


Washington: As someone who has witnessed her peers who have started child-rearing struggle with working full time and then going home and doing the majority of the household work, child duties, etc. it has made me, once a staunch "I will never be a stay-at-home mother" person, reconsider that position for myself in the future because it just looks so exhausting.

But then at the same time many of their husbands get the response "why can't your wife do it" when they try to reorganize their work/home balance to help out more, while women usually get more support. So it's not solely the husbands fault.

I think just the sheer effort of it all, and feeling like you have to pick between one and another or you won't be giving your all to either is more the cause of the "ambition gap" then anything else. Men never feel that they have to pick between work and having kids.

We really need to put more pressure on the availability of affordable childcare and for more equality in the workplace for how they treat parents- both male and female.

Ruth Marcus: Actually, I do think things are changing, in terms of what Gen X or Y dads are doing, their relationships to their jobs, their shouldering of family responsibilities.


Washington: Seeking an opinion: is there anything -- outside of a sex scandal involving homosexual activity -- that would keep someone from being a TV pundit? I mean, Rove is all over the place and, arguably, not a small part of the mess this president is in may be laid to his feet ... but there he is pontificating a-partisan way. How bad, how wrong do you have to be before the talk shows shun you?

Ruth Marcus: I think his analysis is smart. He's supposed to be banned because he's conservative? Because he did a "bad" thing for a "bad" president? Sorry, but I'd rather hear from a diversity of viewpoints.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Any hints from the Clinton camp that she's going to abandon her crybaby campaign and tough it out? You know, like boys are taught as preschoolers to stop whimpering and suck it up? And is there any thought from that bunch that jeers, fears and tears hasn't really helped to propel her candidacy, at least where reaching grownups -- those who endure mortgage debt, rising gasoline and energy prices, job scarcity, raising children, aging disabled parents et al -- is concerned? That wimpy whining certainly hasn't convinced me. Thanks much.

Ruth Marcus: She seems to be doing pretty well -- better, anyway, among the enduring-mortgage-debt, rising-gas-prices bunch.


Washington: Leave it to your generation to cry and complain that Hillary is losing the election because she's a woman. I'm 28, working in politics -- she lost the nomination because she didn't plan for the long run, not because she's a woman. She also lost because Sen. Obama, for many people, is a once-in-a-lifetime politician like FDR, JFK and Reagan were. Stop with the anti-woman conspiracy theories, please -- my generation wants no part of it.

Ruth Marcus: Okay, because you started the generational warfare: Leave it to your generation not to actually read the things they comment on! Seriously, I have repeatedly not complained that Clinton is losing the election because she's a woman and criticized her for doing so. See for example this column and this column.


If you had daughters...: would you want them to grow up knowing they always could fall back on weeping and charges of misogyny whenever they didn't get their way? Are we going to bring back stamping the little foot and fainting because of "the vapors"? Don't you think women should grow out of the little princess stage of development? Heavens. How little progress we've made. Thanks.

Ruth Marcus: I do have daughters. What in the world would make you think that I would "want them to grow up knowing they can always fall back on weeping and charges of misogyny whenever they didn't get their way?" I do have to admit, weeping has worked pretty well sometimes, even without playing the misogyny card.


Portland, Ore.: Ruth, one thing this election has shown is that timing is very important for a politician. The partisanship of the '90s fit Bill Clinton perfectly. He doesn't play so well in the YouTube era, however. Obama, on the other hand, seems ideally attuned to this early post-partisan time that we are entering. Hillary Clinton's time seems to have been 2004. Her war vote wouldn't have been nearly as damaging, partisanship was at a peak, and the blueprint for the Internet-driven insurgent campaign was still being tested out by Dean. Do you agree with me that Hillary was just an election too late?

Ruth Marcus: No, I don't think I agree. Bill Clinton also ran as someone who could bridge partisan divides, reject the stale old party ways of doing things. I think Clinton could easily have won this election but that Obama is a kind of tidal wave force that was hard to resist and that her campaign definitely screwed up in running against.


Columbia, Md.: There are many criticisms I can make about the media but not sufficiently questioning the run-up to the Iraq war is not one of them. All the information I gained that allowed me to form the opinion that the reasons for the war were bogus and cooked came from the media. With that said, it was the media editorials -- by The Post, for instance -- that supported the war were the most distressing. I think people often can't separate the reporting side from the editorial side. They are not the same, folks!

Ruth Marcus: Boy, I think the media itself (the reporting side, not the editorial side) has acknowledged failings in reporting on the run-up to the war. I know my paper did.


Sewickley, Pa.: About a year ago the Post-Gazette ran an op-ed piece that asserted the path to political office for Democratic contenders goes through the strip clubs. The author argued that reliably Democratic states like Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey where women should do well are dominated by the old boys club and that a lot of social/political networking takes place in front of stripper poles. This leads to women being underrepresented as candidates and office holders. The article also asserted the first female president likely would be a Republican from a western state as a result. Your thoughts?

Ruth Marcus: That seems like a stretch on the strip clubs being the reason. A symptom or example, maybe, but not a cause. I haven't thought through whether Republicans might actually be more open to a woman president.


Re: Henpecked: Show me a henpecking wife and I will show you a profoundly disempowered woman. It's surprising that there are still folks who see that as a sign of "power."

Ruth Marcus: Do you think we've ... well ... henpecked him into not saying that any more?


Upper Marlboro, Md.: I'm with Wolfville, Nova Scotia, but from a different perspective. When I read your piece I kept thinking, "she's only talking about white women and it has nothing to do with ambition." Why aren't there more black or Latino male governors or senators if being a male is all it took? It's time we have a discussion not only about how to empower little girls and women but all persons who have been locked out of the political process.

Ruth Marcus: The study that I was writing about involved the differential between men and women in this area. That has been on people's minds recently because of the Democratic race. So have issues of race and ethnicity which I also believe are important to discuss.


Clinton's unending campaign: Am I the only one who thinks she's sticking around to use her delegates as leverage for the promise of a top cabinet position, such as Secretary of State?

Ruth Marcus: I don't think so.


Helena, Mont.: To the person who said women have power in the home -- well, there used to be the adage, "she who rocks the cradle rules the world" -- but I don't think any woman ever saw that as true power. Otherwise, there would have been no need for the feminist movement. I also think one reason that women today have higher percentage of college enrollments is because they are treated in K-12 schools as having capability -- so maybe the cockiness gap is going to erode as these women and their daughters enter the job market. Takes a long time for social change.

Ruth Marcus: I'm going to ask my daughters (11 and 13) about whether there is a cockiness gap that they see among their peers. I would guess not...


Fort Lee, N.J.: I haven't read McClellan's book yet, and neither have you, I'll assume, but both The Post and the Times have, and what is the result? The Times buried its coverage today, sticking Ms. Bumiller's article somewhere inside the paper, and your reporter, Shear, utters not a single syllable about this absolutely amazing fact: McClellan, of all people, charges the so-called 'liberal' media with lying down on the job and not challenging the propaganda and phony stories used to sell the war. This is the much-abused and despised little man at the heart of the propaganda machine, charging journalistic malpractice!

Just because the two best newspapers in America don't want to report this doesn't mean that we haven't noticed! And we have been noticing this for years now. The contempt of Rove, Cheney and all the rest of them for the role of the press is palpable. How can a journalist with any self-respect continue to let them get away with it?

Here's a prediction: Iran will be bombed within the next two months (it's all over the foreign press, but not here -- what a surprise) and the press will act in the same servile and stenographic fashion that they have exhibited since 2001. Wanna bet?

Ruth Marcus: Okay, I'll bet. I think the "servile" media learned an important lesson from the pre-war coverage, and I think will not behave the same way again. What McClellan was reported to say (I haven't read it yet, you're right) about the media's failure seemed to me to be commonly accepted wisdom at this point, not an amazing disclosure.


Rolla, Mo.: Florida and Michigan -- the disenfranchised argument, is anyone addressing the issue of the hundreds of thousands of voters who didn't show up to vote because they were told these primaries were not going to count?

Ruth Marcus: It would have been much better to figure out a way to hold new elections, either in person or by mail, for this reason, among many others.


Yonkers, N.Y.: This is just hilarious, or is it horrifying? I can't decide. Now Scott McClellan has a book out claiming that he was against all the treachery and double talk that his bosses were engaging in. What's next? When's Barbara Bush putting out a book telling us how ashamed she is of her son? This is utterly ludicrous, and a sign of how dysfunctional our government and our political coverage has become.

Put another way, if McClellan, who was the point man in the sale of this horrible war can tell the truth now, why didn't the press tell it at the time when it might have done some good, and more importantly, why are those who were useful tools of the administration, in their adherence to phony objectivity, still in their jobs? Do the concepts of shame or accountability still exist? I see these people who were Bush's willing collaborators still on TV, and still being published, and I shake my head. Is this what a cultural collapse looks like?

Ruth Marcus: "Why didn't the press tell it at the time when it might have done some good?" I think we can institutionally plead guilty to inadequate reporting, not to deliberate, cowering cover-up.


New York: The Post is now censoring news stories that don't fit its editorial agenda. Last week, The Post ignored the story out of Israel that the Olmert government had been negotiating all along with Hamas, gutting the Bush/McCain talking point that only an appeaser would do such.

Today, The Post ignored the story that the giant bank UBS -- whose vice chairman, Phil Gramm, is McCain's national co-chair -- has advised its senior executives not to travel to the U.S. for fear of being arrested, UBS having run a massive tax evasion scheme.

What gives? Is The Post now an official arm of the McCain campaign?

Ruth Marcus: Sure, The Post is an official arm of the McCain campaign. They asked us to run a lot of stories on the front page last week about all the lobbyists on their staff. Come on!


New York: To enlighten the person from Stafford, Va. -- I was raised in a home where the dad ruled. When we kids were grown and out of the house, my mother wanted to work outside the home, and was forbidden by my father. My mother only shared this with me recently, after Dad died. I think the whole point is that yes, being a full-time mother is a valued job, but it should be by choice. The term "henpecked" is, of course, a pejorative. Women, after all, should defer to their men at all times, right? No wonder we're ambition-challenged...

Ruth Marcus: Re: Henpecked.


Chicken, egg?: Tell you what. There is so much social conditioning involved in being female, that to say it's my own fault that I'm not rich and famous, or whatever, is kinda oversimplifying something with so many sides, it can't stand up. Women used to be "in charge" (matriarchy) until the men developed weapons, made war, and took over (patriarchy) and women were made second-class. We used to give birth in the fields, for crying out loud. It's not a disability -- or it wasn't. We don't bring lesser skills, we bring different skills, and to see the way Hillary was characterized by the punditry (and Chris Matthews) shows exactly what happened. Studies are fine, but what happens in a life just can't be studied for statistics. Ask a woman whose husband beat her up.

Ruth Marcus: Okay -- I'm not sure what to say about this comment, so I'm just posting it. When you raise spousal abuse, I guess that's supposed to be the conversation-ender.


Ruth Marcus: Okay, thanks for chatting. I'm going to be away for the next few weeks so I probably won't be back online until late June. At which point there may even be a nominee!


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