It’s no wonder that Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, agreed to be featured in the CNN series “Badass Women of Washington.” Piloted by CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash, the series operates from a foregone conclusion: These women are badasses. Check out their stories.
Their stories are inspiring. In her feature on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Bash traveled to Pelosi’s childhood home in Baltimore. “For most women, frankly, myself included, it is hard to say those words, ‘I am uniquely qualified. I deserve this. I earned this. I can do this better than anyone else,’” Pelosi told Bash. In her feature on Elaine Chao, Bash explored the life decisions of Trump’s transportation secretary: “I try not to have too many regrets. But I will say to young women, you know, when in my generation, we were taught that we can have it all. And so it was thought, well, you have a career. And then you would, you know, have your family and, well, there’d be no problem. Well, it doesn’t work like that,” said Chao. In her feature on Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Bash teased out the senator’s feelings on the professional barriers against women. “Being a woman in our society, even today, is difficult,” said Feinstein.
The template, accordingly, is unmistakable: “Badass Women of Washington” explores the struggles and experiences of trailblazers in a male-dominated industry. To Bash’s credit, there are some fine moments, such as when Feinstein opens up about becoming the mayor of San Francisco under the most tragic of circumstances — the aftermath of the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
Then came Conway. In their feature titled, “Kellyanne Conway: How she became the ultimate Trump White House survivor,” Bash and CNN producer Bridget Nolan explore Conway’s toughness. “Why do you think you’ve survived and thrived all these years with Donald Trump and almost no one else has?” asked Bash. The answer snakes through Conway’s New Jersey home, where she was raised by four women. “I never heard the word ‘women empowerment,’ but they were empowered women,” said Conway.
The power endures, as Bash tells it. Conway, as we all know, is one of the steadiest faces of the Trump administration, forever appearing on cable TV — including CNN — to deflect the president’s often offensive, often mendacious statements and activities. Says Bash of this “badass": “Fighting for Trump on TV is valuable currency for a cable news-obsessed president but sources say she wields more power than people know in private."
What a ridiculous instance of puffery: What, exactly, is “more power than people know”?
When it comes time to address Conway’s critical role in the Trump White House — which is to say, enabling the world’s greatest liar — Bash includes a formulation worthy of the Studied Neutrality Hall of Fame: Though Conway is known for staying on message, “she is heavily criticized for sometimes taking it too far, entering the realm of ‘alternative facts.’ It’s made her a polarizing figure," says Bash. During her interview with Conway, Bash says, “People love to love you and other people love to hate you.”
It’s really that simple.
That the Conway profile sparked a backlash on Twitter shouldn’t surprise anyone. There’s a problem with including Conway in a series that celebrates feminism. To explain why, let’s recruit comedian Samantha Bee. After Trump’s election, a Fox News host commented that if a liberal female campaign manager had helmed a winning presidential race, there would be a Vogue cover in the making. Bee riffed on her TBS show, “Full Frontal,” "Oh, my God, you guys, it’s so unfair. A woman pulls off the historic feat of electing a sexual predator who thinks women should be punished for having abortions, and feminists don’t celebrate her with a Vogue cover! Although she did get the cover of P---y Grabber Enabler Monthly, so I guess that’s something.”
Conservative commentators lambasted CNN for its Pelosi “badass” installment. Too much fluff, they complained. Fair enough. All the profiles are pretty fluffy. These are not designed to be accountability pieces; they’re designed to tell the important stories of powerful women.
The problem is that Conway shatters the “badass” template. You can do an inspiring portrait of Pelosi’s ascent to power. You can do an inspiring portrait of Chao’s ascent to power. You can do inspiring portraits of that sort for many other Democratic and Republican women. You cannot do likewise for Conway, because there’s nothing inspiring about her role in defending presidential racism, misogyny and dishonesty. The old rules of balance, both-siderism and bipartisanship don’t work with this crew, a lesson that CNN has been slow to grasp.