Jewish World Review August 3, 2007 / 19 Menachem-Av, 5767
Tapping Hillary fashion flap to raise funds
By Dick Polman
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Let us quickly stipulate that Cleavage-gate (in which Hillary Clinton is alleged to have worn a low-cut blouse on the Senate floor, thus prompting a fashion critique in the Washington Post) does not rank with Iraq or health care as an issue crucial to the future of the republic. But the fallout has been instructive - not just about the glass-house nature of contemporary politics but about the way the Clinton campaign operates. Even an ephemeral fracas over cleavage can be tapped for its money-raising potential.
In a July 20 column, Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer at the Post, voiced mild astonishment that Hillary had decided to appear in the Senate chamber wearing a rose-colored blazer over a black top with a low V-shaped neckline. She wrote: "The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. ... It was startling to see that small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative - aesthetically speaking - environment of Congress."
Givhan, who frequently writes about how politicians choose to present themselves in public, and thus what images they choose to project, decided in this particular case that Hillary was feeling good about herself: "Showing cleavage is a request to be engaged in a particular way. It doesn't necessarily mean that a woman is asking to be objectified, but it does suggest a certain confidence and physical ease."
Maybe you consider this kind of stuff to be trivial, or maybe not. But candidate fashion, like every other facet of a candidate's life, is fair game. A columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times recently asked Barack Obama where he buys his suits.
Obviously, none of this stuff tells us anything about how a candidate might handle the crisis in Darfur. But many Americans - mindful of the fact that campaign promises come and go, that issues wax and wane - are constantly in the hunt for character clues.
Givhan has frequently critiqued men as well (Rudy Giuliani's decision to stop combing over his baldness; Dick Cheney's decision to wear a bulky parka to a memorial ceremony at Auschwitz, which prompted Givhan to write that the veep "was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower"). And, in the case of Hillary, Givhan was clearly intending to be complimentary.
But the Clinton campaign - adhering to its ethos that no perceived attack shall go unanswered - decided last week to conflate the Givhan column into a cause celebre for the allegedly aggrieved candidate. It quickly manufactured some outrage in the form of a fund-raising e-mail, seeking to raise money by doing a little media-bashing.
Senior adviser Ann Lewis wrote: "Would you believe that the Washington Post wrote a 746-word article on Hillary's cleavage? Apparently, it was showing when she gave a speech in the Senate about the skyrocketing cost of higher education. ... Frankly, focusing on women's bodies instead of their ideas is insulting. It's insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting."
Up to a point, I sympathize. The Hillary camp is arguably right to be frustrated with all the contradictory gender assessments of the first serious female presidential candidate.
One week, it's Elizabeth Edwards claiming that Hillary is behaving too much like a man. Another week, it's Givhan saying that Hillary is dressing like a hot woman. Another week, it's Tucker Carlson saying that Hillary is a castrating woman (July 16 on MSNBC: "When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs"). Another week - actually, last week - it's conservative commentator Lisa Schiffren at National Review Online, saying that Hillary, as a woman, is not hot. ("Hillary Clinton does not have cleavage to display. Period.")
But if the Clinton campaign were really interested in letting this episode die, it merely needed to ignore it. Instead, it decided to exploit it - and magnify it - by sending out the fund-raising e-mail and voicing general outrage about "the media." Perhaps it would have been appropriate to complain about "the media" victimizing the candidate if the Post had placed the fashion story on Page One, or if the story had been written by a national political reporter. But it ran in the Style section July 20 - an implicit statement by the paper that this was to be considered a feature commentary, not news.
It's the Clinton team, not the Post, that has kept the column alive.
As a result, it became grist for conversation Sunday on "Meet the Press," and Hillary didn't necessarily fare well. John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal said that "for her to argue that she was not aware of what she was communicating by her dress is like Barry Bonds saying he thought he was rubbing down with flaxseed oil, OK?"
Indeed, a lot of people became aware of the Post column only because of the Clinton team's fund-raising effort. As one woman e-mailed the Post last week: "Ms. Lewis made a mountain out of a valley. As a woman who has seen my fair share of discrimination in my 53 years, I found the article to be an interesting take on Mrs. Clinton and found nothing derogatory or demeaning. While this article should not be the lead news item on the front page of this paper, or on the nightly news, it was, as Ms. Givhan intended, a simple observation by a fashion writer of someone who is very much in the news. My advice to Ms. Lewis? When you find some really demeaning and very exploitative stories of women, then we can talk. Until then, give it a rest!"
Give it a rest says it best.
But if the Clinton people can use this incident to further cement their bond with female voters and raise enough money to keep pace with Obama, then they will underscore their growing reputation as the canniest strategists in the race. As conservative commentator Rich Lowry now writes of Hillary, "She's a talented politician who has a clear path to the Democratic presidential nomination and to the presidency."
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.
07/27/07: Hillary owes Elizabeth big time