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Judith Timson on politics

Game change? It's just the same old sexist bull Add to ...

There's been a lot of chatter in the U.S. media about Game Change, a hot new political tell-all by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin that reconstructs the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. It is undeniably juicy reading and it has already given birth to at least one imbroglio: the Democratic majority leader Harry Reid, one of Barack Obama's early supporters, has been pilloried for saying in the book that the electorate would like Mr. Obama because he was "light-skinned" and didn't talk in a "Negro dialect." Panel after panel of wound-up commentators have been poring over that one.

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But there's another discomfiting thread that runs through this entertaining book: its portrayal of women in a campaign that was historic partly because one woman - Hillary Clinton - came close to winning her Democratic party's presidential nomination and another woman - Sarah Palin - ran as the Republican vice-presidential candidate.

Big breakthroughs, yes? Except the women in Game Change come off quite a bit worse than the men. Ms. Clinton, after losing in Iowa, was so "bitter and befuddled," the authors write, that "one of her senior-most lieutenants thought for the first time, This woman shouldn't be president." On another occasion, Ms. Clinton didn't just raise her voice to ask her staff "why are we losing?" she was "nearly screaming now." As for her decision to battle Mr. Obama almost to the end: "Obama had never considered Clinton irrational, yet her refusal to surrender just seemed crazy."

As for former Alaska governor Sarah Palin - whose ignorance about world affairs and misplaced self-confidence about her selection as John McCain's running mate ("It's God's plan") should be all anyone needs to fairly condemn her - there's also a suggestion she was too hampered by being a mother to do her job. And that "some on her staff believed Palin was suffering from postpartum depression or thwarted maternal need." Oh and she screams, too. (Men seldom scream, don't you know, they just talk loudly or yell. No nasty ear-splitting there.)

And how is it possible that Elizabeth Edwards, the cancer-stricken wife of that philandering scumbag John Edwards (whose mistress eventually gave birth to a daughter), comes off looking so bad? Apart from noting why some American women responded positively to her - "I like that he's got a fat wife," one woman says - the authors, in what is the most vitriolic chapter in their book, give us "the lie of Saint Elizabeth," charging that there is "no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing" than Ms. Edwards. The author of two bestsellers about getting through tough times, she is apparently not the courageous, gracious and smart woman the public thinks she is, but what insiders saw as an "abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazy woman," and one "prone to irrational outbursts." (Is there a wife who wouldn't be prone to outbursts if she were married to John Edwards?)

In fact, Ms. Edwards was such a shrew, according to Mr. Heilemann, a national political columnist for New York magazine, and Mr. Halperin, the senior political analyst for Time magazine, that perhaps Mr. Edwards travelled a lot to get away from her!

And finally Cindy McCain, who came across during the campaign, at least to me, as a lonely, overly scripted Stepford political wife is portrayed as arguing with her husband all the time. (A married couple who argues? What a bombshell, as one Republican commentator said.) She apparently also berated him, saying in frustration, "It's all about you." And she may have been having an affair.

Don't get me wrong. Some of the male politicians in the book (apart from Mr. Obama) are variously depicted as overreaching, unfaithful, greedy and mendacious, each flawed in his own spectacular way. But there's a depressing sameness to the way the women are viewed. Unhinged! Crazy! Opinionated! Too much trouble! Which, I hate to say it, is a rather entrenched reaction many threatened men have to women who give them trouble, especially powerful women.

These four female caricatures caused Salon.com editor Joan Walsh to suggest Game Change could have been entitled the "Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse." Ms. Walsh lamented: "Boy, we've cracked that old glass ceiling."

But hey, don't worry that any book, even a bestselling so-called "definitive" book about the campaign that paints them as shrews, will stop women from entering high-stakes political campaigns. After all, Ms. Clinton has gone on to more gravitas, power and prestige as Mr. Obama's Secretary of State, so she can't be that irrational. And like her or loathe her, Ms. Palin is continuing on her path to world domination with a recent mega-bestselling memoir and a pit stop as a Fox TV commentator.

Meanwhile, Game Change's two male authors profusely thank their own female partners for all their "inspiration," "grace" and even "salvation." Too bad neither of these paragons thought to say to their men, "Honey, aren't you being a little hard on the women?"

Not much of a game change there.

 

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