No sooner had proceeded from the Democratic presidential debate to a speech at Wellesley College last week than the wailing began. hit the Today show accusing her of playing the "don't pick on me" woman and a chorus line of media pundits denounced her for having hurt the cause of feminism by acting like the injured girl and dealing the "gender card."
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd contended that Clinton was trying to show "she can break, just like a little girl.... If she could become a senator by playing the victim after Monica, surely she can become president by playing the victim now." Fox News' Mort Kondracke preached: "I think it is very unattractive for a general election candidate, who wants to be the Commander in Chief of the free world, to be saying 'They're ganging up on me!' I mean, this is the NFL. This is not Wellesley versus Smith in field hockey."
These indictments were conjured from the slimmest of evidence. Even the New York Times, while "piling on," had to do contortions to pin the victim label on Clinton's comments. As a November 5 Times article put it: "Mrs. Clinton denies playing the gender card -- at least in the traditional sense of saying that as a woman she should be exempt from the traditional rough-and-tumble of campaigns -- and her remarks on the subject have certainly been oblique." For oblique, read frustratingly nonexistent. What she did say -- at her alma mater before a whooping and roaring crowd of more than 1,000 young women -- was: "In so many ways, this all-women's college prepared me to compete in the all-boys' club of presidential politics.... Fear is always with us, but we just don't have time for it, not now. So let's roll up our sleeves and get to work together. We're ready to shatter that highest glass ceiling."
What about that was so girl-with-her-finger-in-her-mouth frail? The indignation of Clinton's opponents may have a motive more genuine than their desire to defend feminism. They are mad because they feel robbed. Clinton, in fact, didn't play the victim card. The gender card she played was the one every successful recent male presidential candidate has played -- the rescuer card.
Keep in mind: The gender card is always played. It's even played in presidential campaigns where all the candidates are men (or rather, as Kondracke prefers, quarterbacks). Given the political culture -- and for reasons embedded in our history -- that card usually involves a morality play in which men are the rescuers and women the victims in need of rescuing.
Bill Clinton understood the power of that formula when he showcased his boyhood efforts to "stand up" to his abusive stepfather and shield his mother from blows. When facing George H.W. Bush, Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis learned this lesson too late -- after he failed to fly into a vigilante-style rage in response to an infamous televised debate question in October 1988 that went like this: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis' un-Duke-like reply about his wife -- "No, I don't, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life" -- whacked his approval ratings from 49 percent down to 42 percent overnight and was pivotal in denying him the election; as was that other failed protection drama that dominated the campaign: the specter of black convict Willie Horton ("every suburban mother's greatest fear," as one of the Republican ads that inundated the airwaves put it), who raped a woman after being furloughed in Massachusetts while Dukakis was governor. His campaign belatedly, lamely, tried to counter in kind -- with an ad about a convict who escaped from a federal treatment program and raped and killed a mother of two.
Post-9/11, with the nation facing the constant threat of "savage" attack, the inclination to play the gender rescue card became an imperative -- as was in full evidence during the 2004 presidential campaign. "Every suburban mother's greatest fear" was now not a black man's mug shot but a Muslim terrorist's, and every suburban mother was recast as a Security Mom (a mythical creature, as it happened, but that's another story).
Victory on Election Day went to the candidate who best understood how to deal from that deck. Both George W. Bush and John Kerry worked hard to position themselves as the King of the Wild Frontier. (Both granted long interviews to hunting and fishing magazines; both bragged about their gun collections; Bush whacked at sagebrush and tree stumps; Kerry stalked wild animals and waved their bloody pelts at journalists.) Kerry's handlers, however, failed to put into play the female part of the rescue equation. They counted on the Senator's decorated service in Vietnam to qualify him for the hero role, especially in contrast to Bush's AWOL record. What they were missing was a woman to rescue. Bush's advisers knew better, as was apparent in their political commercials. In Wolves, set in a dark forest invaded by a pack of wolves (read: terrorists), a trembling female voiceover warned voters that Kerry would make cuts in U.S. intelligence "so deep they would have weakened America's defenses -- and weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm." Kerry, in fact, had no plans to make such cuts, but that hardly registered. "Wolves" engaged America's terror-dream, which the GOP was going to vanquish with a cowboy swagger.... and a commanding daddy "hug."
In the final weeks of the race, Bush's backers unveiled Ashley's Story, a sixty-second commercial featuring the president hugging a teenage girl named Ashley Faulkner, whose mother had died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Ashley -- shown lying in a hammock in her backyard, reading a novel with a Victorian lady on the cover -- says: "He's the most powerful man in the world and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe."