Land Across the Waters

An interesting bit of commentary on presidential politics from a US columnist for the Guardian named Lisa Nuss. At issue is this question: Why all the sudden outpouring of support for the candidacy of a mostly black man when a white woman couldn't even get the time of day a few short years ago. The black man, of course, is Barack Obama. The white woman? None other than our own Very Senior Senator, Elizabeth Dole.

It is a significant and important development that a person who is of mixed race is taken so seriously as a presidential candidate. But Obama talks and acts like a white man from the Ivy League. It is just that cocky confidence - amazing, since there is little experience behind it - that allows well-educated, young men to be seen as "presidential," despite a lack of credentials. We must ask this question - who does he think he is? - because we asked it of an Ivy Leaguer with far greater experience and stature, Elizabeth Dole. Like Obama, Dole graduated from Harvard law school. Her confidence and presidential aspirations in the 2000 campaign were backed by cabinet-level service under two presidents: secretary of labour under President Reagan and secretary of transportation under the first President Bush. Despite her national political leadership and experience as the president of the American Red Cross, where she controlled a budget that rivals most large American corporations, we didn't think she had the stature to be president.

I am using "we" loosely: It is a combination of the public, media and political pundits. But a study by the White House Project, a non-profit organisation that promotes women's leadership, placed the refusal to take Dole seriously squarely on the media. Marie Wilson, a founder of the White House Project, documented how the media undercut Dole's authority with coverage that was less frequent and less substantial, even though Dole was number two in the polls behind George Bush. Although I'm a Democrat, Dole's candidacy and energy were electrifying, and I was thrilled that an accomplished female leader declared herself qualified to run. But, sadly, the news articles focused on her hair, her clothes and how tightly she controlled her public appearances. The tone of those articles was unmistakably belittling. You didn't have to read between the lines to know the reporter's opinion ("I mean really, who does she think she is?") After working on an incumbent's Senate campaign, I know how tightly and carefully national politicians control their image. Yet the media singled Elizabeth Dole out - and it worked. Six months later she couldn't raise enough money to be a serious contender.

Though Nuss claims to be a Democrat, it's clear she hasn't been paying much attention to the very issues she's talking about. Because this statement is flat-out nutso.

Dole's candidacy and energy were electrifying, and I was thrilled that an accomplished female leader declared herself qualified to run.

Electrifying? You're kidding. Accomplished female leader? Pull-ease.

All that said, I agree with Nuss's point that women are judged by a different standard than men, a standard that trivializes their campaigns and reduces their opportunities to serve. I just wish the columnist had found a better basis of comparison than the hapless career of Elizabeth Dole, who has been little more than a figurehead in her many lofty positions.