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 from this incident 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 black top with a low V-shaped neckline. She wrote: “The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. No scrunch-faced scrutiny was necessary. There wasn’t an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was undeniable. It was startling to see that small acknowledgement 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 is 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…It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her own skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style.”
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 these days. 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, in the hopes of getting a bead on who these people really are.
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 email, seeking to raise money by doing a little media-bashing.
Senior advisor 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. Now, I’ve seen some off-topic press coverage – but talking about body parts? That is grossly inappropriate. 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. It’s insulting to our daughters…The media should know better. But they don’t…”
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 Robin 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 commenator Lisa Schifferen 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 was 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 fundraising email, 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 one of their national political writers. But it ran in the Style section, the “C” section on 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 literally kept the column alive.
As result, it became grist for conversation yesterday 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 fundraising effort; as one woman emailed to The Post late last week, “I, too, was unaware of the article until I received the letter from Hillary’s campaign…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 Barack Obama, then they will merely 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.”