In the wee, small hours of Friday morning, Chris Matthews convened a panel of MSNBC commentators in a Philadelphia barroom, surrounded by patrons cheering and shouting as if they’d seen a revival. The atmosphere was suffused, for a spell, with the afterglow of a historic moment, but as the night wore on it became clear that writing a “new chapter” in “the story of America,” to quote Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Rodham Clinton, might not be such smooth sailing. Again and again, contributor Joy Reid struggled to answer Matthews’ questions, to elaborate on her point that the polarization of our politics ensures at least 40% of the electorate will support the GOP candidate in November whether it’s Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, or a toaster oven—not because she’s incapable or inarticulate, but because the four men on the panel kept interrupting her. Beneath each wave of unintelligible crosstalk, beneath former RNC chair Michael Steele’s raised voice and Matthews’ own interventions, it was possible to hear the sound of silence, in this case the silence we impose, as a culture, on women. At the end of a week in which a major political party nominated a woman for president for the first time in the history of the republic, this was, perhaps, an interlude unworthy of note, but after four days sifting through the coverage of the Democratic National Convention it nonetheless suggested the long shadow of sexism, the signal within the noise.
“The woman thing,” as CNN’s Gloria Borger termed it, was not the preferred framework for analysis in Philadelphia, though of course it was omnipresent, as it has been throughout Clinton’s career. “I remember this woman getting shit in 1992 for not baking cookies,” Salon’s Mary Beth Williams wrote on Twitter after the nominee’s acceptance speech, and Clinton herself, as if in testament to the phrase “once bitten, twice shy,” has at times downplayed her gender, most notably during her unsuccessful campaign for president in 2008. Hers is a life defined by the double bind: To appear warm, but not weak; strong, but not shrill; to be the supportive wife, the doting mother, the tenacious advocate, and the formidable stateswoman at once, a balance that none of the nation’s commanders-in-chief has ever had to strike. That she does so with aplomb is, arguably, the clearest indication that she possesses the resolute temperament her opponent so sorely lacks, but this was seen, in the obscure logic of network anchors and political commentators, as “the woman thing,” and thus subsumed under the rubric of glass ceilings shattered and progress made.
Despite constituting a central (if subtle) thrust of the DNC’s programming, then, the notion that womanhood might be integral to Clinton’s approach to leadership—and indeed to the “high unfavorables” that panelists cited ad infinitum—remained at arm’s length, a mirage on the screen’s horizon. There was, for instance, the obsession with Bill Clinton’s “failure” to address his marital infidelities, the insistence, as CNN’s Jake Tapper had it, that the Clintons’ is “a different kind of relationship”—an issue, curiously enough, that no one deigned to raise with regard to Trump’s multiple affairs, though in that case cheating might in fact be said to reflect on the candidate’s character. That the former president offered an in-depth portrait of his wife’s unglamorous work on “women’s issues,” highlighting the fact that women’s disproportionate participation in politics has not translated to proportionate representation among elected officials, was left to the viewer to suss out. “We can’t pretend it’s like Wolf and Lynn Blitzer,” Tapper added, as if to confirm he’d missed the point.
Others missed it, too. Matthews, a burbling brook of questionable sentiments, opened the discussion of Michelle Obama’s brilliant speech—on the importance of nuanced thought and historical symbolism—by calling her “a beautiful woman” (“because we’re allowed to say that”), and remarked, of Sarah Silverman’s impromptu riposte to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd, that “Only a woman can say that to a man.” As Clinton took the stage Thursday night, in an immaculate white pantsuit that recalled the uniform of the suffragettes, ABC’s Cokie Roberts noted, referring not to her own self-possession but to the candidate’s, “It’s very hard not to cry, in this situation.” From more conservative quarters, there were the usual suggestions that Clinton smile, soften her tone, “concede her limitations,” accede to men’s wishes, demands that “the fighter” President Obama described Wednesday night has been battling since her Wellesley commencement address in 1969.
The broader problem, indistinct and thus more insidious, was the fact that the neglect of “the woman thing”—or, as Clinton had it, “the woman card,” to which her satisfying response this election has been “Deal me in!”—failed, in turn, to account for her greatest strengths, none of which register among the traditional (read, “masculine”) traits we tend to define as “presidential.” As Vox’s Ezra Klein reported earlier this month, the key to “understanding Hillary” is her preference for listening over talking, for hard-earned compromises and incremental progress over principled opposition and sweeping promises of change, and yet the discussion of her acceptance speech on the broadcast networks and cable channels tended to frame this as a challenge to be overcome, not an asset to be utilized. “This is not her gift,” MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell said Wednesday, referring to the week’s soaring oration. “The speech was a lot of prose,” her colleague Chuck Todd added Thursday. “It wasn’t a speech that built on the momentum of Wednesday night.”
If this had the air of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that’s because it was: To define politicians as poets of the podium is already to limit the number of possible voices we hear at the highest levels of government, substituting variations of style (Obama’s prayerful rhythms, Bill Clinton’s conversational tone, Vice President Joe Biden’s pugilistic humor) for differences of substance. As Larry Sabato quipped, the expectations Hillary Clinton faced after the week’s murderer’s row of rousing speeches swiftly came to seem laughable. “Combine Sermon on Mount w/ Gettysburg Address,” he wrote, referring to the “sum of pundits” on TV. “Then define universe & give 3 examples.”
The question, as we turn to the general election, is whether the structure of political media in 2016 militates against the sort of earnest, moderate competence that Hillary Clinton represents. As the convention wore on, and the DNC/Wikileaks scandal segued first into the protests of Sanders supporters and then into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, the wild swings from dramatic narrative to dramatic narrative—Division! Chaos! Espionage! Treason!—suggested, at minimum, that the press, not entirely of their own accord, now lacks the time, space, and resources for caution, even if that is Clinton’s dominant mode of engagement. That the DNC’s preference for the Clinton campaign had indeed created yet another fracture in the Democratic Party was clear; so, too, was the polling that showed a sizable majority of Sanders voters throwing their support to his primary opponent. That Trump’s comments on Russia’s implication in the DNC hack suggested a worrisome coziness with Vladimir Putin was apparent; so, too, was the fact that he’d praised strongmen and positioned himself as an American despot since the start of his campaign. In this context, Clinton’s unswerving interest in kitchen-table issues, in women’s and children’s rights, in the steadiness of small steps, seem unlikely to generate much attention, or for that matter much affection, even though—as a practical matter—our system of government is designed to resist revolution, not to encourage it.
What risks being lost in these waves of cacophonous argument, in the coverage of Trump’s press conferences and the emphasis on the president’s bully pulpit, is the voice of those—often women, as Bill Clinton noted—who do the work in lieu of giving the speeches, who read the reports and write the policy papers instead of developing a foreign policy on live TV. Oration may not be Hillary Clinton’s “gift,” but after her keen, detailed rebuke of Trumpism Thursday night, there is no doubt that she’s a superb rhetorician: In her care, in her coherence, in her appeal to reason and tolerance over fear and hate, she struck the sharpest contrast between presidential candidates in more than a generation, highlighting in the process the skills she’s brought to her political career all along. Confronting our “moment of reckoning,” she and the DNC offered a vision of the American system in which listening and learning are more important than bluster, than threats. If this is “the woman thing,” deal me in.