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Hillary, the VP rumor and what men don’t understand about powerful women

Gosh, it seems I have a lot to say today.

Charles Pierce is freaking out about the poll numbers.  Oh, sure, it was all fun and games to poke at Obama until someone loses an election.  After yesterday’s dystopian description of Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago that chilled me to the bone, Charles is backtracking today and telling the left to suck it up and vote for the bastard.

Not so fast, Charles.  In fact, if the Democrats want to dodge this rendezvous with electoral obscurity, now is the time for voters to lay down the law, draw a line in the sand and say, “You Shall Not Pass!”.  I’d make any grand bargain on Social Security and Medicare my rubicon but there are half a dozen other legitimate issues that Democrats should be forced to defend vigorously before voters yield.  No, I am not afraid of Romney, believe it or not.  At this point, the states are gleefully slashing through all of women’s reproductive rights and there are already 5 votes on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. Democrats yielded women’s issues without much of a fight so they can’t fall back on that old trick anymore.  I hate private equity firms and sons of rich family firms as much as anyone but Obama’s negotiations with Wall Street have been so godawful that it hardly makes a difference who’s the coldhearted Mr. Moneybucks in the White House.  In this case, it is perfectly fair to talk about equivalence.  Pierce just better hope that Democrats fare better in Congressional races.

My problem with Obama is that it’s not enough to have good intentions but a hostile opponent in Congress to blame stuff on.  You need to look as though you’ve actually broken a sweat defending our rights and quality of life and Obama hasn’t.  No one in my generation should settle for a Democratic president doing a lackluster job and then throwing up his hands in frustration and saying, “It’s inevitable that your life is going to suffer.  Deal with it, late babyboomer.  Sucks to be you.” I’m not settling for that.  We knew the job was going to be tougher than average following a disaster like George W. Bush.  He shouldn’t have run for the job if he wasn’t ready, and it was obvious that he wasn’t.  No excuses.  He had his chance to sit it out and wait but he had to have the White House now, now, now.  So, now it’s his responsibility and solemn obligation not to screw us over even if it’s really hard to do.

But it’s not Pierce alone who is starting to panic and grasp at straws.  Over at the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky is testing the “Hillary-Biden VP Switch” idea again and seeing if it gets any more traction than it did before.  I’m not sure Obama would get the bang for the buck everyone expects from this ticket though and in some respects, it might almost be worse.

For example, did you know that recently Hillary compared the VP position to being First Lady?  That’s not necessarily derogatory but does touch on something that I think men just don’t get about powerful women, which I’ll get to in a moment.  The reason why Hillary says VP is like First Lady is because although the VP can be an important and influential advisor to the president, constitutionally, the position doesn’t have much power.  The VP can break ties in the Senate annnnd, that’s about it.  Otherwise, the VP is just hanging around for the president to experience some catastrophic event.  It’s sort of like being a political vulture or hyena.  A carrion pol.

I just finished the Passage to Power by Robert Caro about LBJ’s Kennedy years and what happened to him when he was VP was a textbook case of what you do not ever want to happen to a person with as much power potential as LBJ.  Johnson was a Senate powerhouse, a legislative genius who understood every representative and senator in Congress, their hidden desires and flaws, and how to manipulate those desires and timing to generate momentum and force legislation through.  The Kennedy brothers brought Johnson in as VP in order to neutralize his power and they were exceedingly successful.  They were so successful that they jeopardized their own policy agenda.  And Johnson was miserable as VP.  He was emasculated by the Kennedys who made sure that he couldn’t even make a trivial speech without having it cleared by the Attorney General.  When JFK was assassinated, Johnson revealed himself to be a great leader.  If he’d been as astute on Vietnam, we’d be worshipping him along with FDR and Lincoln.  But if Kennedy hadn’t met his fate in Dallas, Johnson would have faded into obscurity and the Civil Rights Law of 1964 might never have happened.  I’m no fan of Obama’s but even I wouldn’t wish that on him just so someone else could benefit.

I’m of the opinion that had Hillary wanted the VP in 2008, she could have had it.  We don’t know how it all went down but my suspicion is that she knew that she would be de-balled like Johnson if she had accepted the position and so she pre-emptively asked for State if Obama won.  And so the original choice for SOS, Joe Biden, switched places with Hillary.

So, assuming this is true, why would she want to be Obama’s VP now?  My guess is that she wouldn’t.  What really drives me up a wall about Tomasky’s post is that it reflects the guy’s point of view about what would save Obama’s ass in this election.  The focus is still on saving Obama at all costs.  Yes, he is tremendously inexperienced and doesn’t seem to be learning his job very well.  Yes, he’s not a very good politician and doesn’t act like he likes being around legislators and gladhanding for votes.  Yes, he made too many deals with Wall Street, the insurance companies, the religious right to the detriment of his base. Yes, the economy is terrible and he’s done nothing about unemployment.  Yes, he’s planning to give away all the money the late baby boomers PREPAID into social security for their retirements.  But somehow, the guys feel we’ve got to re-elect this man.  I don’t understand it.  It’s got to be a male graduate student guy thing, the cluelessness of being near the top of Maslow’s pyramid. I keep picturing that iconoclastic image of soldiers pushing the flag up Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima.  So much struggle for so little payoff.

But that’s the problem.  They act like Obama is the most-ut and those around him are expected to sacrifice their own needs for his future.   I understand that Obama has this power over people.  They want to help him achieve his own personal goals and it doesn’t seem that important that his goals should be subordinated to the welfare of the country. This is where the reasoning behind the guy thing breaks down.  For that matter, some women don’t get it either.

But if that’s the case, why the Hell would a woman with Hillary’s power and ability continually put her own needs secondary to Obama’s?? We don’t expect Obama to sacrifice his ambitions for the good of the party or country. If I were her, I wouldn’t do it.  I wouldn’t put myself in a four year sound proof booth just to help Obama achieve self-actualization as a two term president, country be damned.  What would be in it for me?  Would I be able to influence policy?  Sha!, Obama’s smartest guys in the room, like Kennedy’s, aren’t going to let her anywhere near a lever of power.  So, without the ability to affect policy, what is she reduced to but a series of ceremonial appearances where she would be dragged out in front of crowds of Democrats, like some hostage, to make Obama look good.  At the end of four years, she’s going to be permanently associated with whatever failures Obama’s administration is notorious for without having had any opportunity to influence them.  And with that she’s supposed to run for office in 2016?  Like some 69 year old Chernyenko who the party is going to feel obliged to unenthusiastically endorse until some young whippersnapper beats her in the New Hampshire primary?  Are you f^&*ing kidding me?

Did it never occur to these guys that maybe she has her own ambition that is independent of and does not make reference to Obama’s?  If I were her, I’d never settle for less than the top spot because I would have the confidence to know I’d be good at the job.  And if I couldn’t get the top spot, I’d leave politics behind and become a powerhouse on the outside, holding Obama’s feet to the fire on gender equality or education or scientific infrastructure or something equally important.  There’s no point to being powerful, competent and smart if there’s no way to exercise it.  And there’s apparently no place in American politics for a woman who is not seen as a traditional helpmeet to a man.  But seriously, ladies, why do it for a dude who is not your husband and who is secretly driving you crazy with his bumbling incompetence?

Tell them to shove their shotgun wedding, Hillary.

Friday: Lucky is the man with the mute wife

May hit her target but left no discernable impression

May hit her target but left no discernable impression

It’s been a long time since I saw A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum but I seem to recall that one of the characters was a beautiful mute woman.  The man who won her hand was congratulated.  He was lucky to have such a beautiful wife and her value was immeasurable because she couldn’t speak.  The exact quote was funnier coming from the mouth of Zero Mostel but only because it was so obviously farcical.

What isn’t so obvious is this piece by Tunku Varadarajan at Forbes.com called In Praise of Laura Bush.  I don’t want to sound culturally insensitive but maybe Tunku’s heritage has something to do with his attitude towards women.   But he doesn’t chide her for failing to walk three paces behind George, which for Varadarajan must be an admirable show of restraint.  Nevertheless, we get a keen insight into the minds of the well-connected that is, well, downright first century:

For eight years, Mrs. Bush has come to represent quiet grace in a White House marked by gaudy bluster. She was a measured, succinct first lady in a presidency that came to symbolize frantic ambition–and frantic ideology. She has been an old-style first lady, never seeking to upstage her husband, and she has, in truth, been one of the very few bright spots of an invariably dysfunctional, and occasionally scary, administration.

Laura Bush was self-effacing by choice, and by an exquisite understanding of her role in the White House. She was only noticed when she wanted to be, and when such moments came she held our attention with a fragrant panache

There has never been any doubt, however, that she Stands By Her Man, and it might even be said that she has “mothered” him to a significant extent: by being patient, and fully aware of her (frat) boy’s tendency to over-exuberance; and by tamping down the tempests that surge within his breast. Somewhere along the line, she may even have saved his life.

Mrs. Bush is of a certain American type: wholesome, inclined to good works, a homemaker and mother, a supporter of the man she married, a smiling hostess. She is not flashy or colorful, overly intellectual or palpably shrewd, demonstrably independent or politically aggressive.

My, my, my, there is a certain unspoken something in Mr. Varadarajan’s commentary that resembles negative space.  It is the thing that is referred to by its absence.  Or should I say, the *she* that is referred to by her absence?

But put her aside for a moment.  I, for one, will be very happy to see Laura Bush leave the White House.  Mr. Varadarajan refers to her as a certain American type.  Indeed, Edith Wharton referred to Laura’s type when she wrote The Age of innocence.  Laura is very much in the model of the May Archer type.  She is a woman of no great curiousity and who lives a very constrained existence in the narrow field of vision granted to her by her tribe.  In her case, the tribe is wealthy and cloistered.  Her behavior and actions are dictated by those around her.  As long as she sticks to the convention and expectations of those who govern her actions, she will live in comfort and security.  Wharton called it a “hard bright blindness” that May Archer lived in.  She was not unaware of unpleasantness beyond her sphere.  She just chose to not acknowledge it.

I see Laura Bush as a complete and utter failure as a First Lady.  She lived in the White House for eight years and her presence, personality and will seem to have left no impression on her ceremonial office or her husband’s policies.  She is not remembered for any initiatives or interests.  Her literacy project was started with little fanfare and spluttered into nothingness over the years.  She stands out to me most notably as the person who unequivocally condemned stem cell research, as only a person untouched by personal medical tragedies could do.  It wasn’t heartlessness so much as her heart would not let itself be troubled by pain and misery.  I have no doubt that she has experienced such pain but her milieu has allowed her to put it behind her, to lock it away, to regard it as an artifact.

Her “certain American type” still exists in the country clubbed, blonde bobbed havens of the moneyed class and the middle class suburbanites who strive to the next step up.  I know people like her in my suburban wasteland who carefully monitor themselves and others so that they can glide through life relatively unscathed.  Their children are scheduled to an inch of their lives and grow up in a kind of hothouse atmosphere where the only children they are allowed to know are the children of their parents’ friends.  They are colorless and flavorless.

Mr. Varadarajan’s opinion of Mrs. Bush is laughable to me.  Since Hillary Clinton became first lady while I was still young and impressionable, *she* is my role model.  Working women want to see a woman in the White House who is everything that Mr. Varadarajan despises.  We want to see independence, intelligent, shrewdness and a certain amount of ambition.  What woman would come away from 8 years of experience without a certain amount of ambition?  How can a person not want to use what she has learned to change the world, unless the person in question is emotionally and intellectually dead?

Of course, following Laura Bush’s model will keep the nasty press off your back and if you really want to give it all up to become Mom-In-Chief, well, that’s your choice.  But I sincerely hope that Michelle Obama makes a point of saying that she is not a role model for the vast majority of working class women out here.  And by working class, I mean anyone not in Laura Bush’s social stratum.  If you have to work for a living, you’re working class, no matter what you do.  Most women in the country can’t give up their lives to stay home with the cookies and milk for two girls who do not require full time daycare anymore.  What Michelle Obama does between the hours of 9-3 is up to her but I really hope she doesn’t pretend she’s a housewife.

If the next First Lady doesn’t want to end up like the last one, she’ll speak up, show us how smart she is, get a little ambitious and tell Mr. Varadarajan to take a long hike off a very short pier.