There is no question that women in public life have often been held to a different standard than their male counterparts. Powerful women are often subjected to sexist remarks in the media, in office and on the campaign trail.
But sometimes, lazy politicians play the S-card just because it is easy to do. The ludicrous accusations of sexism against Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham for criticizing Ambassador Susan Rice actually diminish both real instances of gender bias and inadvertently give McCain and Graham a free pass for actual misdeeds.
According to a dozen Democratic congresswomen, McCain is, in particular, guilty of “clear sexism and racism” because he referred to Rice as “unqualified” and “not very bright.” At a press conference last week, the women accused McCain and Graham of “battering” Rice and “mugging” her character – loaded words that are best left to descriptions of actual violence, not hyperbolic political statements.
Calling political opponents batterers diminishes the real horrors many women suffer at the hands of their domestic abusers – just as calling a political opponent a Communist diminishes the real horrors of those who suffered under Communism.
Words matter, and once words like these begin to get tossed out without any basis, they begin to lose their potency. The next time there is a real instance of sexism or racism, the public may be more likely to dismiss it as just so much political rhetoric.
The irony, of course, is that accusing McCain and Graham of sexism and racism masks the real issue at hand: their rank hypocrisy when it comes to her possible nomination as secretary of state.
In 2005, President Bush nominated Condoleezza Rice to serve as his secretary of state, a move roundly criticized by Democrats who accused her of lying about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons capability to justify an invasion of Iraq. McCain and Graham defended Rice by saying that she had made her claims based on faulty intelligence. “I can only conclude that we are doing this for no other reason than because of lingering bitterness over the outcome of the election,” McCain said at the time.
Today, McCain and Graham are leading the attack on another state department nominee named Rice, who also made her initial statements about a conflict in the Middle East based on faulty intelligence. For this, McCain and Graham are threatening to hold up her nomination to the same office for which they vociferously supported Condoleezza Rice. I can only conclude that they are doing this for no other reason than because of lingering bitterness over the outcome of the election – not because Susan Rice is an African American woman.
If McCain’s and Graham’s attacks, which mirror the very behavior they once criticized, are specious, the same can be said of the congresswomen accusing them of sexism. Their press conference did nothing to drive a narrative beneficial to Rice or to any woman who seeks high office and parity with men.
Susan Rice is no more the little woman who needs to be shielded from attacks by powerful men than Condoleezza Rice was. In 2008, she accused McCain of recklessness and intemperance. She has reportedly butted heads with Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke and other colleagues. She takes on the Russians, the Iranians and others at the United Nations every day. In the shark-infested world of Washington politics, Rice has survived and thrived. She is hardly a damsel in distress who needs to be saved.
McCain and Graham are attacking Rice because she is a surrogate for the president, because she is being considered for a prominent post and presumably because they have real concerns about her statements regarding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi. They are doing what Washington politicians – irrespective of party, gender or race – do when they are out of power: take pot shots and question the qualifications of a sitting president’s allies.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton belatedly called out some of the sexist rhetoric she encountered on the campaign trail and from the media. A serious presidential candidate, former first lady and prominent senator, she was heckled by a man at a rally who told her to iron his shirt. Her cleavage and wardrobe were subject to ridiculous scrutiny.
Sarah Palin, a governor and vice-presidential nominee, was reduced to a caricature of a beautiful woman (ignoring the fact that she was a sitting governor) from far-away Alaska who needed a clothing allowance to spice up her image.
That’s real sexism – and it needs to be condemned at every turn. But the women who indicted McCain and Graham for sexist behavior did not do Susan Rice or other women any favors with their baseless and lazy accusations.
On the subject of Rice’s possible nomination for Secretary of State, there is a lot of criticism to go around. The Democratic congresswomen who held their press conference last week are not immune from it.
Julie Roginsky has extensive experience in government, politics and public relations on both the federal and state levels. She is the president of Comprehensive Communications Group, a public relations and crisis communications firm that counts Fortune 500 corporations, elected officials and non-profit organizations among its clients. Follow her on Twitter @JulieRoginsky.