If there’s one insight I learned from 17 years as a journalist covering politics in Washington, it’s that it pays to be paranoid if you’re a female politician.
That paranoia is often masked by their political skills and ability to stay “on message.” Many reporters I worked with often assumed that women politicians’ canned quotes came from not being privy to the insider scoops reporters were looking to uncover. I, on the other hand, saw something else: discipline born of experience.
Successful women politicians are so often underestimated because they are meticulous and restrained and because much of their work is hidden from the glare of TV cameras. Indeed, Senate Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) – the most powerful Democratic woman in the Senate and a talented dealmaker – went from being dubbed one of the dumbest senators by Washingtonian magazine in 2004 to being seen as a workhorse by 2014.
Experience and watching how other woman are treated in the public sphere teaches female leaders a lot about how the media will greet any and all revelations about their personal or political failings. What they learn is that the rules for women politicians require walking a fine line between “just enough” but “not too much.” For example:
• Don’t be sexy, but don’t be too ugly either
• Be smart, but don’t be too smart
• Speak forcefully, but don’t be shrill
• Be likable and warm, but don’t be soft
• Be tough, but don’t be a bitch
Women have to both emphasize their uniqueness as a woman while making it clear that’s not all they are. Men have no such rules. They can be sexy, smart, likable, tough and can wear whatever they want, generally, without being scrutinized for their fashion choices. To wit: Just last week, the Washington Post ran a completely irrelevant story about how the new prime minister of Great Britain, Theresa May, has become a fashion icon in leopard print shoes.
If I were advising a female politician, I would counsel her to have a healthy paranoia about how she will be treated by the media. Fairly or not, that means taking an extra second to think about an answer to a reporter, considering thoughtfully whether that lipstick will distract viewers from what you are saying on TV, deliberating on whether you should attend that party with that celebrity donor, and contemplating whether your fashion choices will overshadow your policy choices.
That being said, I would also caution that being too paranoid can also be turned into a liability, even if is a well-founded paranoia backed by decades of political experience. After all, women unfortunately have to abide by that rule of being “just enough” but “not too much” of anything.
Throughout the presidential campaign, cable news talking heads and newspaper columnists have variously opined on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s paranoia and her purported lack of transparency. Recently, the media have expressed their outrage that Clinton’s campaign waited to reveal a diagnosis of pneumonia that did not affect the candidate’s schedule until the day it actually did affect her schedule.
That comes in stark contrast to the coverage Republican nominee Donald Trump received for not releasing his health information at all – that is, until issues about Clinton’s pneumonia threatened to call more attention to his lack of transparency. Indeed, Clinton’s decision to release an updated health record – she released her health records for the first time in July 2015 — was featured on the front page of the Washington Post last Thursday, while Trump’s first disclosure on the Dr. Oz show was relegated to page A4. And in many cases, Trump’s refusals or delays in releasing his health information, his tax returns, and details about his charitable foundation – all of which Clinton has done – have been treated as merely a footnote in stories about Clinton’s alleged caginess.
To be sure, Clinton, more than most female politicians, should understand the need to quickly get ahead of negative news stories. Given the conservative conspiracy theories about her health, it would have behooved the campaign to immediately alert the press to her diagnosis and then make a point of insisting she would be “powering through” it because of her overall good health. Then, if or when she needed to cancel something, it would not come a surprise to those covering the campaign.
Clinton should be paranoid. But she, and her campaign, needs to allow that paranoia to assist her media relations, not hinder her as she seeks to make history and become the first woman president.