Klobuchar Staff Stories Matter, and They're Not Sexist
The dirty comb that ate the salad is now a meme, strange and gross, and will be forever woven into the narrative of women trying to break into the U.S. presidency. But beyond utensils and flying staplers, what Sen. Amy Klobuchar does to staff is not in question, and it’s not acceptable.
Yet there’s some knee-jerk victimization afoot, from women no less, who believe this cannot be criticized because Klobuchar is a woman.
In a Politico piece titled “The Hidden Sexism Behind the Amy Klobuchar Reports,” Jennifer Palmieri, a former top aide to Clinton, wrote that while the behavior being reported is “disturbing,” “the complaints about such work environments hit women faster and harder than they do their male colleagues” because “we still hold women in American politics to higher standards than men, which puts added pressure on female bosses.” Palmieri notes the tempers and exacting demands of Bill Clinton and Rahm Emanuel are presented “in a dramatically different fashion” than such behavior in female bosses, and come across as badges of honor and toughness instead of “marks of shame” that show a woman is “unhinged.”
Referencing philosopher Kate Manne’s theories on misogyny, Laura McGann wrote in Vox that the senator’s “critics are angry about emails and binders and forks -- and whether they admit it to themselves, they are angry about something more fundamental. Klobuchar is breaking the rules. She puts her ambitions, her work and herself first.”
This is insulting, and it isn’t true. As Amanda Terkel of HuffPost, who reported several accounts from former staffers, wrote: “Many of the aides who spoke with HuffPost are women, who consider themselves feminists and have worked for other strong female politicians.”
There are five women currently running in the Democratic primary and Hillary Clinton ran twice to become our first female commander in chief, yet we’re not allowed to differentiate between a demanding boss and an abusive one? Say it with me ladies: “if everything is sexist, nothing is sexist.”
The New York Times story that included the comb anecdote catalogued horror stories that Klobuchar retaliates by reportedly intervening with prospective bosses seeking to hire staffers trying to leave her office, that she suspects there are spies on staff, and even once accused a staffer of ruining her marriage. She derides her staff work thusly: “In 20 years in political I have never seen worse prep,” “This is hands down the worst thing you have ever given me,” and “this is the worst press staff I have ever had.” One email given to the Times described her oft-expressed belief that she works harder than anyone working for her:
“Please don’t claim lack of time. I flew in at one in the morning. I don't have that luxury to blame lack of time. Unless YOU were up working at one a.m., and up again five a.m. the next day, please don’t claim lack of time,” she wrote.
Klobuchar hasn’t denied anything, but said: “I love my staff, I wouldn’t be where I am and we wouldn’t be able to pass all those bills and do all that work if we didn't have great staff. I am tough, I push people, that is true…but my point is I have high expectations for myself, I have high expectations for the people that work for me, and I have high expectations for this country.”
The damage is considerable enough, however, that her team orchestrated a formal push-back in a Medium post signed by 61 “grateful” staffers who described Klobuchar’s attendance at weddings, support after painful losses, celebrations at the birth of their children and her willingness to “help make an important call instrumental to our careers.” The open letter said she was “there for us in the hard times” and that she “pushed us to be better professionals and public servants.” It noted that many of the reporters they shared stories with, including the New York Times writers who contacted them, had failed to include the “positive anecdotes” in their reports.
Klobuchar is smart, accomplished, wildly popular in Minnesota and the most moderate Democrat to attempt to win the White House in a while, with a voting record to the right of both President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Her calm and grit, captured in the iconic image of her presidential campaign kickoff under snow clouds -- hatless, gloveless and unflinching -- is uniquely appealing in a party where liberals seem to prefer screechy anger and outrage these days and are pushing for a fierce fight against the never-off-offense President Trump next year.
At her CNN town hall on the campus of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., she didn’t pander or dodge before an audience chock-full of students, bluntly opposing free four-year college and referencing her consideration of “my Uncle Dick in a deer blind” when she assesses gun control proposals. While she shrewdly casts herself as an underdog, conservative columnists like George Will and Henry Olson see her as a serious threat to Trump.
Candidates don’t win on their own, not at the presidential level. You win or lose as a team, and one can’t lead well if people can’t follow. “It calls into question her ability to lead,” said a longtime Senate staffer who knows well of Klobuchar’s record as a boss. “Her staff operates in a climate of fear and that doesn’t engender good decision making.”
Paranoia, lack of empathy, cruelty -- they don’t disappear. This behavior escalates under the stress of a presidential campaign or presidency. It’s also the kind of dysfunction Trump has created in his White House that causes non-stop leaking from staff. BuzzFeed quoted a former Klobuchar staffer who said, “When I hear the descriptors of our current president, and how he lacks responsibility and everyone is to blame, and there’s erratic behavior, name calling, it’s unfortunate, but you’re also describing her.”
Elizabeth Bruenig, writing in the Washington Post, criticized Klobuchar's defenders crying sexism because they “mistake the promise of feminism.” Yet she argues the sheer number of women running means “there’s no incentive anymore to shrug off legitimate criticisms for the greater good … and no more need to weigh out greater and lesser evils. And hasn’t that always been the promise of feminism?” Under this rationale, feminists have to make apologies for female leaders who are tyrants when there aren’t enough of them because -- well -- they’re female.
That is not the promise of feminism, one that says women are lesser so they should be forgiven for being cruel. That sounds sexist, actually. The promise of feminism is that a woman can be judged on her talents and skill and capability to be held as an equal to men, and to -- yes -- become president of the United States. The idea that women in the presidential race cannot be held to the same standards as the men they hope to beat or would succeed as president has got to go. It’s chauvinistic -- and worse, Trumpian. It says women are too weak to be accountable leaders and that after 2016 character no longer matters. Too many cries of sexism will either preclude women from winning the White House or it will weaken the woman who makes it there.