Female Journalists on Clinton's Fighting Chance Some argue that an emotional moment by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire was instrumental in her winning the primary. Leading female journalists discuss the politics and pitfalls of a woman running for president.
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Female Journalists on Clinton's Fighting Chance

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Female Journalists on Clinton's Fighting Chance

Female Journalists on Clinton's Fighting Chance

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I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

To continue this conversation about race and gender in political life, I'm joined by Gwen Ifill, moderator of PBS' "Washington Week." She's also a senior correspondent with the "News Hour" with Jim Lehrer. Jill Abramson, managing editor of the New York Times, and Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a former Reagan administration official and an analyst for FOX News.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. GWEN IFILL (Moderator, "Washington Week"): Hello, Michel.

Ms. JILL ABRAMSON (Managing Editor, New York Times): Great to be with you.

Ms. LINDA CHAVEZ (Chairman, Center for Equal Opportunity; Analyst, FOX News): Fantastic to be reunited with you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. It's kind of old home week a little bit here.

Now, Gwen, I'm going to say - I'm afraid I don't think I can handle this whole question of race and gender in life, but what about in political life? I mean, Gloria makes the point that - I think you just heard her conversation. She just makes the point that she feels that racial barriers are taken more seriously than gender barriers. What do you think?

Ms. IFILL: I guess it depends where you're sitting. If you are a black women, as you are and I am, then we don't really feel the need to have to make a choice about which barrier is higher. Every single day, there's some barrier somewhere, and you can't spend a lot of time worrying which one is the one that's stopping you from getting to where you want to go.

If you were one or the other, as is the case with Barack Obama as a black male and Hillary Clinton as the white female, you kind of have to decide what resonates the most to the audience you're speaking to. It's been fascinating to listen to Barack Obama in the last several weeks begin to slowly - and I use the term advisably - integrate references to Selma and Montgomery and civil rights movement into his speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire increasingly.

And we assume, even more so now that he's heading to South Carolina. And certainly, a lot more yesterday when I was listening to him in New Jersey. Whereas it took a while for Hillary Clinton to try to sort through whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to make references to gender in her speeches. She would take a couple of steps forward, a couple steps back.

Now she seems to have realized that there is a huge advantage in referencing gender, because there's a lot of pent-up demand for that from women voters who are more likely to vote. So they're both struggling through to some point about what they can talk about. What they - neither has figured out is how to use the other's otherness as a negative as they begin to try to take each other down.


Ms. ABRAMSON: Yeah. I think that that's all true. I think what's interesting for both Hillary and Obama is both of them have significant appeal to women and to black voters. And, you know, Obama in Iowa actually won the female vote -not so in New Hampshire. But I think for Hillary, it's a little bit more complicated.

And Michel, in your conversation with Gloria Steinem, you were kind of making this point, which I think is right. With Hillary, there's a sort of double factor. There's women are excited about the prospect of the first woman making a serious and possibly successful bid for the presidency. But then there's sort of a pause and step two, which is do you like her? Do you think she will make the best president? And I think that that is a difficulty she's had in terms of being the woman in this race.

MARTIN: Linda, and what about you? You've had a couple of unique experiences, which I think contribute to this conversation. One, you were a candidate for office yourself.

Ms. CHAVEZ: That's right.

MARTIN: And also, you had an historic run yourself, where you were one of the first, I think, races where there are two major party candidates who were both women when you run for Senate against Barbara Mikulski. And so what do you think?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I think I think it's (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Linda, we're having trouble with your line, and I sure do want to hear what you have to say. So I'm going to ask you to pause and see if we can fix that. I'm going to actually have them have them call you back. And then, when you're back, we'll hear from you. So I'm going to go back to Gwen for a minute, and let us know as soon as you're back.

I'd like to talk for a minute about what some are saying were the defining moments for the Clinton campaign in the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary. One is the obvious, where she became emotional. I want to play a little bit of that for people who may not have heard it.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): It's not easy. It's not easy. And I couldn't do it if I just didn't, you know, passionately believe it was the right thing to do. You know, I have so many opportunities from this country. I just don't want to see us fall backwards. No.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Now this could have gone either way for Senator Clinton. Jill, why do you think that it came out working in her favor?

Ms. ABRAMSON: It sure could have gone either way. You could have had, you know, Pat Schroeder, too emotionally - too emotional, melting down, all of that. And I think that it is what Gloria Steinem was talking about. It helped her with authenticity. It showed that she was human. And in a campaign that had been carefully scripted, that had, you know, been a classic front-runner, keep her away from answering a lot of questions, that kind of thing, she was beginning to really mix it up with the voters. Gwen and I were both in New Hampshire together, and she completely threw out her campaign daily playbook and was taking lots of questions and, you know, showing more of herself.

MARTIN: And, you know…

Ms. ABRAMSON: I think in some ways the key moment was the debate, when she answered - citing, you know, her gender, that she was, by definition as a woman, a change agent.

MARTIN: And I just have to tell you that we've been debating this in the office. And, of course, with her the question was was that scripted? Was that a scripted moment? But a couple of us in the office were saying, you know what, I think, number one, she was tired. And number two, what a lot of us are seeing is probably the first time in months anybody had asked her about how she felt. You know, how are you doing? And that just set her off.

Ms. IFILL: You know, that's interesting, Michel, because this is one of these things where - watching away the press covers something, and - Jill's right. We were both in New Hampshire, but we were not alone. There were, you know, thousands of reporters.

And what would happen - when that moment happened, I remember walking through the work space where I was working and seeing lots of men and some women gathered around the screens, the televisions, watching it over and over. They were - these are the reporters taken by the idea. I think the first round of thought was that this was going to be a Pat Schroeder moment. And that's what -John Edwards came out and said, oh well, you have to be presidential. Which really is not a good thing to say. Women went, what does that mean?

But then the next day, I ran in - that night into a senior Clinton adviser, Mandy Grunwald, who's our communications person, who said, you know, I've heard from a lot of my people who are not in this business, who are not reporters, who are not politicians. And they say to me, now we know why you're working for her. This is the first sympathetic moment we've seen.

So the Clinton people figured out right away, take - set aside for a moment how much of it was genuine. I happen to think that one gets tired on the campaign, and it's completely genuine. But I think they knew immediately that this could be a positive, that was going to appeal to a lot of people who said, yeah. And you know who else do it? Barack Obama. When he was asked about it, he said, hey, this is a grind out here. I completely get that she's tired. And it helps that he was exhausted, too.

Ms. ABRAMSON: I know. I think he had a little misfire during the debate when -because she had another, you know, human moment in the debate when she said to the question about her likeability, you know, that hurts my feelings. And he kind of muttered, Hillary, you're likeable enough.

MARTIN: How do you interpret that? And Jill, I know you have to go in just a moment, so we'll let you go a little early. So how did you respond to that moment? How do you interpret how that moment went down?

Ms. ABRAMSON: I thought that he seemed a tad ungracious. You know, I would have hit the edit key for that one. I didn't think it was, you know, a dire moment for him, but I thought, you know, better to have just let her have her say and let it pass.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, thank you Jill. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. ABRAMSON: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Jill Abramson's managing editor of the New York Times. Linda Chavez, I think you're back with us.

Ms. CHAVEZ: I am back with you.

MARTIN: Okay and then sounding - and sounding fine this time. So Linda, take that question, if you would: race or gender?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I think it is tough for a woman. And what we have traditionally thought is that a woman had to prove that toughness, that she had to prove that she was capable of making the hard decisions, having her finger on the button, as it were, in a nuclear confrontation, that she'd be able to do that. And I think the problem for Hillary has been that she has no difficulty showing how tough she is. She has more difficulty showing how human she is.

And I think that's why that almost tearful moment there on the eve of the election in New Hampshire really did help to humanize her. And women can be their own worst critics. And so I think her problem had been she wasn't really being able to capitalize on that gender vote. And once she sort of showed the human side, I think that made many women feel more comfortable going out and voting for her.

MARTIN: Isn't that part of the difficulty of being a female candidate? Any candidate who's a woman who can be taken seriously as commander-in-chief, you know, the leader of the free world and so forth, is going to have to show the kind of edge that then becomes off-putting with other people. Linda, did you feel that way?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I absolutely…

MARTIN: I mean, you weren't running for an executive position. You were running for the U.S. Senate, but, you know, still, there were some compelling foreign policy issues that you're compelled to address as a U.S. senator. Did you feel that way?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I have to tell you, I had the worst gender gap of any candidate running for office that year. I had fewer women vote for me than I think any other person running in 1986. I actually won with white male voters, but I lost the female vote big time. I only got about 30 percent of that vote.

And I think I had some of the Hillary Clinton problems. I think that they had more trouble sort of seeing me in human terms, seeing the softer me. And that was off putting for what should have been a traditional base for me. A lot of the traditional women, more conservative women, who should have gravitated towards me didn't because they saw me as a feminist. And even though, you know, politically I wasn't out of that mode, I think they had trouble with me. And I think, again, I think that's part of the problem that Hillary has had.

MARTIN: What about your ethnicity? How did that play into it? Now, Maryland at the time did not have a particularly large Latino vote as a - for you to draw on as a base, but, you know, you were nationally known.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I was, and I think that probably didn't cut favorably, either. The name Chavez is not common in Maryland. Had I been running in a Western state, I don't think it would have been a problem at all. But it made me seem very unMaryland-like. And, of course, I had not lived in the state all that long. I'd been in the D.C. area for about 14 years when I ran, but I had only lived in Maryland a couple of years. And so that ethnicity/surname actually, I think, exacerbated my carpet bagger - carpet bag problem as well.

MARTIN: Gwen, you mentioned a comment that John Edwards made about the Hillary sort of moment of emotion. And you also mentioned that - we were talking, I think, on the Barack Obama exchange, her likeability. But let's play that just for people who have not hear it.

(Soundbite of Democratic Debate)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): Well, that hurts my feelings.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCOTT SPRADLING (Political Reporter, WMUR): I'm sorry, senator. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CLINTON: But I'll try to go on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CLINTON: He's very likeable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): You're likeable enough, Hillary. (unintelligible)

Sen. CLINTON: Thank you. I appreciate that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, Gwen, what are you - and apparently, some people reacted negatively to this.

Ms. IFILL: A lot of people reacted negatively, and I find it really interesting. This is - that that moment, I think, can capture one of the things that we're going to have to be very aware of in covering this campaign, this kind of historic campaign, which is there is so much code involved in how people interpret what comes out of the mouths of these candidates.

I talked to a black male friend of mine last night who heard - watched that exchange and thought I didn't think he was being insulting. I thought he was being cool, because he was looking down. He was taking notes of the time. It was almost dismissive to people who were waiting to be dismissed. But to black folk, they kind of went, oh, yeah, that he's just, hey.

MARTIN: He said you a'ight. You a'ight, you know?

Ms. IFILL: Yeah. You all right. That was - that's what they heard. But white folk and women, in particular, heard something dismissive. It's going to continue. That's what happened with the John Edwards' comment. White women or women in general heard something dismissive in what he said. You have to listen for a code. A lot of black folk were unhappy with Hillary Clinton later in the week when she started saying things like, well, it's all well and good to be an advocate of hope and a dream.

Martin Luther King had the dream, but Lyndon Johnson was the one who implemented the Civil Rights Bill, likening herself to Lyndon Johnson - some say and improbably. But the problem with that was black folks went, wait a second. Are you dissing Martin Luther King? So you have to be careful. You have to know whether they intend to send a secret signal or whether we just hear these secret symbols, because we all come from our places of hypersensitivity.

MARTIN: And it harkens back to the comment that Joe Biden made so early in the campaign about Barack Obama's being articulate. And this was one of those office - you know, water-cooler conversations where black folks all over, you know, the country are e-mailing each other, saying can you believe what he just said? And a lot of - and I got e-mails from white listeners saying what's so terrible? I would love it if somebody thought I was articulate.

Ms. IFILL: Well, you know…

MARTIN: Linda?

Ms. IFILL: …I don't think that was the problem phrase. He called him articulate. He also called him clean. And I think that's what, you know, people sort of bristled at. Like, what - you know, what are you saying…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IFILL: …by calling the man clean?

MARTIN: Yeah. He has running water in his house.

Ms. IFILL: Right.

MARTIN: And, Linda, I wanted to ask you about this. Karl Rove was on our - and I want to ask Linda and Gwen about this. Karl Rove was on our program yesterday. And he had this to say, he said Americans are looking for a way to break barriers. They would love to elect a woman president. They would love to elect an African-American president, and to degree that either gender or race plays into this race, it plays far more in a positive direction than it does in a negative direction - kind of an eye-catching comment for some folks.

Linda, what do you think? Agree? Disagree?

Ms. CHAVEZ: I actually think on the racial front that that is absolutely true. I have to tell you, I don't agree with Barack Obama about much, but I was absolutely thrilled watching him in Iowa. And it said to me, you know, things are changing in America. The fact that a black man - mixed race, actually, not entirely black - but a mixed race man can win in a state like Iowa means that I think we are getting to be on our racial past. And I think that's a good thing, and I think there are a lot of people out there for whom this is a very, very encouraging message we want to send.


Ms. IFILL: Michel, I don't know if you just heard this, but I'm just seeing here that John Kerry is endorsing Barack Obama today. So there are more barriers falling as we speak. But I do think you make an important point. There is a - and Karl Rove actually makes it, which is there's - I was reading a columnist today who referred to the harmony fantasy which we have in our society. We all like the idea that we're all going to get along. We all like the idea that we would cross barriers. That's why there's been such a kind of a corrosive subtext in the debate about what happened in New Hampshire in the polls, because some folks really believe that black people went - that white people went behind the curtains and lied to the pollsters and voted differently than they said they would.

No one has any way of, you know, the Bradley effect. No one has any way of knowing if that's true or not, but there's a lot of resistance to that notion because one of the things that made people feel so good about Barack Obama in Iowa is the idea that a white state would vote for a black candidate. So there's so much going on.

We all have these lovely ideas that we're all going to break and cross barriers in here, but we also know that there is such a potential for a corrosive effect in this kind of debate, and you kind of have to be always on guard for.

MARTIN: Well, I also thought - noticed that the late deciders tended to go for Obama in New Hampshire, which I thought was kind of an interesting piece of data there.

So, final thought. As we move into South Carolina - Gwen, very, very, very briefly if you would - how do you think that African-American women are going to come out in that contest? I know you don't like to speculate, but how do you think that's going to go?

Ms. IFILL: They're shifting before our eyes right now. They were very hesitant. They were fearing for him, and Obama has a very simple response to that, which is vote your aspirations, not your fears. He said that. His wife has said that, and I think it's beginning to stick.

MARTIN: Oh, that's fascinating. Okay, we'll be watching, and I hope you all will come back and talk to us. This has been an interesting conversation. We just heard from Gwen Ifill, a moderator of PBS' "Washington Week," and Linda Chavez, chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and an analyst for Fox News. We were also joined earlier by Jill Abramson, managing editor of the New York Times.

Thank you all so much for joining us today.

Ms. IFILL: Thanks, Linda.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Thank you.

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