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Top Reporters Compare Clinton, Palin, Pelosi

By Sally Acharya

Jennifer Lawless, director, Women and Politics Institute; Ann Kornblut, Washington Post; Norah O'Donnell, MSNBC; and Jessica Yellin, CNN

Jennifer Lawless, director, Women and Politics Institute; Anne Kornblut, Washington Post; Norah O'Donnell, MSNBC; and Jessica Yellin, CNN (Photo: Jeff Watts)

Three top national reporters shared their insights on Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi, and other women political leaders with an AU audience, fielding questions and telling stories, some of them off the record, about the powerful women they have watched, interviewed, and come to know.

CNN’s Jessica Yellin, MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell, and the Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut came to American University for a Feb. 4 panel held by the Women and Politics Institute.

On Hillary Clinton

Kornblut confessed that she didn’t initially think of Clinton as a “woman in politics,” because “she was Hillary Clinton, with all her baggage,” said the White House correspondent and author of Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What it Will Take for a Woman to Win.

Then came the glimpse of emotion in New Hampshire and the resultant “piling on” by the media, followed by Obama’s cutting comment during the debate that Hillary was “likable enough.” That’s when Kornblut began to sense “a back stiffening” among women across the country.

Clinton’s gender, and the narrative it brought, was clearly part of the campaign. How much of her woman-ness could she bring to the role, how much would she sublimate, and what would it mean to voters?

Yellin noticed that in Clinton’s speeches on the ’08 campaign trail, she delivered the lines in such a straight, unemotional way— “almost comatose” —that it seemed she’d been counseled to prove she was tough enough “to push the red button.”

Only in New Hampshire did she come across “as relatable, more soft,” which seemed, in fact, to help her in the voting booth and polls, noted the CNN political correspondent.

How is Clinton doing as secretary of state?

“I think she’s doing exactly what she did when she became senator,” Yellin said. “She’s first and foremost a hard worker. She works hard and emerges later. There has been criticism that she has not been more high profile, but I guarantee that will change over time.”

About Sarah Palin

Then there’s Sarah Palin: bugaboo of the left, darling of the tea-party right, a cipher for the future. Palin is “completely fascinating,” said O’Donnell, MSNBC’s chief Washington correspondent.

Not one woman was involved in Palin’s selection; not one woman counseled her in the campaign’s inner circle. O’Donnell confessed to wondering as McCain unwound at night with buddies like Joe Lieberman from the stresses of campaigning, “Who is Sarah Palin’s buddy?” She occupied a unique niche: embraced and reviled by the public, yet isolated on the campaign trail.

The “bright point” is that there’s a documented bias against women candidates among white working-class Republican men, but Palin cracked that ceiling, O’Donnell noted.

Palin was the first woman politician in American history “who is identifiably sexual. There’s a sexiness to her. She’s not ill at ease with being a woman and sexy and in power.” This can be upsetting to the women’s movement, but “the way she presents herself is a breakthrough for women,” Yellin said.

“I don’t think we’ll be in a place to be in high office until we can embrace our femininity.”

Discussing Nancy Pelosi

The reporters almost cheered when the first questioner asked them to comment on Nancy Pelosi. She’s third in line to the presidency, but when the discussion revolves around women and politics, Palin and Clinton often overshadow and a vastly powerful Pelosi is overlooked.

Surprisingly, Pelosi shares some similarities with Palin, Kornblut said. “She has managed, perhaps because she is in a safe San Francisco district, to run as a woman, embrace her femininity, and be tough.” Pelosi often refers to children and grandchildren—noting, for instance, that on budget questions she has three answers: “your children, your children, your children.”

While politics is often a patriarchal game, “she has embraced motherhood and womanhood and at the same time managed to be that matriarchal figure,” O’Donnell said.

It didn’t hurt, though, that her national political career didn’t begin until her five children were grown.

What about other women?

There’s good news and bad news.

It’s impossible to deny the substantial progress women have made. “We’ve even reached the point in American politics when women run, they win.” noted Jennifer Lawless, School of Public Affairs professor, described by the reporters on stage as one of the nation’s top experts on women and politics.

Yet 85 nations surpass the United States in the number of women in the legislature. Women are rarely mayors and governors. The gender gap in political leadership is still a chasm.

“Women are still 10 times more likely to be responsible for household work and 12 times likely to be responsible for childcare,” said Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute. That’s a heavy burden for women who want to devote their energies to politics.

As for skills and credentials, there’s a self-perception and confidence gap. A man looks at his résumé and says he’s qualified; a woman looks at a similar résumé and says she’s not.

Does it matter that women are underrepresented? Absolutely, the reporters said. Numerous changes have come about since women came to the table: funding of health studies that focus on women, the child care tax credit, family medical leave.

And if those changes aren’t your political cup of tea, Kornblut said, simply ask a basic question: “Why would you want to exclude half the talent pool?”