I thought I was awake and alert throughout the 2008 presidential election. I faithfully read two major American newspapers each day; I was glued to news and talking-head analysis on TV and the Internet; and I live in Washington, D.C., after all, where politics is the hometown industry.
But reading Rebecca Traister's superb new book about the election, called Big Girls Don't Cry, made me feel retrospectively dopey, like the "stupid sidekick" in detective fiction who dutifully takes in the details of a crime scene, but always fails to see the Big Picture.
The problem with the 2008 presidential campaign was that there were so many head-snapping moments to take in, so many "firsts," that even Traister, who was covering the campaign for Salon, admits to having felt dizzy and distracted. (One of my favorite of these "Say what?" moments in the book is the morning when Traister recalls being awakened by one of her colleagues with the news that John McCain had "picked Palin" as his running mate. Traister, groggily coming to consciousness, asked, "Michael Palin?")
But Big Girls Don't Cry is much more than an assemblage of these type of "boys on the bus" campaign anecdotes. As anyone who's followed Traister's sharp and lively essays in Salon knows, her particular "beat" is gender. What she does here is tease out the cultural narratives that came to wield so much power during the campaign and, finally, in the voting booth: narratives about femininity and the demands of wife- and motherhood, as well as narratives about how women should "play nice" and let the other historically discriminated-against guy go first through the door of the White House.
Traister surveys a changed political landscape in 2008 where women were key players, not only as candidates but also sometimes outspoken spouses of candidates, as well as reporters and pundits. She brings a historically informed perspective to her reading of the cultural curveball that was Sarah Palin and her undoing — at least during the campaign — by the tag team of Tina Fey and Katie Couric, in addition to the sexist criticism lobbed at her even by her fellow conservatives.
But far and away the longest and most eye-opening part of Traister's book is devoted to Hillary Clinton and her gender misadventures in, as Traister wittily calls it, "Campaigning While Female." Traister excavates the Bill Clinton-era back story to many feminists' reluctance to support Hillary and chronicles the misogynist responses to her campaign not only by the usual Neanderthal suspects — the guys who took to wearing the "Iron My Shirts" and "Stop Mad Cow" T-shirts — but also by liberal commentators like Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Frank Rich. She was pilloried — right and left — for her voice, her laugh, her age, her ankles and even a flash of her cleavage.
Traister charts the attitudinal shifts in the campaign: how Hillary, arguably misguided by her campaign manager, Mark Penn, embraced a stiff-upper-lip "gender free" strategy early in her campaign that ironically ceded the more traditional womanly role of appealing to passions and ideals to Barack Obama, particularly after he was endorsed by the nation's emoter in chief, Oprah Winfrey. Here's a snippet of how Traister astutely analyzes the gender dynamics at this point in the pre-New Hampshire Democratic primaries:
Where once Hillary's competence had made her a prepared and inevitable presidential standard, it was now the thing that made her a particular kind of female archetype. Like Harry Potter's Hermione Granger or Margaret from Dennis the Menace, Hillary was being portrayed as the hand-in-the-air, know-it-all girl, grating and unpopular in her determination to prove herself. By broadcasting their disdain for Clinton, pundits like Dana Milbank and Chris Matthews and Roy Sekoff were affirming their own social worth: nobody asked women like Hillary to the dance.
After that infamous moment in New Hampshire that Traister refers to as "The Night of the Imaginary Tears," hordes of formerly skeptical women flocked behind Hillary, not, as Traister says, "because she was a girl but because she was being treated like one" — jeered at by commentators for transforming from a so-called tight-ass into a "basket case."
There's so much more to be learned and argued over in Big Girls Don't Cry, whose subtitle is: "The Election that Changed Everything for American Women." Certainly one of the things that's changed about presidential elections is the very existence of books like this one. Girls, these days, can not only run for president; they can brilliantly analyze presidential campaigns, too.