April 20th, 2008

Review: Kunin’s Pearls, Politics & Power

by Philip Baruth

Pearls, Politics & Power: A Brilliant Manifesto
(And A Questionable Case in Point)

I happened, once, to find myself at a cocktail party standing next to Madeleine Kunin, a woman I’d never met but knew a good deal about: Kunin became Vermont’s first (and thus far only) woman Governor in 1984, and went on to serve three terms before becoming Ambassador to Switzerland during the Clinton Administration.

I’d been watching Kunin chat with other people for a while, and she seemed very open and gracious, if a bit tired.

Still, there was a question I’d always wanted to ask her, and so I walked over finally and asked it: What was it about your gubernatorial candidacy, specifically, that actually broke the glass ceiling?

And then suddenly the fatigue was gone.

Kunin’s eyes lit up, and she dropped immediately back into the small yet crucial details of that historic campaign — how she’d taken on the ski industry and insisted that they obey environmental regulations, for instance, and how that had allowed her to project herself as an executive who would keep Vermonters safe.

She remembered very precise poll numbers from 1983, and how those numbers had crept up through the tough campaign of 1984. And she talked about how she’d continually presented her credentials to voters — effectively pre-empting any criticism that as a woman she wasn’t qualified, that she had either too much ambition, or not enough.

It was a fascinating thirty minutes of seemingly idle party talk, but with the publication of Pearls, Politics & Power, it’s now clear that it wasn’t idle at all: even then, Madeleine Kunin had been thinking long and hard about how to translate her own experience into a coherent, workable manifesto for the women destined to follow in her footsteps.

With Pearls, that manifesto has arrived (Chelsea Green, April 2008, $14.95).

“It is time for a call to action,” Kunin writes in her introduction, “for new political leadership to emerge from the women of America. The stories of the women in this book and thousands of others like them who hold elective and appointive offices all over America are making a difference . . . . The problem is that they are too few.”

The tone is unabashedly activist, and stirring for that reason alone.

Equal parts memoir, strategy guide, and feminist primer, Pearls finds more than a few high moments in all three categories. Kunin’s recollections of her own races are detailed and involving, but it is when she recounts her work on behalf of Holocaust survivors — fighting for their right to information and restitution from Swiss banks who still held billions deposited by Holocaust victims — that Kunin truly dazzles.

In spite of her doggedness and undeniable success in confronting the issue, Kunin wrestled her own ghosts during the negotiating process:

“As I started to tell her about my conversation with Herr Krayer, tears spilled down my cheeks. Why couldn’t I have been a better advocate for those Holocaust victims? Why could I make him understand that this debate over bank accounts was not only about money, it was about a form of atonement — the only form of atonement now available?”

It is entirely consistent with what Vermonters know about her that Madeleine Kunin did not stop until she had helped to secure not only a $1.3 billion payout to the Jewish plaintiffs in the case, but admissions by the banks’ representatives that they “regretted the banks’ behavior. They had made mistakes.”

The last of which, clearly, was underestimating the charming ambassador to Switzerland.

Less dramatic but equally impressive are the volume’s countless mini-interviews with political women of all sorts, a sample of which cannot convey the whole: well-known national icons like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Mary Landrieu, and Loretta Sanchez, as well as rising Vermont stars like Gaye Symington, Deb Markowitz, Jeanette White, and Cheryl Hanna.

All offer, as does Kunin, sensible, down-to-earth practical advice for women seeking elective office — occasionally down-to-earth enough to advise getting right into the mud itself.

Kunin, for instance, tells the story of her first heady days as Chair of the Appropriations Committee in Montpelier. As Chair, she was entitled to sit on the powerful Joint Fiscal Committee that decides financial issues when the Legislature is not in session.

But when she got to the first meeting, where officers were to be elected, Kunin quickly discovered that there had been a “meeting before the meeting” — and all of the officers agreed upon in private. She never fell prey to the tactic again, and developed a fool-proof two-part strategy: “Find out where the ‘meeting before the meeting’ is held and barge in. If that is not appropriate, find a spy.”

Although Kunin argues throughout that women bring with them vastly different management styles — based more fundamentally around collaboration and power-sharing — she is no political pacifist: she argues that women must be prepared to wield power, both in public and in the now smoke-free back rooms. Of that, the volume is unashamed, and far more useful and convincing as a result.

The book’s timing — coming, as it does, in the midst of Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the White House — is clearly no accident: Kunin invokes Clinton throughout as a contemporary touchstone, devoting most of the chapter titled “A Woman President of the United States” to Clinton’s ongoing 2008 bid. (“And yes, dear reader,” Kunin notes, “I endorsed her for president.”)

While this does provide a single current narrative against which to position discussions of barriers to women looking to break glass ceilings large and small, the Clinton story also functions in a way Kunin might not have expected as the book came together: her arguments in support of Clinton often fall into a now vastly complex back-and forth between the Obama and Clinton campaigns, rendering those defenses less universally palatable than they might otherwise have seemed.

When Kunin was writing the bulk of Pearls, Clinton was the acknowledged, even the prohibitive, favorite for the Democratic nomination; today, she is struggling, with Obama seemingly poised to lead the Democratic ticket in November. The tricky part is that Kunin refuses throughout to assign any of the responsibility for Clinton’s 2008 missteps to Clinton herself.

At each critical moment, when no other defense will do, she portrays the former First Lady as the victim of deeply ingrained sexism within the culture at large.

To take one crucial instance, Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War — and her subsequent unwillingness to apologize for it — Kunin would have the reader see as the only options open to her: as a woman, Clinton had to strike a tough stance on the War, and as a woman, she fears that apologizing would fill out the stereotype of the flighty female.

And of course, there is something to be said for Kunin’s reading. No doubt critics would pounce on an apology, every bit as much as they currently attack her failure to offer one.

Yet Kunin’s logic would seem to leave Clinton with far more room to run than many voters are willing to offer a President in the post-Bush era. And frankly, it undercuts much of what makes Pearls so valuable, because it suggests that women should not only be allowed to make drastic mistakes in office, but also be allowed to gloss over them after the fact, because doing right and acknowledging wrong would imperil their chances for higher office.

And that stance seems untenable — it’s all but indistinguishable, finally, from sheer political expediency.

In staunchly defending Clinton from the majority of Democrats who have thus far expressed doubts as to her candidacy, Kunin is occasionally forced into some of the book’s weaker, and least convincing, arguments.

To take just one final example, Kunin notes that Clinton typically fares very poorly in on-line polls of the activist netroots. But again, for her this says far less about Hillary than about the casual sexism of bloggers in general:

“Half of the 96 million bloggers are women, but of the 1,200 political bloggers who came to the YearlyKos convention in Chicago in 2007, the majority were men. Is it any surprise that Hillary got only 9 percent in most online-activist polls while garnering more than 40 percent in traditional polls?”

To hear Kunin explain it, there is only one factor that accounts for Hillary’s typically abysmal showings in netroots polling, and that is gender. Yet female candidates all across the country have been propelled into office by the people-powered campaigns headed by DailyKos, OpenLeft and the Swing State Project.

Generally speaking, the blogosphere tends to sift for ideology, rather than gender, or race, or class.

In short, it isn’t Clinton’s pearls but her politics that have made her unpalatable to the netroots: her vote for the Iraq war, and subsequent inability to come clean about it to Democrats; her stance on lobbyists, and money from them; her close identification with the Democratic Leadership Council, and the politics of triangulation; her saber-rattling in the Senate, etc. and so on ad infinitum.

Obama Effect
Obama’s first visit to Vermont, February 2006

I don’t wish to make too much of this aspect of Kunin’s otherwise well-written and insightful book. She is the perfect messenger for a message America desperately needs sent. And her text as a whole is altogether convincing.

Yet it is hard to avoid the difference in that text when Clinton becomes the focus. Suddenly Kunin finds herself defending Hillary not only against the men who have gravitated throughout the primaries to Edwards or Richardson or Obama, but the women, and a good chunk of the “Woman President of the United States” chapter is devoted to beating back various strong hesitations commonly cited by female voters.

At that moment in particular, the book seems momentarily taken over by something a little more grim, and a little less hopeful.

Having written a book on Bill Clinton myself, it is a dynamic I recognize, one that asserted itself over and over and over throughout the 1990’s: a good-hearted, savvy person steps into a controversy as a defender of the Clintons — either one or both — and all too quickly finds him or herself doing very little else.

[This review appeared first in the Burlington Free Press.]