My (late) Dad, a veterinarian, called me one night during my first days in college. He’d just hired a woman to be his associate in his veterinary practice. Earlier that day, Vice President Spiro Agnew had called the members of the press “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Referring to Agnew’s slam on the media, he said, “He’s a demagogue like Joe McCarthy. Our president lied to us about Vietnam. We need the press to know what’s going on!”
You’re lucky to be going to school now “with women’s lib,” my father added, “when I was in veterinary school, women were treated horribly. A lot of men made penis jokes around them – did all they could to make them miserable.”
I’ve been reading two new books: “What Happened” by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Clinton’s take on the 2016 presidential campaign) and “Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History” by Katy Tur, the NBC News correspondent who covered Donald J. Trump’s campaign from its beginning to its election night victory party. These vivid accounts of the gobsmacking election made me think of my talk with my Dad nearly five decades ago. Then, we hoped that Agnew’s rant against the media was just a temporary phase; and we thought that sexism was on its way out. Sadly, as Clinton’s and Tur’s books show, demagoguery against the media and sexism are still here: unlike Elvis, they haven’t left the building.
Writing by politicians usually is mush. They mostly write books to bolster their chances of successfully running for office. As a rule, instructions on laundry detergent boxes are more interesting and revealing than these volumes. This isn’t the case with “What Happened.”
Many of us feel about Clinton as my friend George does. “I hate Trump! I voted for Hillary,” he told me over the phone. “She was very qualified. But Hillary has the emotional impact of a piece of wood!”
People who’ve met Clinton in a small group or one-to-one setting have found her to be quite human. One of my friends met Clinton at a small gathering after she spoke at Yale. “Hillary was warm, funny and interested in what we had to say,” she told me.
Clinton’s humanity comes through in “What Happened.” Like many voters, Clinton was bewildered by her defeat. “I want to pull back the curtain on an experience that was exhilarating, joyful, humbling, infuriating, and just plain baffling,” she writes.
“What Happened,” isn’t an unbiased, comprehensive analysis of what Clinton calls “a shocking defeat.” Yet, she takes responsibility for her failed campaign. “I knew that millions of people were counting on me, and I couldn’t bear the idea of letting them down,” she writes, “But I did…and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
Both Clinton and Tur experienced sexism. Clinton’s voice was considered too soft if she didn’t project like a man at a rally, but too shrill if she spoke up more loudly. She felt as if Trump, walking behind her, was breathing down her neck during one of their debates.
Trump called Tur “little Katy.” Unlike her male colleagues who could wear the same suits for days, Tur couldn’t wear the same dress more than once.
Clinton approaches the press warily but she’s never incited hatred against journalists. Trump, as Tur details in “Unbelievable,” routinely voiced his disrespect for journalists. Like a modern day Joe McCarthy, Trump would stir up hatred against the media among the crowds at his rallies. “I’d never kill them…,” he’d say of journalists, “But I do hate them.”
Tur knows how well Trump connected to his base no matter how debased his behavior became. “I’ve heard him insult a war hero, brag about grabbing women by the pussy…tout the size of his junk in a presidential debate…and indirectly endanger my life.”
Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, philosopher George Santayana said. No one who believes in LGBTQ rights, feminism, civil rights or freedom of the press wants the debacle of the last election to reoccur. “What Happened” and “Unbelievable” offer an essential window on to our history.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.