By now, those of you following the Democratic clown car derby for the 2020 nomination have probably heard about former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown’s admission that he had “dated” Senator Kamala Harris some years ago and “may have” helped advance her career. Aside from the fact that he was married at the time, this probably doesn’t come as a shock to most of you, nor does it sound like a particularly unique story. Such things happen all the time.
But even if it didn’t strike me as a particularly newsworthy headline in the larger scheme of things, I don’t fault anyone in the media who decided to cover it. Not everyone was quite so sanguine about the coverage, however. Washington Post style columnist Monica Hesse has decided to take up the banner and decry such stories as incidents of “unique harm we cause” when examining the “love life” of a powerful woman.
Is this just politics as usual? Is this just politics for women? Politics for men and women who knew Willie Brown — whose career was dogged by accusations of patronage?
Plenty of us have, after all, spent an awful lot of time discussing Bill Clinton’s willie and Anthony Weiner’s wiener: it’s not that we don’t talk about the sexual predilections of male candidates.
But we do talk about them in a different way. We talk about men abusing power. We talk about women not even deserving power. The distinction matters, because the conversation isn’t really about sex, it’s about legitimacy. It’s about who we think has earned the right to be successful, and what criteria we’ll invent, and who we’ll apply it to.
“Maybe we should stop accusing women of ‘sleeping their way’ to the top,” Erin Gloria Ryan wrote in the Daily Beast in 2017. “Maybe because men have been the ones sleeping women to the middle and bottom.”
In other words, talking about a male politician’s affairs is fair game because it gives us a chance to ask whether or not they are abusing their power. Stories about the love lives of female candidates, however, do nothing but reinforce gender stereotypes and needlessly tarnish their reputations… or something.
Not for nothing, but shouldn’t the sword swing in both directions equally on such things? Either the private relationships of candidates are valid topics for voters to consider or they aren’t. The media can serve up the stories and the public can digest them or reject them as they choose. When you add in the aspect of marital infidelity you probably broaden the audience for such fare because it brings character into the equation.
Not for nothing, but a quick scan through the WaPo style editor’s story archive shows that she’s never been shy about hitting this subject. Hesse has penned plenty of columns on Bill Clinton. She even delved into the infidelity of Peter Strzok and his “girlfriend.”
Personally, I’m far more alarmed by Kamala Harris’ tax and spending proposals than her decision as a younger woman to enter into an affair with an influential, married politician who was thirty years her senior. Your mileage may vary. The point here is that neither Harris nor Brown are denying that the story is true and Harris is now running for president. That makes the story “news” to at least some degree. (As opposed to fake news.) If voters find that these facts bother them they are free to act on the revelation.
Pushing to squelch such stories simply because the subject lacks a Y chromosome isn’t journalism. It’s simply more proof that too many media figures decry double standards unless the double standard in question works in their favor. And ignoring this story while saying it’s perfectly fine to discuss the sexual relationships of men is indeed a double standard.