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Hillary plays the winning gender card

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NO SOONER HAD Hillary Clinton proceeded from the Democratic presidential debate to a speech at Wellesley College last week than the wailing began. Barack Obama hit the "Today" show accusing her of playing the gender card, and a chorus line of media pundits denounced her for having hurt the cause of feminism by acting the part of the injured girl.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd contended that Clinton was trying to show "she can break, just like a little girl. ... If she could become a senator by playing the victim after Monica, surely she can become president by playing the victim now." Fox News' Mort Kondracke preached: "I think it is very unattractive for a general election candidate, who wants to be the commander in chief of the free world, to be saying, 'They're ganging up on me!' I mean, this is the NFL. This is not Wellesley versus Smith in field hockey."

Yet these indictments were conjured from the slimmest of evidence. What Clinton actually said at her alma mater before a whooping and roaring crowd of more than 1,000 young women was: "In so many ways, this all-women's college prepared me to compete in the all-boys' club of presidential politics. ... Fear is always with us, but we just don't have time for it, not now. So let's roll up our sleeves and get to work together. We're ready to shatter that highest glass ceiling."

What about that was so girl-with-her-finger-in-her-mouth frail?

The fact is, Clinton's opponents are mad because they feel robbed. Clinton hadn't acted the victim. The gender card she played was the one every successful recent male presidential candidate has played -- the rescuer card.

Keep in mind: The gender card is always played. It's even played in presidential campaigns in which the candidates are all men, and (given our political culture and our history) it usually involves a morality tale in which men are the rescuers and women the victims in need of rescuing.

Bill Clinton understood the power of that formula when he showcased his boyhood efforts to "stand up" to his abusive stepfather and shield his mother from blows. When facing George H.W. Bush, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis learned this lesson too late, after he failed to fly into a vigilante-style rage in response to the question: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis' reply -- "No, I don't, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life" -- whacked his approval ratings from 49% to 42% overnight and helped deny him the election. So did that other failed protection drama that dominated the campaign: the specter of black convict Willie Horton ("every suburban mother's greatest fear," as one GOP ad put it), who raped a woman after being furloughed in Massachusetts while Dukakis was governor. His campaign belatedly tried to counter with an ad about a convict who escaped from a federal program and raped and killed a mother of two.

Post-9/11, the inclination to play the gender rescue card became an imperative. "Every suburban mother's greatest fear" was now not a black man's mug shot but a Muslim terrorist's, and every suburban mother was recast by the pundits as a Security Mom (a mythical creature, as it happened, but that's another story).

Victory on election day 2004 went to the candidate who best understood how to deal from that deck. Both George W. Bush and John Kerry worked hard to position themselves as the King of the Wild Frontier. (Both granted long interviews to hunting and fishing magazines; both bragged about their gun collections; Bush whacked at sagebrush; Kerry stalked wild animals and waved their bloody pelts at journalists.) Kerry's handlers, however, failed to put into play the female part of the rescue equation. They counted on the senator's service in Vietnam to qualify him for the hero role, especially in contrast to Bush's AWOL record.

Bush's advisors knew better, as was evident in their political ads. In "Wolves," set in a forest invaded by a pack of wolves (read: terrorists), a trembling female voice-over claimed that Kerry had voted for cuts in U.S. intelligence "so deep they would have weakened America's defenses -- and weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm." "Wolves" engaged the American terror dream, which the GOP was going to vanquish with a cowboy swagger.

And with a commanding daddy hug. In the final weeks of the race, Bush's backers unveiled "Ashley's Story," a 60-second commercial featuring the president hugging a teenage girl named Ashley Faulkner, whose mother had died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Ashley -- shown lying in a hammock in her backyard, reading a novel with a Victorian lady on the cover -- says: "He's the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe."

At $14 million, "Ashley's Story" was the single most expensive political ad of the race. Broadcast more than 30,000 times, the spot ran 7,000 times in Ohio alone, a bombardment intensified by an Internet, phone and direct-mail campaign that distributed 2.3 million brochures showcasing The Hug. Pundits scored it "the most effective ad" of the race, and post-election surveys found it to be one of the two most remembered ads (the other being its evil twin, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth commercial attacking Kerry).

In the 2008 election, the gender card has so far proved harder to play than usual. No one's talking about "security moms" anymore. Democratic candidates Obama and John Edwards have not run gender scare campaigns. And the GOP candidates, while playing the security card for all its worth, have yet to find a way to assign a little Ashley to their 21st century John Wayne -- though, no doubt, that will come.

So far, the only person who has a lock on rescuing women is the one female candidate. Her approach departs from the old male version. In the old model, helpless women were saved from perilous danger by men; in the new, women are granted authority and agency to rescue themselves. Understanding the distinction is essential to an evaluation of current American politics.

The clash between these two rescue scenarios was on vivid display in late 2001, when President Bush signed the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act (before a window-dressing crowd of invited feminists) and declared that "the central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women." His concern for women's rights came to a halt, however, as soon as the Taliban was driven from power.

"Right now we have other priorities," a senior administration official said when asked (only 2 1/2 weeks into the invasion of Afghanistan) what role women's rights would have in a future government. "We have to be careful not to look like we are imposing our values on them." Tellingly, even as the president was trumpeting female oppression as a casus belli, his administration was deep-sixing an initiative that would have provided financing for women-run nongovernmental organizations in Afghanistan. After all, if women laid claim to self-determination instead of violation and dependency, the rescue drama fell to pieces.

The Bush administration was no more inclined to promote female strength at home than overseas. It sought to roll back women's progress on many fronts, from reproductive rights to employment equity to military status. And in the end, 1,001 Ashleys can't save Bush, nor the Republicans who will inherit his mantle, from the electorate's knowledge of his multiple rescue failures, culminating in the widely viewed photo of our commander in chief strumming a guitar in San Diego while the citizens of New Orleans, female and male both, cried for help.

This year, as always, the presidential candidates must contend with the rescue formula, complicated by the fact that Bush has so devalued its currency. In this climate, Hillary Clinton can do what her male counterparts cannot. She is, indeed, reaching for the gender card, as her accusers claim. It's just different from the one they imagine. She is auditioning for the role of rescuer on a feminist frontier.

She returned to Wellesley to tell female undergraduates that she was there to free them; she was there to help them "roll up our sleeves" and "shatter that highest glass ceiling." As such, she latched onto a crucial element of presidential races past, and possibly to come -- that at the core of all American political rescue fantasies is a young woman in need.

In the general election, whoever the candidates may be, they will be tempted, perhaps required, to show just those bona fides. Clinton may be the only one who can do so without betraying the signature of a disgraced cowboy ethic.

Susan Faludi is the author, most recently, of "The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9-11 America." A longer version of this article appears at Tomdispatch.com.

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