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Book Review: You’ve Come A Long Way, Maybe by Leslie Sanchez

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The historic election of 2008 may be over, but the discussion about its implications is clearly not, and that’s not an altogether bad thing. For those of us who supported either McCain-Palin or Hillary Clinton, we may find ourselves continuing to wonder what role, if any, sexism may have played in some of the media coverage of the women candidates and perhaps more importantly, what role that media coverage may have played in the result.

Now enters Leslie Sanchez, Republican strategist, former adviser to President George W. Bush and CNN contributor. Sanchez has just published a book, You’ve Come A Long Way, Maybe, analyzing the 2008 election and using it as a backdrop for looking at not only how Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain (to a somewhat lesser extent) were portrayed in the media but also what the election means for future women in politics who aspire to occupy the nation’s highest office.

I’ll freely admit that as a progressive, the Hillary-supporting Democrat part of me was apprehensive about the book, not because I doubted Sanchez handling of the topic but rather because re-living some of the lower points of the election might be a self-defeating exercise in frustration. That said, I’ll admit I was also curious about how Sanchez, a Republican strategist with an insider’s take on the media, viewed the candidacy of Clinton and Palin. It turns out that my curiosity won out, and Sanchez provided a compelling and nuanced look at just how far women have come in politics and just how far we have left to go.

Overall, I agreed with much of Sanchez’ analysis and in particular, with the common thread which wove its way throughout most of the book — her view that regardless of ideology or party affiliation, the fact that many men and women only seemed to get outraged when it was their candidate being skewered by the media in an arguably sexist way, was both shocking and frustrating. Sanchez recounts many instances of the media’s obsession with clothes and cleavage. She describes the very gendered references to Hillary Clinton’s “cackle” and “nagging” voice. As an example, Sachez describes a commentary from Mike Barnacle during an appearance on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ which I had actually forgotten about — Barnacle describes Hillary this way: “she reacts to [Senator Barack] Obama with just the look, the look toward him, looking like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court.” Nice.

One of the real strength’s of Long Way Maybe is Sanchez’ ability to be quite objective when analyzing the media coverage of all four of the women profiled, and she’s not afraid to criticize Republican pundits and media personalities along with their counterparts on the left. The effect of this is that it gives the book credibility, particularly at a time when rabid partisanship is the mainstay of political discourse.

In addition to analyzing the media coverage of Clinton and Palin, she also turned a critical eye on how, at times, it seemed that Clinton and Palin’s own advisers at times seemed to play right into the gender trap. Sanchez points out the irony of what she says was the Clinton campaign’s insistence on focusing on their candidate’s “toughness,” as if Americans didn’t already realize that Hillary could scrap with the best of them if need be. Sanchez also points out another bit of irony that hasn’t gone unnoticed by others who have dissected the campaign — that many of these advisers who were so obsessed with projecting Clinton’s toughness were men. In fact, based on Sanchez’ analysis, Mark Penn and company did such a good job of trying to bury Clinton’s more “human” side, at least until it was almost too late, that she was tagged as the traditional, status quo candidate, the anti-change, if you will. Sanchez points out that her campaign’s decision to run her as the “safe” choice was inexplicable at a time when polls overwhelmingly showed that both Democrats and Republicans wanted some kind of change and a more hopeful message. Sanchez puts it this way:

No matter how often Clinton repeated the feminist mantra at campaign stops to underpin the historic nature of her campaign, her run, like McCain’s, was rooted in the traditional patriarchal model of “toughness.” (p. 104)

Irony, indeed.

Sanchez also points out the same sort of inexplicable treatment of Palin by her campaign staff. As I was reading Sanchez retell how Palin’s aides seemed to misjudge Palin’s strengths and repeatedly put her in situations where her weaknesses would be disastrously apparent, I fully realized just what a strategic blunder that was. For example, the painful prime time interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric which took place over several days. Sanchez rightly points out that those venues did not play to her strengths. Instead, her campaign might have been wiser to have her do short, more frequent interviews. And then there was the decision to essentially keep Palin in hiding after her convention appearance. If that decision didn't strike anyone as a particularly sexist strategy, think of it this way — can you imagine a situation where McCain had announced someone like Joe Lieberman as his running mate, do you really think that after a successful convention speech, the campaign would proceed to keep him hidden from reporters except for a few prime time interviews? Of course not.

Sanchez also asks whether the focus on Palin and Michelle Obama’s mothering credentials was the result of media and pundit sexism. After all, no one really questioned whether Obama would be able to juggle raising two little girls and the Presidency. I do agree with Sanchez that the endless commentary about whether it was appropriate for Palin to seek the Vice Presidency given that she had several children, including one very young one with special needs, was infuriatingly sexist.

While I generally agree with Sanchez that Palin’s advisers didn’t do her any favors on a variety of fronts, I personally think Palin, unlike Clinton, had a very real knowledge deficit when it came foreign policy and politics on a national scale, and not all of that can be explained away by sexist commentary and poor campaign advice. At one point in the book Sanchez takes issue with the media’s obsessive focus on Palin’s wardrobe instead of more substantive issues. She notes that few women in the media rarely came to Palin’s defense, and when they did, she gives them credit for it.

As an example, Sanchez gives props to CNN’s Campbell Brown for calling out the media on the double standard with respect to the coverage of Palin’s clothing and appearance and for urging the media to focus on substance. Sanchez then says this:

Of course, this was the same Campbell Brown that took a McCain-Palin spokesman to task on air over the way in which her leadership of the Alaska National Guard qualified her to be the U.S. commander in chief. (p. 91)

When I read that passage I was confused — was Sanchez saying that that discussion about leadership and qualifications wasn't considered “substance?” Or was Sanchez saying that the question should have been asked of Palin directly instead of through a campaign surrogate? If it’s the former, I don’t see much difference between that question posed to Palin and the questions raised about whether Obama’s community organizing background was adequate preparation to be commander-in-chief. In other words, I think both questions were fair game.

When discussing Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, Sanchez points out the “damned if you do damned if you don’t” nature of being a woman in politics or in the case of Michelle and Cindy, being married to someone in political life. For example, if a woman is confident, opinionated and driven she may be viewed as “strident” or even a “bitch.” If she wears traditionally feminine clothes she risks being seen as too sexual or being reduced to a fashion statement. If a woman foregoes fashion and isn’t traditionally “feminine” then she can be viewed as sexless and not feminine enough. And while Sanchez didn’t say this in her book, don’t forget the lesbian factor. Pretty much any woman in politics who is seen as nontraditional in any way will at some point in her career, married or not, be called a dyke. You can count on it.

I did have one small beef with Sanchez’ interpretation of how women should respond to sexist attacks against women politicians. As I said in the beginning of this piece, sexism is sexism, regardless of ideology. For example, as a liberal feminist I should be just as concerned about the sexist treatment of Palin by some in the media, the blogosphere and by the D.C. pundit class when it occurred, as I was/am by the treatment of Clinton. That said, nothing is going to get me to vote for a candidate with whom I disagree on key issues. In other words, I am not going to vote for a woman simply because she is a woman. And I am a bit perplexed when Sanchez makes statements such as this (talking about the potential of a voter backlash against the sexism):

Sadly, apparently not enough women were truly aware of how demeaning this was to Palin- at least not enough of them to get angry and stand in solidarity and vote her into office. (p.91)

I do believe that voter backlash can occur, but the idea that the anger should be the sole reason for voting for Palin (or Hillary) irrespective of whether or not one agrees with their stand on the issues, seems a bit superficial. In fact, some women I talked to after McCain picked Palin, felt that they were being condescended to in that they felt McCain seemed to think independent and moderate democratic women would flock to him once Hillary was out of the race simply because he selected a woman for the ticket. At the same time, as Sanchez points out in her book, some Hillary supporters ultimately voted for McCain-Palin, but apparently not in large enough numbers to make a difference.

Overall, I would say You’ve Come A Long Way Maybe is a must-read for anyone interested in how far women have come in politics and how far we have yet to go. If anything, Sanchez makes clear that the lesson of the 2008 election is a bitter-sweet one — we have come a long way towards electing a woman to the nation’s highest office, but, as some of the events in 2008 make clear, we just aren’t there yet.

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About StacyB

  • Sandra

    Wow, great review- makes me want to read it although like you, I am a bit hesitant to read stuff about the 2008 election- reliving it is too painful. I am also a Hillary supporter. I was wondering, did Leslie Sanchez talk at all about the sexism of Barack Obama? You don’t say in your review so I was just wondering.

  • http://still4hill.wordpress.com/ Still4Hill

    As my name indicates, I was and still am a Hillary Clinton Democrat who was thrilled to be able to vote for her on Super Tuesday and was bitterly disappointed that the “roll call vote” in Denver was staged. That said, I think it is important to note, as Sanchez has and as you highlight, that some of the sexism was incipient within the subcultures of campaigns.

    As furious as I was with the men at MSNBC (except Dan Abrams and Pat Buchanan who were fair to Hillary), I have to take a step back and admit that the packaging of Hillary – by men – was what fueled the sexism in many ways.

    One lesson for the future, desexing women candidates is a crummy idea. I happen to think Hillary Clinton is very sexy, and the guys should have left her as she is.

  • http://www.secretaryclinton.wordpress.com Stacy

    Sandra- thank you.

    Sanchez did not talk about sexism specifically from Obama but did talk about how the campaigns often ended up falling into the usual stereotypes. I think it’s important to distinguish between sexism from some Obama supporters and from Obama/Biden themselves. I don’t recall Obama or Biden explictly referring to Hillary or Palin or Cindy McCain in a sexist way but I do know some of their reporters did. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, I just don’t remember specific examples of Obama and Biden doing that.

    Still4Hill- yes, agreed. Mark Penn and some others really didn’t do Hillary any favors by encouraging her to *not* be herself and let her funnier, more human side shine through more often. And of course, that was based in sexism- the idea that if women appear emotional or caring then they can’t be strong leaders. It really is ridiculous.

  • msakel1

    Really? Where was everybody when Sen. Obama was at his (insidiously) sexist best?!

    Remember the ‘infamous snub’ at Bush’s Speech when Hillary extended her hand and mercifully Kennedy started talking to her while a weakling senator turned the other way! It’s on youtube.

    Remember his infamous speech the day after his disastrous ABC Debate in Carolina with Gibbons and Stephanopoulos where he “flip-offed” his female opponent (giving her the finger) by bringing his midfinger to his cheek and appearing to ‘scratch’ it? That was a junior high schooler’s way of being ‘vengeful’! Not to mention disrespectful and notoriously sexist. He was shit-scared of HIllary Clinton and it showed clearly and insidiously.

    And the worst, in my opinion, was Obama’s infamous statement soudning like any boardroom prima donna afraid of his female colleague:

    “Periodically, Hillary will feel ‘down’ and start launching attacks against me to boost her appeal”!!!!!!

    Obama was, in fact, the most sexist of any other Presidential candidate in history.

    (Not to mention his race-baiting ‘fairy tale’ that never was, Robert Kennedy’s murderous timeline committed by Hillary,
    and his ever-ready excuse for failure: “I don’t look like the other presidnets on the dollar bill”…)

    If you were to look at Obama’s Campaign and his blogger-obamatons you will see sexism swimming in a sea of misogyny!….

    No other presidential candidate in history, nor his Campaign, has engaged in more sexist vitriol against his female opponent(s) than Sen. Obama did in 2008-09!….

    This man needs some education on women’s issues. ANd he has 2 young girls?…

  • http://www.AlleeWays.blogspot.com Alamar Fernandez

    StacyB’s review of Leslie Sanchez’s LWM is my favorite, so far.
    She addressed the issues I had in a way I could not.
    I Love the fairness of Leslie’s approach with all three ladies. I love the way she adds humour to her writing. She’s a witty lady.
    StacyB wrote:
    “I did have one small beef with Sanchez’ interpretation of how women should respond to sexist attacks against women politicians. As I said in the beginning of this piece, sexism is sexism, regardless of ideology. For example, as a liberal feminist I should be just as concerned about the sexist treatment of Palin by some in the media, the blogosphere and by the D.C. pundit class when it occurred, as I was/am by the treatment of Clinton. That said, nothing is going to get me to vote for a candidate with whom I disagree on key issues. In other words, I am not going to vote for a woman simply because she is a woman.”
    I say, AMEN.

    She continues: “And I am a bit perplexed when Sanchez makes statements such as this (talking about the potential of a voter backlash against the sexism):
    ‘Sadly, apparently not enough women were truly aware of how demeaning this was to Palin- at least not enough of them to get angry and stand in solidarity and vote her into office. (p.91)’
    StacyB:
    “I do believe that voter backlash can occur, but the idea that the anger should be the sole reason for voting for Palin (or Hillary) irrespective of whether or not one agrees with their stand on the issues, seems a bit superficial. In fact, some women I talked to after McCain picked Palin, felt that they were being condescended to in that they felt McCain seemed to think independent and moderate democratic women would flock to him once Hillary was out of the race simply because he selected a woman for the ticket. At the same time, as Sanchez points out in her book, some Hillary supporters ultimately voted for McCain-Palin, but apparently not in large enough numbers to make a difference.”

    I am left with a question about Feminism and what it is now. What is a Conservative Feminist, a Liberal Feminist, a did-all-the-plowing-work Feminist?
    I am a Liberal and I am a Feminist. Does that make me a Liberal-feminist? I believe that men and women are equally valuable as Human Beings. Not the same. I like my genitalia…don’t need a penis to feel powerful.
    We, women, need to stand for each, as men stand for each other. Men go into the battle-field of politics and someone wins and someone loses. They don’t attack each other in a sexist way.
    We women need to do the same. And when we see a woman being attacked with Sexism…we need to call them out! Men or women.
    Leslie quotes Roslind Wiseman author of the book the movie, Mean Girls was based on:
    “What gets in the way with us women is we don’t have a script. We haven’t been told or taught how to speak to each other when we are in disagreement, and do it in a way where we don’t take it personally.”
    I say like the Senators and Representatives who speak to each other with respect and civility…well they used to!
    Perhaps we, women, have bought the sexism thing about ourselves…and we apply it to each other by rote. Women are very competitive with each other.
    I believe that the day women allow each other the right to do what they choose to do with their bodies and their lives…that is the day that change will come for women.
    For now, Idiology looms large. in this landscape.

    This dialogue is long overdue.

  • http://www.AlleeWays.blogspot.com Alamar Fernandez

    I apologize for the long comment.

  • http://www.secretaryclinton.wordpress.com Stacy

    Hi Alamar- don’t apologize- you raise good points.

    I think one of the things that happened with 2008 is that Clinton and Palin laid the foundation for all other women candidates for high office to come. Because in the US we have never had a female POTUS or VP, as Sanchez said and you stressed, we women have no script for this. As demeaning and frustrating as the sexism was I think unfortunately it was almost unavoidable in that the media and the electorate are struggling with this too. If anything good comes of what Hillary and Sarah Palin had to suffer in the form of sexism it is that books like this may help prevent the media and pundits from repeating their sexist commentary.

    Hopefully, as more women occupy position in the House and the Senate, our society will begin to see that they should be treated like any other candidate and not as some freak of nature or oddity to be defined by the usual gendered standards.

    The one thing that I think we can all do is to use our voices, our emails, our blogs to condemn sexism wherever it occurs irrespective of who the target is- at the same time we can’t let some people hide behind the claim of sexism when it is really their views that are the subject of inquiry or criticism.

    I’ll keep my fingers crossed.