Ruth Marcus: Susan Rice and double standards

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: December 1, 2012
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Writing on ForeignPolicy.com, Rice's Clinton administration colleague David Rothkopf called her “hardheaded and prickly.” But, Rothkopf added, “The nonsense that she is somehow not qualified for the job is indefensible. … As for her temperament, raising it is pure sexism. Why is she called abrasive, when clearly, similar toughness was hailed in our most powerful and respected secretaries of state — from Henry Kissinger to George Shultz to James Baker?”

It goes too far to say pure sexism, but I think gender plays a role, however subconscious. My analysis assumes that the Rice critique does not stem solely from her comments on a single Sunday morning of talk-show rounds.

Something more is going on here: A touch of chummy old-boy (and old-girl, for that matter) networkism in support of Senate colleague John Kerry. A residue of bristling over previous encounters (see Rice's tart 2008 comments about then-GOP presidential nominee John McCain).

A bit of Rice battle as proxy war for taking on the president himself. An effort at inoculation with the GOP base, or maneuvering to win another GOP Senate seat if Kerry is chosen. The legacy of Rice neglecting to assiduously cultivate senators and other allies — an art at which her female would-be predecessors excelled.

And also sexism, albeit of a modern, less overt variety. Let's face it: Society has more tolerance for men behaving badly than for women.

Race feels like less of a factor, but I wonder whether, to some critics, her aggressiveness edges into insolence. Thinking about Rice brought to mind Obama's description, in “Dreams from My Father,” of how he learned as a young black man that people “were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves.”

There is a double standard at work here, more nuanced and less intentional, but at the same time more insidious than what Rivlin confronted nearly four decades ago.

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