Unlike Kirsten Gillibrand’s silverware choices or Kamala Harris’s condiment decisions, Amy Klobuchar’s alleged mistreatment of employees — subject of another prominent story — are theoretically material to her presidential candidacy. (On the other hand, the eating-salad-with-a-comb story that is getting all the attention is the kind of trivial bullshit the media obsessed over in 2015-6 while mostly passing over, say, Trump bilking tens of millions of dollars out of people with a fake “university.”) The question persists, however, of whether Klobucahar is being treated differently than a male senator who behaved similarly. Laura McGann has a compelling case that the answer is “yes”:
Imagine, for a moment, that comb-gate didn’t involve Klobuchar, but a different politician on a plane in 2008. John McCain’s short fuse was no secret. But if he’d gotten mad at a staffer who gave him lunch with no way to eat it, would it be the opening to a New York Times story over a decade later? Probably not.
Some critics of the coverage say this disparity amounts to sexism. But it’s not just that we don’t hear as much about how men treat their staff. It’s that the same kind of behavior that damages women is can benefit a man. He’s not a devil wearing Prada. He’s a devil to admire.
Consider some examples of male politicians who were able to use the kind of negative qualities associated with Klobuchar to their advantage:
- Bernie Sanders yells. He can’t help himself. His aides tried to get him to use his indoor voice during the 2016 presidential debates, but without much luck. He ended up shushingand interrupting Hillary Clinton. It seemed like it would become a bad look, but it didn’t hurt him at all. Instead, shouting, ranting Bernie was just part of his persona, a lovable curmudgeon, parodied by Larry David on Saturday Night Live.
- Rahm Emanuel is legendary for profanity-laced episodes and eruptions. He’s called on his staff to work “25/8” and “develop a thick skin.” When he left the White House in 2010 to run for mayor of Chicago, Barack Obama joked about his…tact (or lack thereof). Rahm’s outbursts are his political persona, not a liability.
As former Hillary Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri wrote for Politico Magazine in response to the Klobuchar coverage, male politicians have built themselves up around behavior that would be a problem for a woman. She pointed out that Bill Clinton was notorious for his “purple rage,” but it was just seen as demanding — a sign he means business.
Stories about intimidating male bosses are typically not presented as disqualifying, but as evidence of these men as formidable leaders. These are men who should not be underestimated. These are men who should be respected.
In her book, Dear Madam President, Palmieri recounted how the campaign considered the question of ambition. Their research found that voters are put off by women who appear to have the ambition “to want to be in charge.” In Clinton’s case, polls showed that when she was working for the public as secretary of state, her approval ratings soared. When she was running for office, they tanked. In response, the campaign framed Clinton’s ambition as her “desire to serve others,” a formula other female politicians have embraced.
Klobuchar herself has a similar public persona. She’s been called “the senator of small things” for prioritizing issues like banning lead in toys and swimming-pool safety. She’s not a grandstanding ideologue, but a politician working to get things done for others. That version of her on the trail is lauded. Her aggression behind the scenes is criticized.
The most concrete data point that appears in almost all of these stories comes from a survey of staff turnover by Senate office from 2001 to 2016. It’s called “the worst boss” list. Klobuchar topped it. (She slipped to third-worst in the 2018 version, a point cited far less frequently.)
The rest of the list is interesting. Of the top 10 “worst bosses” in the Senate in 2016, seven were women and just three were men. At the time, then, about a third of female senators were worse bosses than nearly 96 percent of all male senators. That could be objectively true. Or maybe there’s something else going on.
We know that when women become more successful, men and women like them less. Klobuchar critics say they know this but they believe that her individual actions outweigh the data.
HuffPost reporter Amanda Terkel, who broke one of the first Klobuchar stories and has continued to break more, published a post Friday quoting her sources dismayed that they’ve been accused of sexism. The response stung, in particular, Terkel writes, because “many of the aides who spoke with HuffPost are women, who consider themselves feminists and have worked for other strong female politicians.”
“None of what we are saying has anything to do with Amy being ‘likable’ or ‘emotional’ or whatever other nonsense people throw out at women,” one former female aide told Terkel. “It’s that she is a terrible manager and abusive to her staff. I can’t emphasize enough that there is a big difference between being demanding and being abusive.”
Their point is that women can be bad bosses. They should be held accountable for their actions, even if men have gotten a pass for too long.
At an individual level, this makes sense. When you’re at the receiving end of an inappropriate, angry email or face a rant about a fork, your irritation or anger certainly doesn’t feel like a subconscious reaction to an ingrained system. It feels perfectly justified —and could very well be.
In aggregate, though, there’s a red flag waving above the Klobuchar narrative. The breadth of complaints extend beyond egregious behavior. The handful of truly bad boss moments from the last decade-and-a-half are dwarfed by more modest complaints that are taken to an extreme. Klobuchar once quipped that she was so thirsty she’d trade three of the staffers next to her for a bottle of water. Is it the nicest thing to say? No. Is it probably a joke? Yes. Is it proof a decade later that she shouldn’t be president? Come on.
If we’ve decided this is a relevant issue, fine — but there need to be evaluations of every candidate’s behavior towards staff, including Bernie (where, as McGann says, there’s a fair amount of smoke) and Biden if he runs. And reporters need to keep in mind that staff — including women — may have internalized different expectations for what constitutes acceptable behavior for men and women.