We are American politicians. We are running for president. We are dancing and drinking beer. We are on a road trip, dilating on our mind-loops, hoping to make new friends. We are singing “One Nation Under a Groove.” We are announcing we’re exploring a run on Colbert as we giggle and hold his hand, as if we were announcing stardom in a new sitcom. And maybe we are. We have absorbed the lesson of the Trump era: You can do anything. And before this is over, you will. Beto O’Rourke live-streamed a dental visit as he queried his hygienist about life in her border town. His teeth are large, white and gleaming. This is not a kid who was ever told there’s no milk in the house. He is a candidate of hope. My hope is he’s too young to need regular colonoscopies.
Why do they do this? Because they know a candidate now is a mood. Not a thought, a stand or a statement, but a mood.
They do this because they want to seem unpretentious, relatable. “I’m just like you.”
But here is our secret: We would like someone better than us.
As they demystify themselves they further demystify the office they seek. If they win it they will have made their life harder by lowering their own stature. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Americans who’ve experienced some history, and have a sense of the trouble America is in, are jarred by this casual puerility.
How I wish they’d stop. I wish the next candidate to announce would be like . . . Margaret Chase Smith. Or Adlai Stevenson. Modest, adult, not exhibitionistic. He or she would make a sober, serious speech about the problems of our time. There would be no faint, unconscious air of “I know you’re stupid and shallow and I will now make believe I am your friend.”
But that is not my subject, which is the women running for president. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and Kirsten Gillibrand have made it clear they’re in, and more will likely come.
Do they face double or different standards because they are women? Will they be subject to special and unique pressures?
Yes they do, and yes they will.
It is harder to be a public woman in America than a public man, and harder to be a female candidate. The challenges they face are practical, emotional, even existential. Practical: No one gets a lot of sleep on the trail, but a woman has to get up an hour earlier for makeup, hair, to choose what to wear and get it together. If she doesn’t, they’ll say she looks bad. Emotional: We are a crueler country every year, thanks in part to the internet, where women are the objects not of more hate but of sicker hate—brute, sexual, anonymous. Existential: people often experience what a woman says and what a man says differently. They just do.
Female candidates are also battered by professional consultants who claim to understand voters, and who tell them to be strong but approachable, warm but steely, mom but dad, young and bouncy but wise and grave. These operatives are the swarming locusts of politics, eating all in their path. They never say, “Let’s just settle down and be mature, as the moment seems to demand it.” Male candidates face this too, but for women it is more so—more nervous and defensive.
What do you do about such challenges? You don’t claim victimhood. You don’t demand special treatment. You overcome them.
There are some new dynamics this year. For 30 years Hillary Clinton sucked up all the oxygen. She was The Woman, the next in line, and in the end she was The Official Victim of Sexism, or so she said. But this year there are a lot of women running, with different backgrounds, histories and styles. They don’t have her baggage.
Democratic women are now out from under not a male shadow or a cultural shadow but Hillary’s shadow. The double standard of old may be less relevant this cycle. In fact, reporters may be too timid, holding back their punches in fear of Twitter mobs.
Hillary put the issue of “likability” and “relatability” forward as a subject of national debate. But likability is not a sexist slight. “It’s a standard for all candidates, like ‘charisma’ or ‘gravitas,’ ” says my friend Alessandra Stanley. For years pundits have asked, when only men were running, which candidate you’d want to have a beer with.
There are a lot of male candidates with likability problems. Some, such as Andrew Cuomo, a three-term governor of a large state, are so unlikable they aren’t even mentioned as contenders.
As for appearance, Ms. Stanley says, “It’s true that women draw comment for what they wear far more than men do, but men have their own problems. Women get attacked if they look too frumpy, and men get attacked if they look too vain. Let’s not forget John Edwards and his haircut and videographer.” If Joe Biden runs we’ll hear about tanning beds and teeth whiteners. If Sen. Sherrod Brown runs we’ll joke about his hair.
As for makeup, it is a decision, not a burden. We’re lucky we can be made to look better than men, poor dears. Female candidates should play it as they please.
Ms. Warren doesn’t seem to pay a lot of attention to such things and looks fine. Ms. Harris, who does, and seems to enjoy her beauty, also looks fine. Angela Merkel has no apparent physical vanity, which seems to have been OK with Germany. Golda Meir gave not a thought to how she looked, which was fine with Israel. Theresa May seems eager to be appropriate, no more. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, worked it. She got that extra hour in the morning by having only coffee and vitamins for breakfast. She thought a leader should be well turned out and took enjoyment in being handsomely put together—full makeup, hair done, nice suit or dress, heels. “She thought and said that women had to be twice as good as men—and I believe that looking good was part of that ‘twice,’ ” her adviser and speechwriter John O’Sullivan tells me.
And there was something else, an element of past repression. Mr. O’Sullivan says Thatcher grew up near a Catholic church and, as a Methodist child, used to see the girls her age making their first Holy Communion in white dresses and bright ribbons. “If you wore a ribboned dress,” Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, “an older chapel-goer would shake his head and warn against the ‘first step to Rome.’ ” She longed for pretty things and as an adult wore them.
That’s sweet, isn’t it? She wore perfume too. She enjoyed being a girl.
I close with a note from a friend, a great liberal of many years. “The more masculine qualities that a woman has who’s running for president, the better off she is. Margaret Thatcher had all the forceful qualities that one associates with male politicians, and therefore was considered not so different from a man. She was held to the same standards as male politicians and was not found wanting.”
That may still be the ticket: Honestly feminine, however that looks, and as forceful as—and more serious than—the boys.