Condoleezza Can Take the Heat

by Peter Gray | 3/3/05 6:00am

Julia Bernstein makes a mountain out of a mole-hill in her op-ed "Condi, Who Are You Wearing?" (Mar. 1). As much as it was written tongue-in-cheek, she makes statements that are inaccurate and her conclusions merit scrutiny. Her article is part misplaced feminism, part fashionista, and part doesn't-know-what-she-wants-to-talk-about.

She ascribes grave significance to the fact that, unlike Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who was the spouse of an elected official, Condoleezza Rice is an official herself. The fact that an elected official is now drawing "fashion-heat" signifies, to her, a dangerous cultural shift: a new phase of the Hollywood-izing of Washington. Condoleezza Rice's political position (as opposed to being, let's say, the wife of Dick Cheney -- I don't want to think of the children) has absolutely nothing to do with the media scrutiny that her appearance received. The issue is simpler than that: we (with the media as our guiding hand) judge the appearance of women in the public eye. Janet Reno, an equally high-profile officeholder, proved that, but in the reverse. She was mocked on "Saturday Night Live" and undoubtedly elsewhere for her outright "lack" of femininity.

Bernstein writes, "But do we really want our politicians to face the same scrutiny as our musicians, actors and Paris Hilton?" The answer is: of course not . . . but we already knew that.

The deck of cards which one plays with in American politics has always had a few "Hollywood" hands in it, and it always will. Any perception that this current is on the rise is one created by those who are unable to look at the broader patterns of history. If you're worried about politics becoming too "Hollywood," ask yourself how we've sent a B-movie actor to the White House. Or a body-builder who responds to a dope dealer's query about his identity in the age-old classic, "Kindergarten Cop," "I'm the party pooper," [inflect autistic Austrian accent here] to the California governor's mansion. The American people have consistently displayed a willingness to follow leaders whose charisma comes not from a long history in politics and a vast knowledge of the issues, but from practice on the screen. Inversely, as in the case of John F. Kennedy and his darling wife, we have proved ourselves equally willing to impose glitter-lined stardom on politicians whenever they fit the part.

Bernstein proves herself just as guilty of making an issue of Rice's fashions as the journalists she questions. Through giving this fashionista drivel more "facetime" by penning her article, and through her own words, she clearly allies herself with them while simultaneously questioning their endeavors. In a paragraph which begins by noting the danger of critiquing the fashion of an officeholder, she concludes with her own paean to Rice's wardrobe. She writes, "Furthermore, while there have been equally high-ranking women in the past, Rice is arguably the youngest and the one with the poise and carriage to wear fashionable clothing. She is certainly the most interestingly dressed of Bush's advisors, a rock star among a sea of boring suits and ties." She is just as fascinated by Rice's outfits as the critics she indicts.

She worries that we might start holding politicians to fashion standards that would cause them to, in effect, spend less time on their jobs. She worries that politicians of the future might have to pass through a "media gauntlet" similar to that of the red carpet leading into the Oscars ceremony. Politicians are better versed in running a "media gauntlet" than any of the "hapless stars" who were apparently so easily mocked by Kathy Griffith as they fought their way into the Oscars. And to think that any politician doesn't spend a remarkable amount of time on their public image as a whole already falls within the highest echelons of navet.

More important, however, is the faith she so clearly lacks in Condoleezza Rice. Do you think a power broker like Condoleezza Rice is going to get flustered by a few fashion writers (or even more than that) talking about her outfit? If this is a serious concern of hers then Bernstein's apparent loss of faith in the American political system is far broader than she lets on.