Russert Watch 5-25-08

In which Tim’s round table considers gender and race

Tim Russert led his round table with Hillary Clinton’s much-excoriated and certainly maladroit mention of the RFK assassination, a gaffe that was reasonably attributed by The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus to “exhaustion and…a very heavy dose of self-pity.” But the more significant question Russert raised for his amiable bull session this week was: “What role did race, gender, and religion play in this campaign?”

Maureen Dowd seemed to have a set piece ready to dump: Charges of misogyny and gender bias were “poppycock, really…[Clinton] dominated the debates, she proved that a woman can have as much tenacity and gall as any man on earth. We can visualize her facing down Ahmadinejad. But the thing is, Hillary hurts feminism when she uses it as opportunism. And she has a history of covering up her own mistakes behind sexism. She did it with health care right after health care didn’t pass. She didn’t admit that she was abrasive or mismanaged it or blew off good advice or was too secretive. She said that she was a Rorschach test for gender and that many men thought of a female boss they didn’t like when they looked at her. And now she’s doing the same thing, and it’s very—you know, in a way it’s the moral equivalent of Sharptonism. It’s this victimhood and angry and turning women against men and saying that the men are trying to take it away from us, in the same way she’s turning Florida and Michigan and riling up and comparing them to suffragettes and slaves. And it’s very damaging to feminism.”

Not many minutes later, as if to prove that misogyny is alive even if Maureen Dowd doesn’t think so, David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network referred to Hillary Clinton as “whiny,” for which Ruth Marcus took him behind the barn and smacked him gently around.

Russert was at his best dealing with numbers. He reminded us that, misogyny or not, Clinton was way ahead—in the polls (among whites and African-Americans) and at the bank, up to the end of 2007—until Obama won the Iowa caucuses and turned the momentum.

Russert fed Newsweek’s Jon Meacham the magazine’s pertinent question about race: “Is America ready for a black president?” Meacham’s way of answering was peculiar. He reported that Newsweek’s poll found 29 percent of white Democrats ranking “fairly high on something they called the racial-resentment index. People expressing some hostility toward racial questions.” These people were “affected by the issue of race.”

Hostility toward racial questions? The issue of race? What he couldn’t bring himself to say was: “hostility toward black people.” He continued: “To my mind it is one of the great questions of the campaign. It is very difficult to talk about. It makes white people very queasy and…”

Whereupon PBS’s Gwen Ifill jumped in: “Black people, too.” And later amended her remark: “Black people are not queasy about talking about race, they’re only queasy when we talk about it with white people who are queasy about talking about it.” Delicious.

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Todd Gitlin , who chairs the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Communication based at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of 17 books, of which the next is a novel, The Opposition.