The Clinton presidency's feminine mystique
From tears to town meetings, Clinton's style has resonated with many
WASHINGTON — He's been called America's first black president. Add to that another label: America's first woman president.
It's not just because Bill Clinton stands for "women's issues" - as he has stood for African-American issues - that he's being credited with feminizing the presidency. It's also a matter of style - a listening, empathetic, some would say "touchy-feely" approach that appeals to many women voters.
That style flows most freely at times of national tragedy, when, for instance, the president openly tears up and his voice cracks with emotion. But it's also in evidence when he mixes with everyday Americans, listening and sharing as he did last week at a televised, mini-town hall of teenagers talking over youth violence from bleachers in the White House.
The combination of Mr. Clinton's politics and open style created a bond with women voters unique in the modern presidency - one that even the Monica Lewinsky scandal could not break. It's a bond, say analysts, that the next president must create as well.
There's no denying the importance of the women's vote. After all, Clinton won the 1996 election through an 11-point gender gap, the largest ever for a presidential race. But what's new, explains Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, is that so-called women's issues have in the meantime become men's issues.
For the first time in more than 20 years, "men and women have the same issues agenda," says Ms. Lake. For instance, tax cuts and the economy, which resonate especially with men, have given place to education, health care, retirement, security, and family values as the nation's top concerns. These are concerns that Lake describes as traditionally being important to women.
But Clinton's rapport with women voters will be difficult to duplicate. This is already apparent in the fact that Clinton's protg, Vice President Al Gore, is 10 to 12 points behind Republicans George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole in polls among women. Yet Gore and Clinton share the same record on women's issues.
One explanation for the gap is Mr. Gore's inability to mirror his boss's style. As independent pollster John Zogby says, "Clinton's managed to bring the presidency a long way since the days of Ed Muskie," the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate who fell out of favor after he shed a tear in public.
"Bill Clinton has made it acceptable for men to cry, for men to feel and to show a depth and range of emotions," says Mr. Zogby, who adds that Clinton reflects American culture. "He's a baby boomer, merging the personal and the political."
The "first woman president" label was applied earlier this year, when a few women in the media offered it as an explanation for why Clinton was still so popular in the wake of his extramarital affair and the sordid details that emerged about it.
But while political analysts agree with the description of his qualities and their import to the presidency, some of them are loath to categorize those characteristics as gender-specific.
"Why would you call it the feminization and not the Clintonization of the presidency?" asks Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University in California. As far as town halls, she says, that's a result of changes in what Americans demand from their leaders.
Benjamin Barber, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says Clinton is merely practicing democracy the way it should be practiced - in a participatory, not an autocratic way. It's no different from the ancient Greeks or the original New England town halls, says Mr. Barber.
Even some previous presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln, were known for their depth of feeling and their openness to the public. Lincoln, for instance, held "public baths" - weekly and sometimes semiweekly meetings with the public so he could bathe in their opinions.
But Barber says that Clinton's brand of democracy has produced a rare phenomenon in US politics: a president who is more like a sibling than a parent.
"He's one of us," whether he behaves like a "black president" or a "woman president," says Barber. Referring to the infamous boxers-or-briefs question of Clinton's 1992 campaign, Barber says: "You wouldn't ask your dad what kind of shorts he wears, but you would ask your brother. Clinton is willing to answer these kinds of questions."
Is the future 'feminine'?
So, if the "feminine" side is so important to the 2000 race, what about beyond? Is this a requirement for all future presidents?
It depends on the context, says Ms. Bebitch Jeffe. If war and foreign policy return to dominate a campaign, voters will be looking for a firm, resolute leader.
Michael Genovese, director of the Institute for Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, believes it's not a choice between hard or soft. Clinton, he says, has shown toughness in the Yugoslavia bombing campaign, and compassion in the Littleton tragedy. This flexibility in a leader is crucial as the world grows more global and more complex.
"Now you need a commander in chief and a therapist in chief at once. This points to the kind of leader you'll need in the future," says Mr. Genovese.