No Fems Allowed in the Fight Club

What Hillary Can Learn From Ruth's 1997 Campaign Against Rudy

By now, Hillary Clinton must know that running for office in New York is a blood sport. But has anyone told her that traditionally, no women are allowed in the ring? Maybe she thinks she's being hounded just because she's Hillary. After all, even before her semi-announcement last week, the media had nitpicked her to death for everything from the Yankee cap to the FALN pardons to her tolerance of "blood libel" against Israel. The footage of her kissing Suha Arafat was already running upstate, and Dick Morris was chanting the conservatives' all-purpose mantra: She shouldn't bother running, because she can't win.

But if Hillary loses, she can always chalk it up to gender, according to The Campaign, a new book by Evan J. Mandery (Westview Press). The book chronicles Mandery's experiences as research director for Ruth Messinger during her 1997 mayoral campaign against Rudy Giuliani. In one of many conclusions, Mandery identifies sexism in the press and among voters as one of the reasons Messinger didn't win.

"An entire generation of women have been driven out of city politics," Mandery writes, noting that after Messinger lost, she joined a distinguished line of exiles that includes Bella Abzug, Carol Bellamy, Geraldine Ferraro, Liz Holtzman, and Bess Myerson. Each of those women has her own story, but the evidence of a macho conspiracy isn't just anecdotal: New York State has the worst record in the nation for electing women to higher office, except for West Virginia. And while some blame the Democratic Party for not getting its women into office, Mandery highlights the prevalence of sexism in the press. "Men and women have different styles," he says, "and I wonder whether the press is willing to tolerate those differences."

It's not that Mandery, now a 32-year-old associate at Shearman & Sterling, has anything against Hillary. "She's got lots of personal assets going for her," he says. "She's very charismatic, very smart, and has an admirable record." It's just that as a woman in a New York horse race, she starts with a "twenty-pound handicap."

For example, consider the way Rudy jumped on Hillary for not criticizing Suha Arafat's anti-Israel remarks until 12 hours later. "Giuliani's point was that if he had been there, he immediately would have voiced his opinion in a very strong manner," says Mandery, who sees no substantive difference between Rudy's reaction and Hillary's. He says Rudy advanced a "very masculine" notion, asserting that "the only way to handle that situation would be to stand up and say, 'That's an outrage and I demand that you take it back!' " Even though most women would have responded more delicately, Mandery says the press bought into the idea that an aggressive reaction is best.

Mandery compares the Arafat incident to the police assault on Abner Louima, a flashpoint in the 1997 campaign that somehow resulted in criticism of the Democratic candidate. "Ruth changed her message from saying that Rudy had handled it fairly well" to calling the Louima incident a case of police brutality, Mandery recalls. But even though Ruth came out on the right side of the issue substantively, "what she got faulted for was having switched her positions."

Mandery believes that media coverage risks becoming sexist when it addresses such issues as personal style, appearance, and campaign strategy, because "those are things that cut differently for women than for men." For example, in an October 4 New York Times story, Adam Nagourney called the tone of Hillary's campaign "cautious and slow-moving" and questioned whether her "reserved posture" was a "product of a strategic determination" or "the hesitant performance" of a rookie.

Mandery sees Giuliani's hand in those kinds of stories, "trying to do to Clinton what he successfully did to Ruth, which is to portray her as unable to run her campaign, and therefore unable to govern." As evidence of intent, he notes that Giuliani's camp has talked about "disarray" in both women's campaigns. And he faults the press for buying into such stories, because "there's no evidence of any correlation between one's ability to run a campaign and one's ability to govern well." Instead, he says, the press should "focus on what a candidate says and whether or not it's true and whether or not it's possible."

The New York state of mind offers still more opportunities for sexual discrimination. There's the asshole paradigm, which holds that whoever is the biggest asshole is going to be the best mayor. During the 1997 mayoral campaign, Mandery recalls Bill Bratton declaring that Rudy was "an asshole, but a successful asshole," and Esquire calling the mayor a "colossal asshole"—but the best mayor in America. As long as the paradigm holds, the odds will always be stacked against a Hillary or a Ruth, because our society doesn't tolerate women who are assholes.

Mandery concedes that his worst mistake in the 1997 campaign was lobbying to get Ruth on the Howard Stern show—perhaps not realizing the true depths of that man's misogyny. After Ruth declined Stern's suggestions that she join him on the Libertarian ticket—or marry Rudy—Stern told Ruth he would vote for her if she legalized prostitution and pot. "There should be a place for you somewhere in government," he said in a moment of erotic disclosure. "But I'm just in love with Rudy Giuliani."

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