The Feminization of the Presidency


In President Clinton, the country may have found another "great communicator." Yet, what's becoming increasingly clear is that his rhetorical style is a striking departure from that of his predecessors.

If other presidents tended to speak by lecturing us ("We have nothing to fear but fear itself" or "Ask not what your country can do for you"), Mr. Clinton often communicates by listening ("I feel your pain"). Whereas other presidents tended to address the country most effectively from above at a rostrum or alone at desk, Mr. Clinton is at his best in level conversation, when he can look at the people with whom he is talking. (Remember the second presidential debate.) If the phallic, jabbing forefinger was the earmark of Kennedy, the maternal hug and the "all ears" attentive body language are the characteristics of this president.

Call it New Age if you wish. But the Clinton style is really a textbook example of a leader who communicates in ways often more characteristic of women than men. From the work of Carol Gilligan to that of Deborah Tannen, a number of recent books have documented major differences in the ways men and women communicate and approach problems.

While these differences are not exclusive to each gender, certain trends emerge: Women tend to listen while men tend to lecture; women are interested in connections, while men value independence and hierarchy; women stress concrete relationships, while men focus on abstract ideals; women seek consensus, while men invite conflict. A woman tends to say, "I feel your pain." A man might say, "Let me tell you why you feel pain and what you should do about it." And then he might look at his watch, as a certain president did during that second debate.

This is not to say that displaying a "feminine" style is bad. These characterizations are generalities, and Mr. Clinton displays more than his share of "male" rhetorical attributes. Moreover, all good politicians display what might be called a "feminine" side, since the ability to appear empathetic and work collaboratively is a true test of leadership -- Lyndon B. Johnson could hug with the best of them.

Yet, President Clinton is a few steps beyond the typical male politician. Taken separately, his coffee-klatch managerial style, his infamous propensity to schmooze and gossip, his celebrated indecision, his discomfort with the military (it is said he still has trouble returning salutes correctly) and his constant emphasis on inclusion might seem unremarkable.

But taken together, these attributes present a different portrait. If traditional gender roles dictate that women care for the home while men police the perimeter, Mr. Clinton is the first president in a more than 50 years to make domestic affairs his preoccupation. It may not be just a coincidence that one of his first major actions abroad was to drop food in Bosnia -- the foreign-policy equivalent, perhaps, of bringing a bowl of soup to a sick neighbor.

Moreover, this "feminine" style may provide a different way to view why he has been successful so far, as well as a clue to his presidency's possible strengths and weaknesses.

It should not be surprising that a Democrat is feminizing the presidency. Mr. Clinton received 55 percent of his votes from women, in a year his party elected four women to the Senate and gave "women's issues" a prominent role at its convention. Moreover, Christopher Matthews, a political columnist, has outlined how the two political parties often mirror gender stereotypes. The Democrats tend to be seen as the "mommy" party -- concerned about education and health care. In contrast, the Republicans are the "daddy" party -- perceived as strong on crime and defense.

Mr. Clinton's background and age are two other factors that have made him more inclined to assume a feminine style of leadership. You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to surmise that a boy whose father died before he was born and whose stepfather was abusive might relate more comfortably to the women in his life.

So it has been for Mr. Clinton, who -- unlike many male politicians -- has always surrounded himself with strong-willed, capable women, from his wife to former Arkansas chief-of-staff Betsey Wright to campaign aide Susan Thomases.

What's more, many baby boomers exhibit a more feminine style of leadership and rhetoric than previous generations -- in part because of the effect of the women's movement and in part because of the strong formative influence of television. As an intimate medium that comes into living rooms, TV favors a style of personal disclosure and a focus on feelings, which is why theorists such as Kathleen Hall Jamieson say, "womanly narrative is well-suited for television."

With President Clinton blurring gender distinctions in his leadership style, it's not surprising that the women in his life -- particularly Hillary -- are often accused of being too masculine and therefore being the power behind the throne. Many are now repeating a joke that goes something like, "In the last administration, we used to worry what would happen if Bush became sick and we got Quayle. Now we worry what would happen if Hillary became sick and we got Bill."

Mrs. Clinton is the one, after all, who has the reputation in the White House for being able to say "no," and who first made a name for herself by making it clear she didn't belong in the kitchen baking cookies. If her husband is the man who embodied the politics of inclusion by sitting for two days at a public forum and listening to everyone's ideas about the economy, she is the one who is already in trouble for closing people out of the health-care deliberations.

Defining Mr. Clinton's leadership style in gender terms can help reveal where his presidency may prosper or stumble. On domestic issues, such as health care or deficit reduction, where he has to assemble a difficult consensus, the president could exceed expectations.

What's more, his somewhat feminine style may provide a clue as to why he seems able to withstand personal attacks that might cripple another politician. As any political consultant will tell you, because women are usually perceived as softer and less powerful than men, negative attacks often end up only creating sympathy for them. The same may be true for Mr. Clinton.

Voters, however, tend to view women as less decisive than men -- particularly when it comes to matters of force. Thus, it would be shocking if President Clinton didn't continue to have problems with the military -- one of our most male-dominated institutions.

Riots, a rising crime rate or an outbreak of domestic terrorism could also prove troublesome for a leader who is valued more for his ability to listen than his iron resolve. One would also expect him to continue having trouble getting votes in his native South, where gender stereotypes remain strong.

All presidents affect our definitions of leadership. But it's clear already that this presidency will affect our conceptions of gender as well.

There used to be a joke that the first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian -- the moral being that voters can accept only so much change at once. So it goes for this development. The good news is that we finally have a feminine leader. The bad news, of course, is that she's a man.

Steven D. Stark is a journalist and radio commentator.

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