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Disdain for lone female candidate shows double standard

BOSTON — BOSTON -- Some months ago I vowed not to write about the 2004 presidential campaign until November. Candidates and their camp followers may have to hop from Des Moines to Manchester with their pollsters and their children on speed dial. But one year of presidential politics is more than enough for the average human being to endure.

But my occasion for breaking this vow is the formal launching of Carol Moseley Braun's campaign. You see, the former Illinois senator's announcement was greeted with the sound of one hand clapping.

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She didn't get the requisite seven-second sound bite on the evening news. CBS used her announcement to lead-in a story on bottom-tier candidates, asking, "Why are they running?" And Diane Sawyer opened her Good Morning America interview asking, "Why don't you work for another candidate who has a real shot at victory?"

I understand that you don't get front-page coverage for a candidate near the back of the 10-pack. In the most recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, Ms. Braun garners 3 percent of the Democratic voters. But she's within the margin of error of Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, John Edwards and Bob Graham.

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More to the point, the only woman in the race has more people questioning her motives and legitimacy than the only vegan in the race, Mr. Kucinich. Her campaign was labeled "symbolic," "soporific," "a redemption tour," a "no-shot" and a "distraction."

Even before she announced, The New York Times actually called it a "vanity affair," as in, "Vanity, thy name is woman." This, as Marie Wilson of the White House Project said, "conjures up pink ruffles and a little nightstand." If Ms. Braun is running only for her ego, what about the nine men? Are they humble servants of the public who never looked in the mirror and fancied they saw a commander in chief?

In a rare moment of solidarity with Rush Limbaugh, the same paper criticized the National Organization for Women for endorsing Ms. Braun and thereby making itself look "silly." Lemme see, was it silly or savvy for the trial lawyers to endorse one of their own, Mr. Edwards?

It seems to me that there are an awful lot of double standards littering this playing field for so early in the game. And yes, it's important to wag your finger at a double standard even if the candidate isn't up to your gold standard.

Ms. Braun had real stardust back in 1992 when she became the first black woman in the Senate. In six years, the stardust got a bit dusty.

In her term, she showed some poor judgment in handling family and campaign money, and in visits she paid to the dictator of Nigeria. All in all, she left herself vulnerable, and Karl Rove helped Peter Fitzgerald wipe her out of office.

She disappointed a lot of folks, says one longtime activist anonymously: "People use the word betrayal. What people feel when they've invested a lot of hopes in a woman and she's not perfect is a kind of betrayal they just don't bring to male politicians."

Another double standard? "We want women to be a combination of the Madonna and Mother Teresa and Maggie Thatcher. We want perfection in women candidates," says Ms. Wilson, whose goal is to get more women to run for the Oval Office. If Ms. Braun isn't perfect, she adds, "she's a perfectly good candidate."

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Women still lag further behind in politics than in any other profession. Less than a handful have run for president -- from Shirley Chisholm in 1972 to Elizabeth Dole in 2000. I don't find a whole lot of comfort in the old adage that equality will be here the day mediocre women take their place beside mediocre men. But how about the day imperfect women run beside imperfect men?

"I don't want to say I will back any woman because of her chromosomes whatever she does," says Patricia Schroeder, who had a trial run of her own for president. "On the other hand, I don't want the world holding her up to another set of standards."

That pretty much sums it up for me. Ms. Braun ought to be one of many women in this race. She isn't. But when she's at the debates and at the table, the candidates talk about women's issues. When she isn't, they don't.

Do I think she can win? Even Kim Gandy, head of NOW, let slip a "no."

Am I going to vote for her? No. But am I glad she's in the mix? You bet.

Meanwhile, the only thing stranger than the response to Ms. Braun's candidacy is the paranoia over the non-candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Lurking in the wings? Pulling the strings? Don't get me started. I'm back on the wagon till November.

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Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.


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