"So," the woman asked, "how do we beat the bitch?" And Sen. John McCain laughed.
It was, he said, an "excellent" question. Yes, he went on to express respect for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, to whom the woman referred. But not once while answering that question at a campaign stop in South Carolina recently did he suggest that it wasn't appropriate to call Mrs. Clinton a "bitch."
Can you imagine if the Democratic front-runner were Sen. Joe Lieberman and the woman said, "So, how do we beat this Hebe?"
Can you imagine if it were Gov. Bill Richardson and the woman said, "So, how do we beat this spic?"
Can you imagine if it were Sen. Barack Obama and the woman said, "So, how do we beat this coon?"
I guarantee you, Mr. McCain would not have laughed, and if he had, we would now be writing his political epitaph. But the woman asked, "How do we beat the bitch?" and Mr. McCain did laugh and now shrugs off any suggestion that he should have done more.
I get that many people don't like Mrs. Clinton. I don't like her much myself, and my reasons echo the consensus. She seems cold, calculated, brittle.
Here's the thing, though. I find that I can't name a single female national political figure I do like - not respect, not agree with, but "like." Oh, I can name you many men who, their politics aside, strike me as likable: Mr. McCain, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, even cranky old Bob Dole.
But women? Not so much. Nancy Pelosi, Janet Reno, Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright ... I cannot see myself - we are speaking metaphorically here - cuddling up to any of them. They all seem formidable, off-putting, cold.
Which suggests the problem here is not so much them as me. And, if I may be so bold, we. As in, we seem unable to synthesize the idea that a woman can be smart, businesslike, demanding, capable, in charge, and yet also, warm.
Consider one of the many anti-Hillary smears now circulating online. It purports to be a compendium of profane, ill-tempered tirades she has unleashed upon subordinates. Your first thought is, what an unlikable person. Your second is, or should be, wait a minute. Does George W. Bush never use potty language? Was Bill Clinton never brusque?
But it's different, isn't it, because she's a woman? With the men, toughness reads as leadership, authority, getting things done. With her it reads as "bitch." There is a sense - and even women buy into this - that a woman who climbs too high in male-dominated spheres violates something fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be a woman.
That assessment has been quantified in a number of scholarly studies and papers. For example, in "Formal and Informal Discrimination Against Women At Work: The Role of Gender Stereotypes," a research paper published this year, authors Brian Welle and Madeline E. Heilman report that the woman who succeeds at what has traditionally been men's work risks being seen as "hostile, abrasive, pushy, manipulative and generally unlikable."
Sound like anyone you know?
We demand certain "feminine" traits from women - nurturing, caring, submission - and the woman in whom those traits are either not present or subordinated to her drive, ambition and competence will pay a social price.
"How do we beat the bitch?" the woman asked. She asked it without blinking, without a second thought, righteously. And John McCain laughed.
That's telling. The ostensible purpose of a campaign is to reveal the candidate. Hillary Clinton's campaign, it seems, is revealing a whole lot more.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is email@example.com.