The Bill Clinton Question

I'm getting tired of it. I want to start out by explaining that I'm not a particularly big fan of Hillary Clinton at the moment, but should she take the nomination I will gladly vote for her in November.

However, I'm getting tired of the criticism in terms of Bill Clinton and the media attention to whether or not Senator Clinton can "control" the former president on the campaign trail. Certainly, the situation is unique in U. S. presidential politics -- this is the first time a former first lady has seriously run for president.

What topped it off for me were two questions during the debate last night. First, someone asked Obama about violence and sex in Hollywood -- he answered not only as an elected official, but also as a father (with a sensible answer ... you know, parents should take charge of what their children watch ... but that's neither here nor there). The next question for Clinton started with "Well, since we had a question about children, let's talk about spouses." Clinton's response -- which I think was totally fair -- was that "Barack has a spouse too!" (she laughed, so she was trying to be fairly good natured about it, I think). But the question keeps coming up -- would Clinton, as president, be able to run the country on her own?

I am tired of this question. It ignores several things, including the fact that first ladies of the past have often been involved as unelected partners in administrations (Edith Wilson would be one example).

More important to me is the fact that this question is really only asked of Clinton. This assumption that she cannot separate herself from her husband creates a completely inappropriate question for a debate. Of course Clinton is a separate person from her husband -- because they're separate people, just like all other married couples.

I admit that I take that line of questioning somewhat personally. Bradley and I both have Ph.D.s and we'd like to have tenure track jobs -- Bradley has one right now, and I'm working on it. One of the great concerns among married academics -- and especially among female academics -- is that people will see you as a single unit. (For example, see this massively irritating first person column from The Chronicle.)

Certainly, in many ways, couples are units. That's actually part of the point of entering into a long-term partnership. However, when it comes to work -- even when the work is in the same field (academics, politics, medicine, whatever) -- the two people of that couple are individuals.

And we really shouldn't be asking that question repeatedly of a female candidate. More importantly, we shouldn't be criticizing her when she answer those questions as appropriately as she can, given the inappropriateness of the question. (I'm thinking of the post-debate CNN spin on that question. They didn't think that Clinton answered the question very well. I'm guessing they don't get a lot of questions about their ability to do their jobs given their marital status. 'Cause, by the way, that's really what the question is. And employers aren't actually supposed to ask that.)

Of course if Clinton wins in November, Bill Clinton will be back in the White House. But he won't be the one in the Oval Office. She will make the decisions. She, like any president should, will have a cabinet to give her advice. And, yes, Bill will be there. But that doesn't mean she's going to let him make any of the decisions.

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