Call them Jillary: as in Jill Abramson plus Hillary Clinton, two women of an age, of a kind, and of a political genre, the reigning queens of modern identity politics, each rising high and becoming a model for generations of feminists who admired their guts and brashness and gall. And call him Pinch: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the Prince Charles of the house of New York Times, heir to the throne of one of the few modern-day institutions that still runs on the monarchical principle in which the first son of the reigning family is given great power (deserved or not), a backer of Hillary and employer of Jill—at least until May 14, when he tossed her under the bus and then backed up and ran over her, breaking the rules set for gender-relations and setting off rows in the gender-identity complex not seen in its annals before.
Was she fired for cause? Fired for being a woman in power. Or, as the Times had often insisted when a powerful woman was under discussion, could “cause” be an issue at all? Thus in the same week when Hillary’s backers were claiming it was out of bounds for her to be questioned by men about anything that could be said to have gone wrong in her tenure as secretary of state, two units of her team were engaged in a cage match, breaking an alliance of 20 years’ standing, and putting them and their project at risk.
In the beginning, it all seemed much simpler. The early 1990s were the critical years for them all. Hillary went from being the lawyer-wife of an unknown southern governor to being first lady and feminist icon. Jill was at work on the book which would make her a player, Strange Justice, which she wrote with Jane Mayer, about the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas war of words in the course of his Supreme Court nomination. Pinch took over the Times. He hated the concept of white male privilege as only a millionaire who inherited a job passed from his great-grandfather down through the generations could do. “He was like a silversmith, noisily banging the New York Times into a shape that reflected his own values, beliefs, and personality,” wrote Alex S. Jones and Susan E. Tifft in The Trust, their 1999 book about the New York Times Company, quoting a colleague who said Pinch was “not nearly as fully formed as he appeared to be.”
Declaring diversity to be the most critical challenge facing the paper, Pinch embraced the cause of gay and lesbian rights, hired blacks as editors, critics, and columnists, promoted women, and like his employees resolutely took Anita Hill’s side in the Hill-Thomas sexual harassment showdown. This made him a good fit for Abramson, whom he would hire away from the Wall Street Journal in 1997 and whose views seemed to mirror his own: While treating liberal blacks with kid gloves and much reverence, the Times would make a practice of profiling conservatives such as Clarence Thomas and quota foe Ward Connerly as disturbed personalities whose judgment was wanting.
In 1992, the Clintons used the raw emotions from the Hill-Thomas battle to fuel their campaign, hitching their wagon to “The Year of the Woman” and working in tandem with feminist candidates, whose campaigns would feed into their own. Once in, Bill filled his cabinet with diversity hires, passing seats out on the basis of gender and color, and, on his wife’s insistence, demanding the attorney general’s seat go to a woman, which in the light of experience turned out to be a mistake. Hearings were held in which male nominees were derailed upon charges of insensitivity. Laws were drawn up to stop what was referred to as workplace harassment, determining that a man could be fired for inappropriate speech and/or actions, and that all romantic entanglements between male bosses and female employees were to be defined as exploitative, owing to the unequal balance of power therein.
Feminists had had a great run and looked forward to even brighter days ahead, until charges of harassment were brought by several women against President Clinton, and an affair he had had with an intern was thereby brought to light.
The new codes were drawn up by the Jills and Hil-larys in the belief that the men to be caught would all be conservatives just like Clarence Thomas, and the snaring of a president supported by feminists at first took them all by surprise. But not for long: In no time at all, the girls on the bus ditched their vulnerable, working-class sisters for the powerful male who sat in the White House. In Vanity Fair, the late and great essayist Marjorie Williams outlined the charges brought against Clinton: that he exposed himself to a state employee making $6.35 an hour (Paula Jones); that he groped a volunteer when she asked for a job that paid money (Kathleen Willey); that as president he had an affair with a 21-year-old intern who came to deliver pizza and stayed to dispense more intimate favors (Monica Lewinsky); that he used state personnel to procure sexual partners; and that he used “staff members, lawyers, and private investigators to tar the reputation of any woman who tries to call him to account” for his acts. “Can you find the problems with his behavior?” Williams then asked us. She continued:
Take your time: These problems are apparently of an order so subtle as to escape the notice of many of the smartest women in America—the writers, lawyers, activists, officeholders and academics who call themselves feminists. When news broke that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was investigating whether President Clinton had lied under oath . . . the cacophony that ensued was notable for the absence of one set of voices: the sisterly chorus that backed up Anita Hill seven years earlier when her charges of sexual harassment nearly stopped Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
The charges were dismissed by such “Year of the Woman” stars as Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, and then-senator Carol Moseley Braun. “We do not know what happened,” said a NOW honcho. “We’re trying to think of the bigger picture,” Eleanor Smeal told Williams. “It will be a great pity if the Democratic party were damaged by this,” feminist writer Anne Roiphe confessed.
In February, when Juanita Broaddrick’s rape charges against Clinton surfaced (too late to influence his acquittal by Congress), the Times waited six days to give them a mention, and then buried them, with an innocuous headline that gave no indication of what the story contained. As the New York Observer wrote at the time, “A rape charge against a President would seem to be very big front-page news anywhere. . . . But in the strange universe of 229 West 43rd Street, Ms. Broaddrick’s corroborated charge against a congenital liar was only good for page A-16 . . . on the bottom half of the page with a flat headline and no photo . . . promoted under the heading, ‘An Allegation Resurfaces’ in the small table-of-contents on page 1.”
The story was less about the charges themselves and what they might mean than the struggles of the paper as to whether to run them, with the arguments, among Dean Baquet, Bill Keller, Washington bureau chief Michael Oreskes, and deputy Washington editor Jill Abramson, being whether to run the story only “in context,” or not run the story at all. No one wanted the story presented as simply straight news. “We decided we needed to try to explain it to our readers,” Baquet said to the Observer, and as they explained it, the charges were trash. “Before the Times team of reporters and editors got to what Ms. Broaddrick had to say,” the Observer noted, “they had already likened her allegation to ‘toxic waste.’ ”
Anita Hill’s charges against Clarence Thomas were as far in the past as Juanita Broaddrick’s, and just as unprovable, but what was gospel truth in the case of Hill vs. Thomas was “toxic waste” in the case of Clinton vs. Broaddrick et al. “Toxic waste” also described Sarah Palin, picked in 2008 for the Republican ticket and as female as anyone, yet thrown to the wolves by the Times without hesitation. But by that time Hillary, caught in a bitter race with Barack Obama, found out that identity politics could also turn toxic for her.
When Hillary conceived her groundbreaking plan to run first for the Senate and then to become the first female president, no one dreamed she would be swamped by a far larger identity-wave, and that a little-known freshman senator—the son of a genuine African—would emerge to run against her. In the six months in 2008 before she went under, the reactions of Hillary and her friends (and her husband) at finding their group-think-plus-victim card trumped by one even stronger ranged from bewilderment to denial to frustration and finally to sputtering rage. Something of the sort happened to Jill in 2014, when she clashed with her subordinate at the Times, Dean Baquet, and Pinch, faced with choosing between them, went with the black male. “Abramson has risen beyond her coauthored book about the empowered black man and the gender victim [to become] herself possibly a gender victim—and look!—they replaced her with a black man. That’s the kind of strange justice called poetic justice,” wrote Ann Althouse. It was Jill herself who had made Clarence Thomas “the angry black man. The classic stereotype of a black man. And now, replaced by a reputably amiable black man, Jill Abramson is exposed to the world as the classic stereotype of the successful woman: the bossy bitch.”
“Jill couldn’t have been replaced by a white male,” the New Yorker quoted one Times staffer as saying, suggesting that only the presence of a black man on deck made her firing possible. So Jill was done in by the diversity principle, which she supported and urged if not pushed upon others—at least until it came back to hurt her.
And what about Pinch, the diversity monger, the backer of women when it was convenient, promoter of all of the feminists’ causes, who now finds their rage trained on him? How could he have thought that this would not happen, when he deep-sixed his paper’s most prominent female, without even a grace note to spare? Didn’t he embrace the whole genre of race/gender grievance? Didn’t his paper dump on any (conservative) male it considered “insensitive”? Jump on any perceived (or nonexistent) slight against women?
Wasn’t it the Times that “flooded the zone” decrying the Augusta National Golf Club and its males-only membership policies for months on end in 2002-03? Imagine Pinch and his paper covering Pinch and his paper as they covered Augusta, and you might have a lynching. In a well-deserved twist, identity politics is finally eating its own.
So what can we say of identity politics, as the whole drama rolls on? First that the groups that claim to speak for blacks and/or women don’t really do so; they are liberal groups that push liberal causes that some blacks and some women support. They were more universal at the start, when all blacks and almost all women were against segregation and the exclusion of women from the business world and the marketplace, but when these goals were won, unanimity vanished, and the usual political schisms broke out. Instead of accepting these splits as healthy, zealots instead saw them as heresies, and their proponents not as political foes with whom one should argue but heretics whom they should try to destroy.
The problem with this is that it wears thin as people begin to see through it and wonder why one woman who brings a charge of harassment is a saint and a martyr, and another, as one Democrat put it, is trailer-park trash. It was the Lewinsky affair that blew the whistle on “women’s groups,” which before it were seen as concerned about women and after it as concerned about Democrats, and willing to trash any number of sisters to help the party succeed. The result is now that in harassment cases in which the facts are uncertain, people on both sides decide if they want the accused man embarrassed, and then judge his accusers accordingly. This has become bipartisan practice. But it does little to help women.
The second thing we can say is that identity politics tend to be tricky, as each group thinks itself the most deeply put-upon, and thus the groups can tend to compete. The status of victim is eagerly sought, and not readily ceded. Some blacks resent the claims of gays to be the “new civil rights movement,” and protest accordingly. In 2008, Obama’s supporters saw Hillary Clinton as another beneficiary of white, blue-eyed privilege, while Hillary’s looked at Barack Obama, looked past his skin color, and saw another insensitive, chauvinist, guy.
It behooves us to say that thus far in the race/gender smackdown, race has trumped gender two times out of two: first in 2008, when Obama took the nomination from Hillary Clinton, and in 2014, when Pinch Sulzberger, torn between his two feuding diversity hires, went with his Y chromosome, not with his skin tones, and tossed Jill Abramson off the island. For some reason, people see slavery as a worse fate than being trapped in the steno pool. When push comes to shove in the great war of grievance, the sisters go under the bus.
The third thing about identity politics is that most people think it’s a crock. Honestly, do most people in it believe what they’re saying? More and more, it seems like a con, something picked up for the sake of convenience and dropped in a moment, when power’s at stake. Hillary Clinton and all of her friends believed women ought to stand up in the face of harassment until Bill Clinton was threatened; then they turned on a dime and defamed his accusers. Pinch Sulzberger was all for strong women in the highest of places, until he wished to get rid of his hectoring editor, and quickly and brutally did.
And don’t cry for Jill, and her two sets of standards—one for herself, Anita, and Hillary, to be handled like rare Christmas ornaments, and one for the Kathleen Willeys and Sarah Palins, who deserve to be treated like dirt. Or for Hillary, who poignantly said that women “ought to support one another,” meaning of course, that they ought to support her. You didn’t think she meant Kelly Ayotte, Susana Martínez, or Mia Love, did you?
This is a movement whose moment is passing. Let’s get this show off the road.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.