She’s the 69-year-old speaker of the House of Representatives, second in the line of succession and the most powerful woman in U.S. history.
But when you see Nancy Pelosi, the Republican National Committee wants you to think “Pussy Galore.”
At least that’s the takeaway from a video released by the committee this week – a video that puts Pelosi side-by-side with the aforementioned villainess from the 1964 James Bond film “Goldfinger.”
The RNC video, which begins with the speaker’s head in the iconic spy-series gun sight, implies that Pelosi has used her feminine wiles to dodge the truth about whether or not she was briefed by the CIA on the use of waterboarding in 2002. While the P-word is never mentioned directly, in one section the speaker appears in a split screen alongside the Bond nemesis – and the video’s tagline is “Democrats Galore.”
The wisdom of equating the first woman speaker of the House with a character whose first name also happens to be among the most vulgar terms for a part of the female anatomy might be debated – if the RNC were willing to do so, which it was not. An RNC spokesperson refused repeated requests by POLITICO to explain the point of the video, or the intended connection between Pelosi and Galore.
But what isn’t open to debate is that the waterboarding conflict has been accompanied by a cascade of attacks on the speaker, not as a leader or a legislator, but as a woman.
Earlier this week, Pittsburgh radio host Jim Quinn referred to the speaker on his program as “this bitch”; last week, syndicated radio host Neal Boortz opined “how fun it is to watch that hag out there twisting in the wind.”
There has also been a steady stream of taunts about the speaker’s appearance, and whether it’s been surgically enhanced. On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Republican strategist Alex Castellanos said, “I think if Speaker Pelosi were still capable of human facial expression, we’d see she’d be embarrassed.”
Even erstwhile presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee took the time to pen a poem that begins:
“Here's a story about a lady named Nancy / A ruthless politician, but dressed very fancy.”
One might argue that face-lift and fashion gibes are just sauce for the goose these days – especially given the president’s crack about John Boehner’s perma-tan during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.
But “hag”? The P-word? Really?
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Not only is it bad form, say Democrats and women’s advocates, it’s bad politics.
“They can’t seem to distinguish between a backroom smirk among the boys and something you put out in public,” says former Hillary Clinton senior adviser Ann Lewis of the RNC video.
“It’s an attempt to demean your opponent, rather than debate them. If they’re serious that this is an issue of national security, then you’d think that one would want to debate it on the merits,” she says. “It’s almost as if they can’t help themselves.”
Of course, not all – or even most – of the recent attacks on Pelosi have involved her gender. Indeed, inside the Beltway, the criticism of the speaker has been almost entirely above the belt. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has called for Pelosi’s resignation without making cracks about her looks. Former Vice President Dick Cheney called her out Thursday without taking note of her gender. House Minority Leader John Boehner – who wants to move more slowly against Pelosi than some of his more aggressive House brethren – has kept up the pressure on her without marginalizing her as a woman.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, believes that those who attack female leaders on gender grounds do so out of weakness.
“In a way, it shows the desperation of the opposition,” she says. “If all else fails, you do something on their looks, or you remind them of sex.”
Phil Singer, who dealt with the issue as a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, takes it one step further, arguing that such tactics are actually likely to be counterproductive in the end.
“As the degree of viciousness escalates and increases, I think women – and most people living in the modern era, including men – are more likely to rally to Pelosi’s cause,” he says.
He suggests that gender-based attacks can actually be the crucible within which a woman’s base of support is forged.
“Certainly nobody wants to be on the receiving end of this type of rhetoric, but in the long run I think it could end up making Nancy Pelosi a stronger national figure, and creating a real base for her,” he says.
While Pelosi has long had to endure her share of sexist sniping, Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, which promotes women’s leadership, believes that the fact that the speaker’s clash with the CIA centers on truthfulness may have contributed to the recent rash.
“When I first saw this come up, I thought, ‘Oh no, it’s about honesty,’” she says.
Wilson – who gasped audibly when the RNC video was described to her – explains that her organization’s research has found that honesty and trustworthiness are the two areas in which Americans have higher expectations of women in politics than they do of men. And when women in power are viewed as or accused of being less than fully honest, she says, “that strikes at the heart of the cultural ideal in this country – wives, mothers, apple pie.”
However, she notes, “If a man gets in a situation about he-said, she-said, or what people knew, you don’t go to his maleness as a way to attack him.”
The reasons for them may be ineffable, but the attacks themselves seem to be all but inevitable for prominent or outspoken women – Republicans as well as Democrats. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was called a “bimbo” by “Politically Incorrect” host Bill Maher during the campaign; Meghan McCain has had to grapple with public attacks on her appearance from radio host Laura Ingraham.
(Palin’s office did not respond to a call from POLITICO on the Pelosi matter, and McCain declined to comment. None of the House or Senate Republicans contacted by POLITICO was both available and willing to comment on the RNC video.)
Says Singer: “It’s perverse in a way that to become a very strong figure, or to develop a very strong following, [women] have to go through something like this. I don’t think it’s fair, but certainly recent history suggests that it’s just the way it is.”