Politicians write books to establish bona fides, earn money, or posit for higher office. A new one by Kirsten Gillibrand, the popular Democratic senator from New York who once had an A rating from the NRA, seems to have the unintended consequence of shooting its author in the foot.
“Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World,” has moved quickly onto best-seller lists. It is described in a cover blurb by the journalist and commentator Arianna Huffington as, “a handbook for the next generation of women to redefine their role in our world.”
The premise is noble, and Gillibrand’s record since being appointed to the senate seat held by Hillary Clinton is admirable, but the book manages to choke on its own good intentions.
If, for example, a woman seeks to be taken seriously in a field dominated by men, she might well state, as Gillibrand does: “some people may judge you on how you look or what you wear — that’s just how it is — but you should keep your focus on what you say and do.”
Yet, after writing that in the fourth sentence of her book, Gillibrand goes on to describe virtually every benchmark in her career in terms of what she was wearing. From the “gray wool suit” she donned at her first fundraiser for Mrs. Clinton, to the “blue strapless gown” she picked for a White House Christmas party, to the “cream-and-gold brocade” suit she believes in hindsight was too flashy for Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation, she fixates throughout the book on her clothing and appearance.
Then there is a section in which Gillibrand describes bringing her 4-year-old son onto the House floor. “Theo loved pressing the buttons,” she writes, describing how the boy handled the mechanics of casting votes. “He’d run around voting for anyone who would let him.”
Presumably, Gillibrand’s point is that women can successfully juggle parenting and work. But allowing her child to romp in the House chamber during important business doesn’t advance that cause at all. It’s arrogant, and it’s why the House should join the Senate in barring children from the floor. Foisting kids on your colleagues isn’t an appropriate model for young professionals, female or male.
Much of the book’s early buzz centered on Gillibrand’s recitation of crude remarks by male colleagues concerning her weight and appearance. “You know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat,” is a foul quote attributed to a “Southern congressman.”
Here again, Gillibrand distracts us from what may well be an ugly reality in male-dominated politics and business by committing an ethical sin. Neither responsible writers nor U.S. senators should toss around volatile quotes without attribution. Are they accurate? Is there another side? We’ll never know.
Gillibrand might have reasoned that revealing the names of offending congressmen would punish them beyond anything necessary to make her argument. Perhaps, too, naming names would have risked losing support for her legislative agenda. The wise alternative would been to paraphrase without using direct quotes — but, of course, that would have been less potent in marketing her book.
Gillibrand’s own occasional use of salty language in her memoir is also discomfiting. It comes off as dated, from a time when some women talked dirty just to prove that they could.
The push for equality is too important to be muddled as it is in Kristen Gillibrand’s account. Her advice to, “speak up, gather strength, support one another,” is hardly a handbook for women. It resembles talk show fodder more than meaningful insight from one of only 44 women to attain the rank of U.S. senator.
At one point, after discussing the outfits she wore for a Vogue magazine photo shoot, Gillibrand concludes: “If I have to wear a navy blue suit to work every day to be heard without distraction, so be it.”
But as her own book makes clear, Gillibrand hasn’t had to do that. And a proper message for 21st century women is that they don’t have to either.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. His book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com.©2014 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.