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The Heat in the Kitchen

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Friday, February 15, 2008

My friends who are also Hillary's friends, many of them classmates and fellow Wellesley women, keep e-mailing me about their concerns, not so much with the campaign, but with the outright meanness and hostility the media seem to be heaping on our friend. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like it. Vicious doesn't begin to describe it.

No one likes a loser, that's for sure. But the exacting scrutiny is usually visited on the winner, especially when he is as new to the public super-stage as Barack Obama, not the underdog.

Yet no one is cutting Hillary any slack. It's stunning.

Now, I'm not saying they should. I've been in the public eye long enough to know this is what it's like. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. If you don't want to pay the price of fame, don't go for the goodies.

But there should be limits. And one of them should be the kids.

The way I see it, looking back, David Shuster's comment about the "pimping" of Chelsea Clinton was one of those turning points in this campaign, and in the public spiral downward.

I don't think Shuster should have been suspended. I think he should have apologized, which he did. But he was wrong. And press outrage at the fact that Hillary got mad on her daughter's behalf and behaved like a mother rather than a hardened candidate has only made a bad situation worse.

First, Shuster. He's a newsman. And a pretty good one, as far as I know. The problem is that on the night he made his comment about Chelsea, he wasn't doing what he usually does -- report the news -- but was instead playing pundit/host/entertainer.

The only thing worse than some of the people who do those jobs is what happens when people who don't try to imitate them: Lines that barely exist the rest of the time disappear completely.

The hardest part about being a talking head these days, and I say this as one, is keeping track of your own internal compass, because the world we live in doesn't really provide an external one. It "feels" like anything goes, even if it doesn't, or shouldn't. You don't know there's a line until you step over it, which Shuster did, not because he used the word "pimping" -- that's been done many times, for better or worse, and I would vote worse -- but because he used it in reference to a young woman who has tried as hard as any first daughter in recent history to stay away from the press in the hopes that they would stay away from her.

Second, Chelsea. She is trying to help her mother. But she's trying to do it quietly. That should be her choice. Beat up Hillary. Beat up Bill. They put themselves out there. Chelsea is just being a loving daughter.

I was in a Target parking lot once, on a Sunday morning, when a woman started verbally abusing me for being a "baby killer." She went so far as to run after me in the parking lot. I wasn't surprised at the viciousness of her language; I'd heard it before. What made me as angry as I've ever been in such a situation was that I was with my son, a then-small child who didn't even know what abortion was and shouldn't have had to hear his mother attacked for her views on the subject. I was ready to call the police when an off-duty policewoman intervened and scared the woman off. The officer had no idea who I was. All she saw was a mother being harassed in a parking lot in front of her child, and as a mother herself, it made her angry.

Third, Hillary. Hillary didn't behave like a candidate in responding to Shuster. She behaved like a mother. She got mad at an attack on her daughter. Maybe she should have turned the other cheek, but I still remember when Michael Dukakis did that, in answer to a hypothetical about what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered, and people turned on him in a tidal wave, asking how he could be so inhuman.

The rub on Hillary Clinton is that she'd do anything to be president. I don't think that's true. She is a mother first. But instead of getting any credit for that, she gets another heap of criticism. Life isn't fair, as Jimmy Carter used to say, and for Hillary Clinton and the press, that's an understatement.

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