Is There a Rooney Rule in Politics?


Word is trickling out from the White House that the great mentioning of names to succeed outgoing Press Secretary Robert Gibbs includes several women because new Chief of Staff William Daley would like to see a woman in the job.

That's all well and good -- there are several Democratic women with the chops for the job, and it could be good politics heading into an election cycle in which the White House could have to rely even more heavily on female voters -- but why is it necessary to say so?

It's been 17 years since DeeDee Myers broke the gender-barrier at the White House podium as press secretary for Bill Clinton. Should the next press secretary also be a woman, one would hope the word the White House would want to put out is that they picked her because she was the person with the most experience doing the sort of day-in and day-out high-profile work the job requires, not because they were specifically seeking someone of her gender.

Unless, of course, this is just the political equivalent of complying with the Rooney Rule in the NFL, which dictates that at least one minority candidate must be considered when new head coaches are selected (in this case, replace "minority" with "female").

One could be forgiven a sense of deja vu with the way the search for the new director of the National Economic Council was conducted. Last September, the Great Mentioners mentioned half a dozen women as possible candidates for the position, including several women of color. The Washington Post reported that gender was a consideration in the search -- "administration officials are also eager to find a woman to fill a top economic role" -- and the Wall Street Journal's first round of leading candidates for the post was substantially female. "Woman CEO sought for Summers job," reported Politico.

And then the job went to the most conventional choice possible: not just a white man, but one of the very ones who'd held the position in the last Democratic administration.

Gene Sperling, named today as the new director of the NEC, will doubtless be a natural in the post thanks to his previous experience in the job, and seamlessly fit into his new administration role. There's no one seriously questioning the pick of one of the party's most senior and hard-working economic thinkers.

But the way women came to be touted first for the post seems, in retrospect, Rooney Rule-esque. (Not to mention a clear response to pressure from women's groups to add more women to the ranks of Obama economic advisers.)

If the White House wants to select a woman to be the next press secretary because she is talented, well-liked, well-connected, calm under pressure and the most experienced of the candidates under consideration -- not to mention good for the political optics of the next two years -- it should do so.

But it's not clear what good it will do the White House to let it out that it's seeking a woman, let the Great Mentioners name several -- and then, in the end, settle upon the most conventional pick that can be made.

If the White House wants to hire a woman, it doesn't need to say so; it just needs to hire one.

Bonus blast from the past: read the transcript of Myer's first press briefing, on Jan. 28, 1993.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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