Treating subordinates like dirt is a moral flaw, and I would be mortified to be accused of it. (I avoid these accusations by having no subordinates.) By now the evidence of Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar’s guilt in this respect is overwhelming. The New York Times has replicated the findings of BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post before it: Klobuchar, who is now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, is a workplace terror with a penchant for winging binders and phones at underlings. It is possible that her aides are oversensitive. As a Minnesota native, I can attest that snowflakes abound there, including in Klobuchar’s hair. But I doubt these accusations are due to an abundance of them on the candidate’s staff. Their willingness to approach the media about personnel issues bespeaks true abnormality. She must really be a monster, at least when under stress.
Whether her venom disqualifies her from higher office is, of course, another question. Politics ain’t beanbag, and it ain’t HR either. Many politicians’ demeanor in private life would, if widely identified with their public persona, render them unelectable. Lyndon Johnson, a man of limitless vulgarity, referred to his genitals and bathroom habits frequently and with unnerving affection, often seemingly with the intention of discomfiting those around him. Joe Biden enjoys a popular reputation as a smiling backslapper, but his occasional irritability is well known and feared in Washington. Those famous gleaming veneers conceal sharp fangs.
The Klobuchar performance that most bears revisiting in light of these revelations is her much-discussed interrogation of then-judge Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearings on September 27. There we saw Klobuchar testing Kavanaugh, and being tested. Her demeanor revealed as much as his. Klobuchar asked Kavanaugh: “So you’re saying there’s never been a case where you drank so much that you didn’t remember what happened the night before, or part of what happened?” (That Kavanaugh did not answer “yes” to this question multiplied my doubts about his testimony. Drinking even just three or four beers impairs my memory perceptibly, and there’s plenty of evidence that Kavanaugh, Timmy, and Squi drank at least that many, more than once.) Kavanaugh retorted testily, asking Klobuchar whether she ever blacked out from drinking. “Could you answer the question, Judge?” she said. “I have no drinking problem.” Klobuchar, who later noted that her father was an alcoholic, and that she indulged only cautiously, was a model of frosty restraint during this exchange. (Watch it here.) As a matter of politics, her questions had sown the desired doubt about Kavanaugh’s temper, and like a good student of Sun Tzu, she knew better than to interrupt him while he was making a mistake. (Kavanaugh apologized minutes later.)
The aides who malign Klobuchar do not say whether her Ms. Hyde persona is so bad that it disqualifies her morally, or on grounds of prudence. Put another way: Do we need to know about Klobuchar at her worst because we need to know that she is a bad person, or because she really cannot control herself and will make catastrophic errors that an even icier temperament would avoid? The Kavanaugh exchange, an example of Klobuchar under public stress, suggests not ungovernable rage but a form of duplicity—a steely self-control that my colleague Caitlin Flanagan identifies (with typical perceptiveness) as a telltale trait of the child of an alcoholic. Duplicity of this sort is not a political vice, even if it is a personal one. It is a political virtue.
The anonymous aggrieved aides claim that their grievances have nothing to do with Klobuchar’s sex. Men who throw binders should also come to a reckoning. (Men who make binders certainly do.) But even if these aides are as gender-blind as they say, of course not everyone will be. Klobuchar seems to have failed to meet basic standards of decency, applicable to either gender. But there are still other standards to which she is held, namely those of a featureless and agreeable midwestern mom. Men may or may not be expected to be decent in their private life, but to be agreeable (again, see LBJ, Biden, and so many others) is a standard foreign to our sex.
I do not know whether Klobuchar will survive this blow to her reputation, or whether she would be any good as a candidate or president. Many have compared the Klobuchar on humiliating display in these articles to Selina Meyer, the sociopathic politician played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO’s Veep. Selina’s constant demand for the loyalty and praise of her subordinates, her foul mouth and temper, and her rictus of feigned pleasure at public events make a cutting comparison. It remains unfair in at least one key respect: Selina, like all figures in political comedy, succeeds in spite of her utter incompetence. The Selina smile reads false to all who see it. If it looked real, it would not be funny. How good a candidate would Selina be if she were jaded, demanding, and cynical—but also dead-eyed and disciplined when it counted? She would not be Selina Meyer. She might be Amy Klobuchar.