Amy Klobuchar has a problem. Apparently it’s been an open secret in Washington and Minnesota, but because she didn’t have much of a national reputation, the press lacked occasion to expose it. But when she made a name for herself during the Kavanaugh hearings, suggesting that a presidential campaign was likely, the press had the necessary occasion, and now we all know about it.
Her problem is rage, easily uncorked, and directed not at the various forces that might thwart the needs of her constituents, but at the people—many of them young—who work for her. During Klobuchar’s first senatorial campaign, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees decried her “shameful treatment of her employees” in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office; in March of 2018, Politico reported that she had the highest staff turnover in the Senate. But it has been the recent reporting of BuzzFeed News, HuffPost, The New York Times, and others that has provided the vivid and ugly details of what apparently lies behind those facts. Although many of the staffers and former staffers provided their reports anonymously, the senator has mostly not disputed the specifics, instead seeking to frame the behavior as part of the high expectations she has of herself and her staff.
According to BuzzFeed, Klobuchar “demeaned and berated her staff almost daily, subjecting them to bouts of explosive rage and regular humiliation within the office.” The articles quote staffers alleging that in fits of anger, she threw things—including binders—in the direction of staff members, accidentally hitting an employee on at least one occasion. The accounts of her cruelty are astonishing. She once allegedly forced an employee to say to another senator’s staffer, “I’m supposed to tell you Senator Klobuchar is late today because I am bad at my job.” For Klobuchar, the dark night of the soul arrives right on schedule: She is known to fire off scathing emails to her staff between the hours of 1 and 3 o’clock in the morning. (“In a real dark night of the soul,” wrote another unstable Minnesotan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, “it is always three o’clock in the morning.”)
What could cause this burning rage in a woman who became popular among so many of us because of what had seemed to be her exemplary calm and high-mindedness? She has never addressed the question directly, but her 2015 autobiography, The Senator Next Door, offers plenty of clues. Her paternal grandfather was a hard drinker: “Sometimes he drank way too much and came home in a rage, yelling at my grandma about all kinds of grievances.” In turn, he raised an alcoholic.
Her father, Jim Klobuchar, a beloved regional newspaperman, was a serious alcoholic who spoiled family events; was charged with at least three DUIs and had to write an apology to readers of the Star Tribune; and once stopped with Amy on the way home from a Vikings game and ended up drinking in the upstairs room of a bar, while the child sat alone at the bar, nursing a 7 Up and wondering when her father would come back for her. He left his young family when Amy’s mother had just cashed out her teacher’s pension to build a new deck and an addition to the back of the house. (The dream of every woman in a bad marriage: Change the house and somehow the home will change too.) At his final DUI court date—after which he finally got sober in late midlife—Amy, by then a lawyer, accompanied him to a meeting with the court’s chemical-dependency counselor, which her father later wrote about: “She told of the damage my divorce had inflicted on her, her sister, and her mother … She spoke with fury and sorrow and in tears.”
In the classic fashion of children raised in deeply alcoholic families, the two Klobuchar daughters carved out very different identities for themselves. Amy the overachiever made her mark at Wayzata High School and went on to Yale and then to the University of Chicago Law School; Beth (who has since changed her name to Meagan) dropped out of high school, was gone from home for days at a time, and became an alcoholic before eventually seeking treatment for her disease, getting a GED, and going to college. The behavior that Klobuchar’s staff describes—the rage at minor imperfections; the middle-of-the-night rants; the development of a secret, shameful self—would not be out of character for someone with such a specifically brutal kind of upbringing.
Klobuchar’s autobiography provides an accounting of what was then a very typical kind of Minnesotan childhood: the family of Swiss and Slovenians; the grandfather who worked the iron mines up by the Canadian border; the high level of family engagement with civic organizations and church; and the alcoholism that has shaped so many otherwise strong families in a hard-drinking region. It also captures the specific strength of character that is forged by living in such extreme cold. The country laughed when Klobuchar made her presidential announcement in a near blizzard, but nothing is more respected in Minnesota than doing something in a snowstorm that could have easily been accomplished indoors. Do it during a time of profound personal embarrassment, as Klobuchar did, and you’re in Paul Bunyan territory.
As dawn must follow dusk, any unpleasant revelation about a successful woman must be immediately plumbed for any possible hint of sexism, and so it has been with the Klobuchar news. If a man threw a binder at his employees, he’d be appointed president for life, is the thinking. An American city would be renamed for him; women would compete to bear him sons; his picture would be printed on currency. Certainly a kind of sexism has accompanied the incident, and the proof is that Klobuchar seems to be surviving these reports, while a man never would.
Although maybe it’s not sexism. Maybe it’s a simple recognition of the fact that men are capable of greater physical harm than women.
Nothing more exemplifies the relative powerlessness of women than the way we regard a story about a woman throwing something. When an angry man starts throwing things, people know that real danger is afoot. A man who is not in control of his ability to do physical violence isn’t fit for most things, and certainly not for governance. There was a time, perhaps, when this was different. But that time is long past.
But when an angry woman throws something—whether it’s Scarlett O’Hara hurling a vase across the library at Twelve Oaks; or Hillary Clinton, in the rumor that will not die, heaving a lamp at Bill in the White House; or now Amy Klobuchar, supposedly throwing a binder across her office—the gesture is understood as puny, perhaps even comical. (“You’re cute when you’re angry,” my father would say to my mother in the midst of a fight, providing the escalation they were both seeking.) Politico suggested a series of jokes that Klobuchar could make to transform all these revelations into a bit of humanizing shtick. She’d never do that, I thought to myself, thinking that a strong woman of the modern world would never employ that diminishing old formula against herself, but I was wrong. At the Gridiron dinner on Saturday night, she turned her uncontrolled temper into a fun quirk: “When Jerry called me about tonight, he asked, ‘Do you need a microphone or do you just prefer to yell at everyone?’”
The inevitable impulse to characterize this bad behavior as some kind of feminist badassery has already begun. “Being a bad bitch is a good thing,” Meghan McCain said on The View; “For me, it’s like you’re tough and you’re strong and you’re going to get things done.”
It’s shameful to humiliate and mistreat employees, no matter your gender. It’s unacceptable to be so unable to control your emotions that you throw things toward co-workers, and despicable to do it to subordinates who are afraid of you. Trying to sell cruelty and pathological behavior as a feminist victory is yet another reason that so many women who care deeply about equality don’t identify themselves as feminists.
What a disappointment all of this has been to those of us who had been so excited by Klobuchar when we were introduced to her during the sudden-death round of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. You can be forgiven for not remembering those hearings, as they took place several years ago, before (inter alia) the Cohen testimony, the government shutdown, Caravans I, II, and III, Jussie Smollett, the state of emergency, people “unwilling to work,” Virginia Is for Racists, Donald Trump breaking his 40-year winning streak of staying out of Vietnam, and the Oscars’ celebration of diversity coming to an abrupt halt when the wrong diversity picture got celebrated.
The Kavanaugh hearings revealed how powerfully Donald Trump’s carny politics have affected the highest quarters of civic life. The nominee chewed through pages and pages of dialogue as he attempted a one-man table reading of Twelve Angry Men; Cory Booker rushed importantly to the dais to inform Americans that he didn’t understand the central scene of Spartacus; Lindsey Graham climbed up on top of his mama’s stepladder and roared like a great big angry lion; and Kamala Harris gave a rich display of the excellent prosecutorial skills that are currently jeopardizing her campaign for the Democratic nomination.
And then, Klobuchar. By the time she questioned him, Kavanaugh was fully absorbed in a spate of Irish Alzheimer’s (in which you forget everything but the grudges), but she had an immediate, powerful effect on him. It was as though she reminded him of something important about himself. “I should say one thing, Senator Klobuchar,” he said at the outset, “I appreciate our meeting together, and I appreciate how you handled the prior hearing, and I have a lot of respect for you.”
But he quickly reverted to his position of bullheadedness and verbal aggression. When she asked him—respectfully, and with generous reference to her own father’s alcoholism—about his drinking, he lost his composure, baiting her, asking about her own drinking and wanting to know whether she’d ever had a blackout. She had every reason to slap him down, but she was unflappable and gracious. After a recess following the exchange, Kavanaugh defied Trump, who had recommended that he axe-kick his way into the Supreme Court, and did something remarkable: He apologized to her.
Klobuchar didn’t take the occasion to grandstand or to showcase her own moral superiority by giving one of the vile little sermons that have become a hallmark of our time. She didn’t even bring up Spartacus. She simply gave the only decent response to a sincere apology: She accepted it. She was no pushover—her questioning about blackouts rang the bell upon which the whole matter turned—but neither did she allow his bad behavior to inspire any of her own.
When people speak derisively about “Minnesota nice,” it’s because they don’t understand the people and the place. It’s not niceness; it’s a form of radical politeness combined with an unshakeable and largely unexamined sense of obligation to one another. Klobuchar knew her family would survive the divorce when she trudged home from a friend’s house the morning after getting the bad news and saw her mother up and dressed and shoveling the driveway. In Minnesota, a shoveled driveway is both a winter necessity and an unmistakable sign to the community: We are okay in this house. If she had been too broken to do it, someone on that block would have surely done it for her. That, too, would have been an unmistakable sign: We won’t let you go under.
Amy Klobuchar interrupted Trump’s carny politics with something entirely opposite to them, something that called to mind the old virtues: character and decency. Those of us not from her part of the country realized that we had wildly misunderstood the Midwest when we first read the novel that seems to be about East Coast decadence, but is just as much about its opposite. “When I came back from the East last autumn,” Nick Carraway says on the famous first page of The Great Gatsby, “I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.” For a few minutes in October, it stood that way. But even that, it turns out, was a mirage.