Now, I firmly believe all of the many studies showing all of the many ways that women are judged more harshly than men when it comes to their leadership fitness. And you can’t spend as many years in the workplace as I have without witnessing (and weathering) some truly impressive sexism from time to time. That said, I feel compelled to semi-defend Woodward. For whatever blend of reasons, Hillary just doesn’t do the fired-up-and-ready-to-rumble thing well. Not so much because she is a woman (Elizabeth Warren seems to manage), but because she fundamentally is not an inspirational candidate, and never has been. Hillary is the work horse, the wonk, the dogged over-achiever. As a result, watching her try to cut loose on the stump is a little like watching Sanders try to talk foreign policy: Its awkwardness is jarring. In pointing up this reality, should Woodward have taken greater pains not to come across as smug and patronizing? Yes. This does not, however, mean that he was wrong.
Sexism aside, some people consider this sort of candidate critique to be inherently shallow and vapid and not at all the sort of thing with which serious political analysts should sully themselves. When there is a whole wide world of ideological and policy differences to discuss, who gives a flying fig about a candidate’s tone or appearance?
Well, everyone. Just ask the terminally stiff Al Gore or Screamin’ Howard Dean. More than any other type of candidate, POTUS wannabes are graded on style as much as substance. In addition to smarts and experience, they are expected to convey strength and empathy and confidence and competence and decency and, as the cliché goes, the vibe that they’d be really fun to chug a beer with. People can lament how this should not be so, but it is so. And, far from frivolous, such stylistic judgmentalism speaks directly to a vital aspect of the job.
Beneath all the pomp and power, presidents are to some degree glorified salespeople, endlessly pitching their vision for this nation both at home and abroad. The content of the message matters, but so too does the appeal of the messenger—an appeal that rests in no small part on intangibles like Bill Clinton’s gift for emoting or Reagan’s air of optimism. Or consider how many times President Obama’s perceived aloofness has undermined his salesmanship.
This is not to suggest that Hillary fans should allow their candidate’s oratorical shortcomings to place her at a disadvantage. I am, in fact, a yuuuge proponent of leveling the playing field—not by ignoring female candidates’ surface-level quirks but by seeing to it that the guys in the game receive equal scrutiny. Rick Perry’s look-how-smart-I-am, nerd-chic glasses? Marco Rubio’s chronic dry mouth? Bernie’s mad-scientist hair? Trump’s phantasmagoric comb over and burnt-umber complexion? All fair game. The same goes for John Kasich’s crabby-patty disposition, the low energy of Jeb!, and Carson’s spot-on impression of a man who believes debating is best done while chilling on Valium.