On Friday afternoon, the New York Times dropped a long piece on Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Amy Klobuchar that started with an anecdote meant to indict her management style: She once ate a salad with a comb, then made the staffer who lost her fork wipe it off.
It’s the latest article in a series about how the senior Minnesotan senator is allegedly a bad boss. All of the pieces are based on accounts from anonymous former aides. No staffer has gone on the record. HuffPost and BuzzFeed ran the first stories, which included weird anecdotes like the time Klobuchar flung a binder into the air, hitting an innocent bystander. She sent a staffer an email late at night calling the attached policy brief “the worst,” a label she gave to someone else’s work the next week and the week after.
Some of the complaints are more serious. Insiders say she tried to stop staff she liked from being poached by other Democrats. She once declined to sign off on a request from the Obama Treasury Department to hire one of her aides. The finalist was “pissed.” Her Senate office has a paid maternity-leave program that requires women to return for longer than they left (a requirement her office says has never been enforced).
Klobuchar defended herself to reporters after the first stories ran, saying: “Yes, I can be tough, and yes, I can push people. I have high expectations for myself, I have high expectations for the people that work for me, but I have high expectations for this country.” Her campaign team has continued to defend her.
Some of this is certainly bad-boss behavior. Workers shouldn’t have to be ready to duck flying objects or fear that they can’t ever advance in their career. They should be treated with a baseline of respect. But the intensity of the coverage and the vitriolic tone of the anonymous sources are striking.
It would be out of line for a typical boss to ask an employee to clean her lunch utensil. But a senator’s job isn’t typical. Her life is carefully choreographed and over-scheduled so she can run around Capitol Hill to hearings and press conferences and travel back and forth to her home state for appearances and meetings, town halls, campaign speeches, fundraisers, and TV hits. Female senators are under more pressure than their male colleagues to look their best.
The result is that staffers aren’t working a typical job, even for the Senate. The aides to female senators make sure their boss is 360° ready, from being briefed, to fed with low-cal foods while traveling, to spotting salad-dressing stains on her blazer. That’s not to say they are servants. A Senate ethics rule bars lawmakers from requiring that staff perform “personal duties,” which could, arguably, mean no picking up dry cleaning. But what about wiping off a comb before an event? Hard to say.
Most of the former staffer complaints fall into a couple of categories. A lot of the described incidents are connected to the extra tasks involved in working for a female politician. Another subset is about Klobuchar’s blunt criticism of work she finds subpar. Then there are the more serious accusations that amount to a cutthroat approach to keeping her best staff.
Notably, none of her critics question her intelligence or her mastery of policy or her commitment to Democratic positions. They don’t question that she’s done a good job as a US senator. In fact, none of them has called on her to resign.
Still, they can’t stand her — in the extreme. “When I hear the descriptors of our current president and how he lacks responsibility and everyone is to blame, and there’s erratic behavior, name-calling, it’s unfortunate, but you’re also describing her,” one former staffer told BuzzFeed.
It’s hard not to wonder, would a male candidate in the same position take the same heat?
She’s a devil wearing Prada. He’s a devil to admire.
Imagine, for a moment, that comb-gate didn’t involve Klobuchar, but a different politician on a plane in 2008. John McCain’s short fuse was no secret. But if he’d gotten mad at a staffer who gave him lunch with no way to eat it, would it be the opening to a New York Times story over a decade later? Probably not.
Some critics of the coverage say this disparity amounts to sexism. But it’s not just that we don’t hear as much about how men treat their staff. It’s that the same kind of behavior that damages women can benefit a man. He’s not a devil wearing Prada. He’s a devil to admire.
Consider some examples of male politicians who were able to use the kind of negative qualities associated with Klobuchar to their advantage:
- Bernie Sanders yells. He can’t help himself. His aides tried to get him to use his indoor voice during the 2016 presidential debates but without much luck. He ended up shushing and interrupting Hillary Clinton. It seemed like it would become a bad look, but it didn’t hurt him at all. Instead, shouting, ranting Bernie was just part of his persona, a lovable curmudgeon, parodied by Larry David on Saturday Night Live.
- Rahm Emanuel is legendary for profanity-laced episodes and eruptions. He’s called on his staff to work “25/8” and “develop a thick skin.” When he left the White House in 2010 to run for mayor of Chicago, Barack Obama joked about his ... tact (or lack thereof). Rahm’s outbursts are his political persona, not a liability.
As former Hillary Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri wrote for Politico magazine in response to the Klobuchar coverage, male politicians have built themselves up around behavior that would be a problem for a woman. She pointed out that Bill Clinton was notorious for his “purple rage,” but it was just seen as demanding: a sign he means business.
Stories about intimidating male bosses are typically not presented as disqualifying, but as evidence of these men as formidable leaders. These are men who should not be underestimated. These are men who should be respected.
In her book, Dear Madam President, Palmieri recounted how the campaign considered the question of ambition. Their research found that voters are put off by women who appear to have the ambition “to want to be in charge.” In Hillary Clinton’s case, polls showed that when she was working for the public as secretary of state, her approval ratings soared. When she was running for office, they tanked. In response, the campaign framed Clinton’s ambition as her “desire to serve others,” a formula other female politicians have embraced.
Klobuchar herself has a similar public persona. She’s been called “the senator of small things” for prioritizing issues like banning lead in toys and swimming-pool safety. She’s not a grandstanding ideologue, but a politician working to get things done for others. That version of her on the trail is lauded. Her aggression behind the scenes is criticized.
Klobuchar is the “worst boss” in Congress. And so are six other women.
The most concrete data point that appears in almost all of these stories comes from a survey of staff turnover by Senate office from 2001 to 2016. It’s called “the worst boss” list. Klobuchar topped it. (She slipped to third-worst in the 2018 version, a point cited far less frequently.)
The rest of the list is interesting. Of the top 10 “worst bosses” in the Senate in 2016, seven were women and just three were men. At the time, then, about a third of female senators were worse bosses than nearly 96 percent of all male senators. That could be objectively true. Or maybe there’s something else going on.
We know that when women become more successful, men and women like them less. Klobuchar critics say they know this but they believe that her individual actions outweigh the data.
HuffPost reporter Amanda Terkel, who broke one of the first Klobuchar stories and has continued to break more, published a post Friday quoting her sources as dismayed that they’ve been accused of sexism. The response stung in particular, Terkel writes, because “many of the aides who spoke with HuffPost are women, who consider themselves feminists and have worked for other strong female politicians.
“None of what we are saying has anything to do with Amy being ‘likable’ or ‘emotional’ or whatever other nonsense people throw out at women,” one former female aide told Terkel. “It’s that she is a terrible manager and abusive to her staff. I can’t emphasize enough that there is a big difference between being demanding and being abusive.”
Their point is that women can be bad bosses. They should be held accountable for their actions, even if men have gotten a pass for too long.
At an individual level, this makes sense. When you’re at the receiving end of an inappropriate, angry email or face a rant about a fork, your irritation or anger certainly doesn’t feel like a subconscious reaction to an ingrained system. It feels perfectly justified — and could very well be.
In aggregate, though, there’s a red flag waving above the Klobuchar narrative. The breadth of complaints extends beyond egregious behavior. The handful of truly bad boss moments from the last decade and a half are dwarfed by more modest complaints that are taken to an extreme. Klobuchar once quipped that she was so thirsty she’d trade three of the staffers next to her for a bottle of water. Is it the nicest thing to say? No. Is it probably a joke? Yes. Is it proof a decade later that she shouldn’t be president? Come on.
Philosopher Kate Manne offers a way to consider this dynamic in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Manne argues that when a woman steps out of her expected role of “caretaker,” she’s attacked. In Klobuchar’s case, her critics describe a boss who expects them to put her work and her ambitions first. She is not concerned with their feelings, clearly. She is not going to hold their hand through writing a policy brief or a press release. She expects them to do excellent work — for her.
We do not expect a man to put others first, certainly not a powerful politician. Assertiveness, decisiveness, and command of others are all considered positive qualities. These fit the role men are expected to play in the same patriarchal system that punishes women for stepping out of their expected role.
Klobuchar critics are angry about emails and binders and forks — and whether or not they admit it to themselves, they are angry about something more fundamental. Klobuchar is breaking the rules. She puts her ambitions, her work, and herself first. And as she pushes ahead in her ambitions, the criticism has become more ferocious. As Palmieri puts it, “nothing draws fire like a woman moving forward.”