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Is it sexist to talk about Hillary Clinton's age?

Story highlights

  • Some have said raising topic of Hillary Clinton's age is sexist
  • If Clinton runs and wins in 2016, she would be the second-oldest president
  • David Frum: Clinton says she wants to be judged by same standard as men
  • He says if Clinton is held to same standard, age question is entirely appropriate

Like Mitt Romney and John McCain, Hillary Clinton will (probably) run for president in 2016 as a grandparent. This seemingly unremarkable fact has triggered a spasm of media self-analysis: is Clinton the victim of a sexist double standard?

It's a question that has been -- and will be -- asked often.

We keep asking, because we refuse to see the plain answer. Hillary Clinton is not the victim of a double standard. She is the beneficiary of a double standard.

Consider the grandmother question. If elected in 2016, Hillary Clinton will be the second oldest president in U.S. history, after Ronald Reagan. At age 69, will she be too old? That was a question people felt free to discuss when John McCain ran for president.

David Frum

CNN.com reported on June 15, 2008:

"Listen to some Democrats, and you'll think the 71-year-old Arizona senator is a man lost in a perpetual fog. He is 'confused' and has 'lost his bearings' or is 'out of touch.'" The "lost his bearings" innuendo was used by candidate Barack Obama himself, in a May 2008 interview with Wolf Blitzer.

Nor was age deemed an inappropriate question in earlier elections. CNN reported:

"Roughly one-third of respondents in most recent national polls say that McCain's age could impede his ability to effectively govern the nation. ... Approximately one-third of voters expressed similar concerns about Bob Dole's age in 1996 and Ronald Reagan's age in 1984. (Dole was 73 years old in 1996. Reagan was 73 in 1984.) ... (O)lder voters tend to worry more about the age issue than other voters."

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Yet a question that commentators generally agreed was relevant in 1984, 1996 and 2008 is a question that Hillary Clinton supporters now deem insulting, offensive and unfair to women.

In a roundup of the question, BBC News found room for the following quote:

"Both men and women face age discrimination, but it's no secret that, for women, ageism mixes easily with sexism. ... And obsessing over a woman's year of birth is often a slightly more respectable substitute for the latter."

In a headline, the liberal website Salon likewise dismissed the issue of Clinton's age as "sexist." The column underneath rationalized why:

"Putting an age limit (even a pundit-prescribed one) on the presidency will have a disparate impact on female candidates, given that most are older than their male counterparts when they start their political careers."

In other words: as between Hillary Clinton on the one hand, and John McCain or Bob Dole on the other, the same standard is a double standard.

The same method applies to the discussion of Hillary Clinton's marriage. The Clinton camp's view seems to be: When it's helpful to Hillary, her marriage is urgently relevant; when that marriage might be politically harmful, it's sexist and insulting to mention it.

When Hillary Clinton sought the Democratic nomination in 2008, she argued that her tenure as first lady ought to qualify as a bona fide job credential. She told National Public Radio in March of that year:

"I represented our government and our country in more than 80 countries, and I know that people are nitpicking and that's fair -- it's in a campaign. But compare my experience, even after the nitpicking, with Sen. (Barack) Obama's. I mean, let's look at this objectively here, and I think my experience is much more preparatory for the job that awaits."

Yet when Republican likely candidate Rand Paul suggested that Hillary Clinton ought to be held to account for some of the scandals of her husband's administration, Team Clinton went into outrage mode. The influential columnist David Corn (Mother Jones/MSNBC) chuckled, "Paul's waving of the Monica flag has been dismissed by pundits on the right and left as odd and irrelevant. ..."

But the truth is just the opposite of what Clinton and her team would like remembered. While the first lady contributed comparatively little to the foreign and economic record of the Bill Clinton years, she was arguably the central mastermind of the Clinton presidency's scandal management. A 2007 biography revealed that it was Hillary Clinton's team that hired the private investigators assigned to "destroy" former Clinton mistress Gennifer Flowers when that matter went public in 1992.

New papers from the Clinton library depict Hillary Clinton pioneering the attack on Monica Lewinsky as a "narcissistic loony tune." (Until it became clear that Lewinsky would not cooperate with prosecutors, the imputation that Lewinsky was a crazy, untrustworthy stalker would serve as the White House's first line of defense against the 1998 sex scandal.) Hillary Clinton's most trusted aide, Sidney Blumenthal, led a campaign of vendetta against journalists and politicians who got crosswise with the Clintons, including, notably, Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post.

There's no particular reason to expect a Hillary Clinton presidency to restore the economic growth record of the 1990s. Hillary Clinton's foreign policy achievements are nebulous and doubtful, as she herself has had to acknowledge. But the one thing we can feel most sure of about a second Clinton White House is that it will revert to the scorched earth politics of personal destruction that Hillary Clinton field-marshaled 20 years ago -- and that the Barack Obama campaign warned Democrats against in 2008. (One of the ironies of a Hillary Clinton presidency will be to watch Republicans belatedly discover Barack Obama's scandal-free personal integrity.)

Hillary Clinton asks two things of us. On the one hand, she wants to be judged exactly as we'd judge a similarly accomplished man in politics. On the other hand, she wants us always to remember that the hopes of all womankind are fixed on whether she personally gets the job she wants. As she said on the night she conceded the 2008 Democratic nomination to Obama:

"Although we were not able to shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it has 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time, and we are going to keep working to make it so, today keep with me and stand for me, we still have so much to do together, we made history, and lets make some more."

"Keep with me." "Stand for me." Hillary Clinton did not end her drive for the nomination with a message of hope and inspiration for some future female nominee. She ended it with a reprise of Douglas MacArthur's, "I shall return."

Amy Poehler captured exactly this version of gender justice in a classic 2008 "Saturday Night Live" sketch: "I need to say something. I didn't want a woman to be president. I wanted to be president and I just happen to be a woman."

In that one highly specific sense, then, the Hillary Clinton standard is always single: whatever it takes.

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