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Column: Watch Out When Women Get All Emotional

Washington

Let’s have a rational discussion about the word “emotional.” But first, I’d better calm down. Maybe I’ll have a soothing cup of herbal tea and pet the cat. Oh wait, I don’t have a cat. Which is lucky for former CIA Director Michael Hayden, or else we’d both be so overwrought we’d be clawing his eyes out over his diss of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Make that sexist diss.

In case you missed it, Hayden took off after the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee on Fox News Sunday, suggesting that Feinstein’s “emotional” reaction to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation and rendition programs had clouded her judgment.

Feinstein had said that releasing the committee’s report on the CIA would “ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.” Uh-oh. Apparently being worked up over a little torture gets you kicked out of the Big Boys clubhouse: “That sentence, that motivation for the report … may show deep, emotional feeling on the part of the senator,” Hayden snarked. “But I don’t think it leads you to an objective report.”

I don’t employ the term “sexist” lightly. Hayden was citing a column by my colleague David Ignatius describing Feinstein’s desire for a report “so tough” it would prevent any recurrence. Interestingly, Ignatius used the adjectives “determined,” “implacable” and, more critically, “obdurate” to describe the senator. Those are accurate, and they come without gender baggage.

Unlike, say, “emotional.” If you wonder whether I am being fair in using the “s” word to describe Hayden’s comments, consider: Would he have used that word to describe Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who has been pushing for declassification? (Talk about emotional: On Monday, Udall termed Hayden’s “baseless smear” of Feinstein “beyond the pale.”) Or how about Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who recently took off after the intelligence community’s “culture of misinformation”?

Don’t think so — and neither does Feinstein. “Kind of stereotypical,” she told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “An old male fall-back position.” There is a distinction between sexist and consciously sexist. Did Hayden intend to denigrate Feinstein in a “quien es mas macho” segment out of Saturday Night Live? Doubtful. Watch Hayden’s response to an astonished Chris Wallace and you can see him thinking, Gee, maybe I went too far. But to give Hayden the benefit of the doubt and excuse him of conscious sexism does not excuse him of sexism. He wouldn’t have used that word about a male senator. Moreover, if he had, it wouldn’t have carried the same — pardon the phrase — emotional weight.

Emotional is a term that, applied to women, connotes weakness. In the Feinstein context, it suggests a you-can’t-handle-the-truth prissiness about the brutal business of intelligence gathering. More broadly, it conveys a sense of being overwrought or irrational. Don’t get so emotional, women are told — and, worse, Calm down! Yet when men are involved, a little emotion isn’t always a bad thing.

Consider its use in the report about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge. As Amy Davidson of The New Yorker has noted, the report employs “emotional” to describe both the governor and his now-nemesis, former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly.

Except that, at least according to his hired guns, Christie’s emotionality betokens his innocence of involvement with the lane closures. “It was an emotional session, in which the governor, welling up with tears, expressed shock at the revelations,” they write.

To the extent that Christie’s emotions get the better of him — he “began the meeting by entering his office, slamming the door and then standing at the head of the table” — that serves to underscore his sincerity.

Kelly’s emotional displays, by contrast, are supposedly emblematic of her weakness and guilt. She sat in the back of the room and “seemed emotional” during one meeting; after another, she “looked as if she had been crying.” Meanwhile, they smarmily suggest, “events in Kelly’s personal life may have had some bearing on her subjective motivations and state of mind.” For example, the first emails about lane closures occurred around the time that her “personal relationship” with Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien “had cooled, apparently at Stepien’s choice, and they largely stopped speaking.” This is Fatal Attraction meets George Washington Bridge. Just substitute traffic backups for dead bunnies.

Bridget Kelly, it’s safe to say, is no Dianne Feinstein. But the two women might have something to discuss over a nice cup of chamomile.