John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Forget gender Hillary, win it on civility

As they waited for Hillary Clinton to "make history" for them this week, one or two of the panellists on CNN caught themselves on the point of calling it a world first. Just in time, some faded faces must have come into their minds, of Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and maybe even one or two more recent names downunder.

Even in America, the panel agreed, the great thing about a woman winning a major party's nomination for President was that it didn't seem remarkable anymore. David Axelrod, who managed Barack Obama's campaigns, gently implied that Clinton didn't need to be talking about it. Obama, he said, left it to others to talk about the prospect of the first African-American President.

If Clinton's campaign team was monitoring CNN as she prepared for her victory speech on Wednesday, the advice came too late. They had the stage set for history and a show ready to go.

It started with a woman singing Star Spangled Banner off key, followed by a video of fuzzy black-and-white footage of little-known people and events, overlaid with some leaden, scripted messages from the candidate herself. Finally Hillary took the stage, to tell the predominantly female audience in Brooklyn, "we are standing under a glass ceiling here" and that they were giving every young girl in America the belief they can be President of the United States. As someone on the panel had said, girls in America probably already know that. Girls and boys today were more likely to find it odd that a woman had not been President before.

There are two strands of feminism, one strand uses it for political identity and the other does not. Ghandi and Meir, I think, and Thatcher certainly, belonged to the second strand. They spoke and acted as though their gender was of no importance to their election or to the job they wanted to do. Helen Clark, too, did not make as much of her feminism as she might have done, perhaps because the incumbent she defeated was a woman and Jenny Shipley was definitely a second-strand feminist.

Australia's Julia Gillard is one who did play the gender card, justifiably in response to some of the crude treatment she received, but it did her little good.

Offhand, I can't think of a woman who has successfully run for an elected national office primarily on her sex. In that sense Clinton might make history if she wins but I worry that an appeal to identity politics will make her task harder.

A national electorate is not the United Nations, where Clark is not the only candidate running for secretary general on the basis that it's time a woman had a turn. National electorates do not respond well to sectional appeals.

I worry because Hillary is carrying more than the hopes of women in this election, more even than the self-respect of all thinking Americans. She is going to be the candidate for people everywhere who believe politics and government is a civilised pursuit.

When Clinton's speech this week turned from "herstory" to the subject of Donald Trump, she became very impressive. When she said Trump was temperamentally unfit to be President she said it from the soul. She said it as one who knows and cares what high public office means.

Leading Republicans were as appalled as Democrats by Trump's distrust of a judge on racial grounds this week. When the political class say he is unfit to be President they are referring not so much to his ignorance of the finer points of public policy, or even to his thoughtless, careless manner of speaking, best described recently as "verbal vomit". These things can be fixed by political tutors.

In fact, Trump's speech after the primaries this week showed he had been "taken to the woodshed," as one commentator put it. He was clearly under orders to stay on the autocue, and he tried. He didn't sound right and you could sense he hated it. Trump can probably not be tutored because he lacks a sense of the dignity of the position he seeks. That is the real reason he is unfit to be President.

He campaigns the way he does because his ego is impervious to the awe of the office that makes US presidential campaigns unusually polite and respectful by comparison with politics almost everywhere else.

Trump appeals mainly to a certain type of male. Everyone else, especially women, find him repulsive. His sheer repulsiveness has been funny and highly entertaining at times but he has never been funny when attacking a woman. When it comes to the general election, Hillary will have no need to labour her gender. Her trump card will be to treat him with cool feminine disdain.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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