Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) revealed in a new book excerpt Wednesday that some male colleagues had called her “porky,” “chubby” and “fat.” Naturally, a shocked and offended public is demanding her harassers be brought to justice. Get the pitchforks! And the regular forks! Specifically, some male journalists are asking that Gillibrand name names, because they are so deeply concerned with curbing sexual harassment in American government:
Even I tweeted yesterday that we should try to guess the culprits, before I realized that that information is infinitely more valuable if it’s kept a secret.
Kay Steiger at Talking Points Memo wrote Thursday that demanding the names suggests we don’t believe Gillibrand, or we’re telling her not to speak out unless she goes whole hog with total transparency. Besides, she rightly points out, men who harass women rarely face major consequences.
But there’s another reason Gillibrand shouldn’t reveal the name of the colleague who told her not to lose weight because “I like my girls chubby.” It’s a total power move. She knows who they are. They know she knows. Checkmate.
Which means somewhere on Capitol Hill, the hapless male Senator who called Gillibrand “porky” is probably cowering in his office, running that interaction in his head over and over again. “How can I spin this?” he’s thinking, “Could I make this about Michelle Obama’s fat-kids-thing? Could I say I was making a point about pork-barrel spending? Where is Olivia Pope when you need her?” Sweat is pouring off his brow, he’s wiping his forehead with his red-and-blue tie, he’s trying desperately to remember whether he pinched her arm or her butt that one time in the House gym. If Gillibrand exposes him, he’ll have a tough time winning over pretty big portion of the electorate: women (more than 50% of the U.S. population) and fat people (more than a third of all Americans.)
Suddenly, a text appears on his phone. “Hey Porker” and then, as a quick follow-up, “;)” He’s in Gillibrand’s house now.
Now, if Gillibrand’s bill to revamp sexual assault reporting in the military comes to the floor again, she can count on a vote from Mr. “Porky.” Need some muscle on a bill to protect contraceptive rights? The guy who called her “Honey Badger” will lend a hand. Maybe the genius who called her the “hottest member of the Senate” could vote with her on climate change.
Even Nancy Pelosi says that Gillibrand’s decision whether to name her harasser is her decision, “but the fact is they know who they are.” Burn.
Revealing her harassers would satisfy our curiosity and expose some senators for the jerks they are, but it’s much better in the long run for Gillibrand to keep their names secret. Exposure could cause some political turmoil for her colleagues, but Steiger is right that it’s more likely to blow over without costing anyone their seat. The more powerful choice is to describe the harassment without naming names, generate public outrage about the treatment of women in government and then use it to persuade the guilty parties to vote the way she wants them to.
Besides, like most scandals, an element of secrecy adds to the power of the charge, and makes Gillibrand seem more dignified. If she appeared on the cover of People next to a block quote that said, “Senator So-and-So Called Me Fat!” she could risk being seen as whiney or petty, and the story could quickly devolve into tabloid fodder. This way, she holds all the cards and maintains control of her image.
It’s what Olivia Pope would do.