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The sexist attack on Valerie Jarrett

By Donna Brazile
updated 9:12 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Critics suggest President Barack Obama needs to shake up his staff, including getting rid of senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Critics suggest President Barack Obama needs to shake up his staff, including getting rid of senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In wake of Democratic election losses, some call for firing of Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett
  • Donna Brazile: Everyone gets attacked in D.C., but Jarrett is target of sexist criticism
  • She says Jarrett is being given the disrespectful treatment that Hillary Clinton, others have seen
  • Brazile: It's OK to criticize but don't demean people based on their gender

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- After the past week's political upheavals in Washington and around the country, we are reminded that certain things remain constant in politics. Unfortunately, one of those things is the sexism leveled at any woman who rises to power in the White House -- under presidents of either party.

No sooner was the hunt on for a fall guy for the Democratic midterm losses than some in the press predictably went after a fall gal -- President Barack Obama's senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett.

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

Reporter Carol Felsenthal in Politico and others have decided that the best way to address Democratic losses is to have a "shake-up" at the White House, and the person they most want to see shaken out is Jarrett.

She is pilloried for everything from run-ins with other staffers to playing herself in a cameo role on CBS' "The Good Wife." That's how much they object to the job Valerie Jarrett is doing -- they don't even want her doing it in the fictional realm. The Politico story, headlined "Fire Valerie Jarrett, even notes that "nobody knows precisely what Jarrett does in the White House." But whatever it is, it's wrong enough that she needs to be fired.

Jarrett: 'He doesn't want to sit waiting'

Withering criticism is something that is meted out regardless of gender in Washington. Attorney General Eric Holder has been called every name in the book, including the ones that have to be spelled using asterisks. But Jarrett is being subjected to a refrain of snipes and swipes that sound like they were cribbed from the Twitter feed of one of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." The litany of Jarrett's run-ins with other White House power brokers reads like a plot synopsis for a new "Mean Girls" movie.

Even more telling are the descriptions of Jarrett that trivialize her position and the skills that got her to that position. The Politico article states, "If her role in this administration reflected reality, Jarrett would be called 'First Big Sister' to both Michelle and Barack."

"Big Sister!"

Karl Rove may have been characterized as an evil genius, but he was never reduced to being called merely George Bush's big brother figure. He was given credit for being good at what he did, not dismissed as a sycophantic surrogate sibling.

But Felsenthal fails even to acknowledge any of Jarrett's good works. Senior administration officials have told me she played an important role in making sure that the uninsured, particularly uninsured women, were enrolled in the Affordable Care Act.

More than 4.3 million women and girls enrolled in coverage during the first open enrollment period. As of June, 29.7 million women are estimated to have access to expanded preventive services coverage such as mammograms, HIV testing, contraception and other screenings with no cost-sharing. She spent months developing and executing a plan to bring community leaders and celebrities into the ACA rollout to reach uninsured people "where they are."

In another article, U.S. News & World Report is somewhat more generous to Jarrett. Mark Davis, a former White House speechwriter in the George H.W. Bush administration, says, "Jarrett is the White House 'mirror, mirror on the wall' who has cultivated the psychological dependency of the president of the United States."

According to him, Jarrett still attained her power through mere flattery, but at least she has a certain Disney villain sinister cachet. And as someone who psychologically controls the President, she's more Big Brother than big sister.

Valerie Jarrett is certainly not the first woman who achieved power in Washington to be treated so disrespectfully.
Donna Brazile

Valerie Jarrett is certainly not the first woman who achieved power in Washington to be treated so disrespectfully. The shards of the broken glass ceiling cut both Democrat and Republican. When George W. Bush was President, The New York Times' Maureen Dowd dismissed Bush female staffers Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes and Harriet Miers all as nothing more than "adoring work wives, catering to W.'s every political, legal and ego-affirming need."

Evidently presidents of either party choose their male advisers based on their talents, and their female advisers based purely on their ability to serve up chicken soup for the soul.

Dowd said, "W. loves being surrounded by tough women who steadfastly devote their entire lives to doting on him." One can't even read that statement without picturing Miers tousling Bush's hair. Dowd was especially fond of the phrase "office wives," which is the sort of thing that really should only be said by characters in the show "Mad Men," and even then only the early seasons.

At another point, Dowd implies that Rice got her job as secretary of state by just spending time with W. and "making him feel like the most thoughtful, farsighted he-man in the world." In one sentence, a woman who had devoted her life to diplomacy and public service has been reduced to a cheerleader ... and a self-serving cheerleader at that.

Hillary Clinton has been attacked for being Hillary Clinton for so long now that it's easy to forget that the criticism of her began with the same sexist overtones now being used on Jarrett. Before Hillary-bashing became its own thing, she was subjected to the standard-issue woman-bashing used on every powerful woman in Washington.

Well, Clinton got the royal treatment -- she was routinely compared to Lady Macbeth. A New York Times piece from 1992 said that at least 20 articles in major publications that year had compared her to Shakespeare's homicidal heroine with the stain problems. "Out, damned spot!" Great -- even Shakespeare's greatest villainess sounds like a laundry-obsessed housewife to modern ears. The only surprising thing about all of the comparisons of Clinton to Lady Macbeth is that so many Washington pundits are familiar with the classics.

The Politico article calling for Jarrett's ouster ends up suggesting that maybe she can be transitioned out by making her the "Obama librarian" in charge of plans for the presidential library. Really, librarian? Why not just give her another stereotypical female job? She could become his secretary -- fielding phone calls and taking messages. Or bookkeeper, balancing the checkbook. White House nurse, or a stewardess on Air Force One!

Women in Washington -- and in positions of power anywhere -- should be subjected to the same criticisms and held to the same standards as men. That does not include the assumption that any successful woman has attained her position through flattery, feminine wiles or her ability to provide maternal comfort to a more powerful man. We can criticize a person's performance without demeaning her based on gender.

After all, our most basic human flaws transcend gender -- so should our criticism of those flaws.

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