Double Standard for the Presidential Debate?


“What a beautiful reading! Now that’s how Whitman should be read.”

Had my professor stopped there, I doubt I’d have any memory of a scene I can see in my mind as clearly today as that day many years ago.

This was my introduction to the second semester of American literature as a sophomore in college. Whitman was the first author in the second volume of Norton’s The American Tradition in Literature. The professor believed in the power of reading poetry aloud, and he asked me to read the opening verses of Whitman’s most famous elegy to President Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”

I loved lilacs. My mother’s two lilac bushes were the only color in a yard where she had difficulty even getting grass to grow—the one thing of beauty that welcomed visitors to the ramshackle house of a coal miner with five children.

When the professor called on me, I sat up a little straighter. I read those lines with all the energy my mother poured into trying to add color and beauty to her children’s lives:

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the whitewash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle…

I glanced up from those lines to see the professor take off his glasses and lean forward. It was a rare gesture of approval from the doctor who was proud of his reputation as the most challenging professor in the English Department at Concord College. He allowed me to read on for far longer than most students, whom he’d interrupt mid-verse with impatience and read the rest himself.

When I finished, he complimented me. But he didn’t stop there. With a pause and a sigh, he went on, “It’s a shame you don’t have a masculine voice.” And he finished the poem in his own deep bass, as I sat in confusion, unsure as a 19-year-old whether to be flattered or insulted.

Just what was I supposed to do with that particular piece of criticism—of the one thing about my voice that I couldn’t change?

I’ve thought of this professor often as I’ve listened to the criticism of Hillary Clinton’s voice and delivery over the course of the presidential campaign and, especially, as she prepares for her first debate with Donald Trump.

Though the stakes are high for both candidates, expectations could not be more different for what will constitute a successful performance for each of them. Both news articles and social media have been abuzz with commentary about what each needs to do tonight. Today’s “Daily 202” in the Washington Post outlines a litany of news outlets that say the bar is higher for Clinton, most drawing the same conclusion as Yamiche Alcindor in the New York Times: “A lot of people are going to look at Donald Trump and think, ‘Hey, if he can even get out a good sentence and show off his experience, then he’s doing well.’”

I would love to move past harping on gender and race in America. But as long as society continues to judge candidates by the same standard my college professor did over 30 years ago, when states defeated the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment that both houses of Congress had approved, we will never be able to move forward. How long must we endure comments like this Twitter post from Donald Trump?

If dopey Mark Cuban of failed Benefactor fame wants to sit in the front row, perhaps I will put Gennifer Flowers right alongside of him!

The most apt response I read came from progressive Christian author Rachel Held Evans:

Don’t tell me “gender isn’t a factor” when Hillary Clinton is more despised for being cheated on than Trump is despised for cheating.

Many others have observed the double standard in recent days, including diversity trainer Vernā Myers:

Can you imagine a black male candidate acting 1/2 as belligerent as Donald Trump? He would be deemed a physical threat.

And one of my favorites comes from a viewer’s comment after watching a discussion of the debate on Morning Joe:

Debate rules are: Hillary has to know facts, stay focused and watch pitch of voice; Trump can’t pee on rug – #morningjoe

Perhaps we could learn from another great Whitman poem, “Song of Myself:”

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.

I read that last line again and again. Some might find fault with the use of the masculine at the end or the fact that Whitman assumes a woman who has children is greater than a woman who does not. Politically incorrect? Maybe. But it doesn’t seem to matter in the context of what he’s saying—that women are equal to men. The use of the masculine can be forgiven.

And this is the mistake that Trump supporters make when they say they’re tired of having to be politically correct. Because of the nuances and traditions of our language, we often use masculine nouns and pronouns when what we really mean is humanity.

What cannot be forgiven is to criticize women and minorities for things we cannot—and do not want to—change: the tenor of our voices, the color of our skin. What cannot be forgiven is to fail to give women and minorities the opportunity to serve because we make false assumptions about their capabilities and hold them to a different standard because of their race and gender.

If that is the standard by which we judge the debates, then, to borrow a phrase from the King James version of I Corinthians 15:19 “…we are of all men most miserable.” (Should we pronounce that ‘One Corinthians’?)

Or, to be more apt, I should use the NRSV or one of several more recent gender-neutral versions that speak to what we will miss if we fail to elect the most qualified presidential candidate in history mostly because she is female: “…we are of all people most to be pitied.” Indeed. And that’s why I’m with her.

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