Today the Times weighs in yet again on the "controversy" surrounding McCain campaign's spending on Sarah Palin's stylists -- this time with a story that suggests, with professed astonishment, that there's a link between politics and celebrity.
The Times's coverage of this story reflects not only an offensive and sexist obsession with Palin's appearance, but also the paper's hypocritical harshness towards the former Republican vice-presidential candidate.
Never, in the last two years, has the Times investigated campaign spending on the appearance of any other presidential candidate, male or female. By implication -- without any reporting to suggest otherwise -- the Times wants us to believe that Palin, alone among candidates for national office, used campaign funds to buy clothes and get makeup assistance from paid professionals.
Is there anyone in America, besides the team of Times reporters assigned to the Palin non-story, who believes that Hillary Clinton didn't spend a comparable amount of money out of her campaign funds on her appearance? The only difference is that she campaigned for two years, not nine weeks. And in the post-Nixon era, does anyone seriously think that John McCain and Barack Obama had no professional help with their hair, clothes or makeup?
We live in an age where appearance has a profound influence over our opinion of politicians, male and female. It's a topic the Times has allowed its critics, columnists and essayists to address frequently, and at times with eloquence. It has become almost routine for the Times to turn to its television critic, Alessandra Stanley, to assess the image aspects of politics. On August 26, 2007, the noted critic Daphne Merkin wrote a provocative 2,600-word essay in the Times called "The Politics of Appearance," that began this way:
So shoot me: at the end of the day (and the beginning, if it comes to that), in the high-definition show business of politics — as in everything else — looks matter. Appearance, whether we like it or not, has become the coin of the realm, the locus of our conversation: in our image-saturated, relentlessly scrutinizing Visual Age, we trade in it, subliminally or overtly, whether we are talking of Victoria Beckham or Hillary Clinton.
If appearance has become the coin of the realm, than how can politicians be expected to avoid dropping a few coins on stylists and hairdressers?
Merkin, Maureen Dowd and others have written extensively on Hillary Clinton's appearance; the media's mentions of her pantsuits became so ubiquitous that Clinton herself made it a part of her comic patter. But who paid for those pantsuits? Or Michelle Obama's dresses that prompted so much commentary? Has any reporter gone through the Democrats' filings to check whether any of Obama's $750 million war chest went towards the same sort of expenses Palin incurred?
Today's story achieves new levels of outrage over the Palin style budget, dragging in invidious comparisons to Hollywood that do nothing to mask the extraordinary bias implicit in the reporting. With a joint byline by Michael Luo and Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn, the story begins:
Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign spent more than $165,000 over the course of nine weeks on a trio of stylists for Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, equivalent to what a Hollywood studio might invest in preparing an A-list actress for a movie premiere or publicity campaign, other stylists said.
In the lede, the notion of Hollywood-style spending is presented as nothing less than sinful. The Times now appears to find it a moral and ethical outrage that Palin's handlers saw her appearance to be an legitimate element of the political process.
The 1,266-word story then goes on to assess the costs of Palin's beauty care by interviewing Hollywood stylists, dropping names like Jennifer Lopez and Reese Witherspoon into the mix. It vacillates on the question of whether the charges were excessive -- some say yes, some say no, all say it depends on the circumstances.
But for all this reporting on the possibly exorbitant costs, the real issue for the Times appears to be the notion that Palin got a makeover paid for out of campaign coffers. By reporting on it, the Times appears to be saying that Palin has done something not only wrong, but hypocritical:
The filings furnished a trickle of new details to what has become one of the lingering controversies of the 2008 presidential campaign: the expensive makeover of Ms. Palin, the vice-presidential nominee, for the campaign, including the tens of thousands of dollars spent by the Republican Party on clothing for her and her family, undermining her calibrated “hockey mom” appeal.
So is that the core component of this controversy -- that "hockey moms" don't have the right to look good, or to spend money on their appearance? By pressing the issue in the pages of the Times, the paper has actually managed to make Palin herself feel guilty about the spending:
Meghan Stapleton, a senior adviser to the vice-presidential campaign, said Friday that Ms. Palin had not been consulted about the expenditures.
“The decisions reflected in this disclosure are financially poor decisions made by campaign staffers hired by the campaign and not the governor,” Ms. Stapleton said in an e-mail statement.
“The governor expected judicious decisions to be made, and they weren’t. She is absolutely appalled at the news and the amount of money reportedly spent on the vice-presidential campaign. To this day, the governor has not seen a list of expenses for the campaign and its staff, and she does not know who benefited from all the expenditures reported.”
But for once, Palin is missing an appropriate moment to attack the media for its wrongful obsessions. Not only did she do nothing wrong, neither did the McCain campaign in spending money on her appearance. The failure here belongs to the Times for applying a double standard to Palin. Politicians entitled to the same style care as celebrities, and Palin ought to be entitled to the same freedom from scrutiny that her fellow politicians enjoy.
While Luo and Horyn spend their days poring over Republican campaign records for more evidence of Palin's supposedly excessive concern with her looks -- with the blessing of their Palin-hating editors -- Hillary Clinton is laughing all the way to the hairdresser.