Looking Back: When Pulitzer Winner Robin Givhan Took Flak for Her Katherine Harris ‘Fashion’ Statement

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By: E&P Staff

Robin Givhan of The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday in the criticism category for her insightful and often witty writing about fashion. But she has also taken some knock to get here. On Dec. 18, 2000, Alicia Mundy, then an E&P columnist, now a correspondent for the Seattle Times, wrote a piece about the uproar inspired by Givhan’s classic appraisal of Florida’s pivotal election figure, Katherine Harris.

Mundy’s original column follows.

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By Alicia Mundy

Do you think that a man who can’t control his makeup artist before going on national TV for a political debate is capable of being a good president? Do you wonder why I’m asking this question? Because it’s one of the great issues that has arisen from the Election Night mess: When should the press critique a politician’s image — and are Republican women off-limits?

Right after the first debate in October, columnists around the country zeroed in on Al Gore’s dreadful neon-traffic-cone makeup. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd likened him to “a big, orange, waxy, wickless candle.” The issue was Gore’s inability to come across as presidential material, as the image of a leader. It started earlier with Gore’s famous change to “earth tones,” which signaled to the rest of us: unsure of himself.

Comes now Katherine Harris, the secretary of state for Florida. She’s been kicked around in print for how she presented herself during the post-election debacle, when she delivered news that seemed at odds (to many) with logic or fairness. Her appearance practically shouted: “I love all this attention!”

No one’s done a better job of critiquing Harris than The Washington Post’s fashion editor, Robin Givhan, and no one’s taken more crud doing her job. On Nov. 18, Givhan wrote, “At this moment that so desperately needs diplomacy, understatement and calm, one wonders how this Republican woman, who can’t even use restraint when she’s wielding a mascara wand, will manage to use it and make sound decisions in this game of partisan one-upmanship….

“Her skin had been plastered and powdered to the texture of prewar walls. … And her eyes, rimmed in liner and frosted with blue shadow, bore the tell-tale homogenous spikes of false eyelashes. Caterpillars seemed to rise and fall with every bat of her eyelid, with every downward glance … “

Givhan added this denunciation: “The American public doesn’t like falsehoods, and Harris is clearly presenting herself in a fake manner. Why should anyone trust her?”

The Post was swamped with letters and e-mail messages. Its new ombudsman, Michael Getler, called Givhan’s column “a slashing attack” and “a classic example of the arrogance of journalists.”

Only the Post’s top editor, Len Downie, defended Givhan in Getler’s column: “Robin is a well-established fashion critic who is known for her strong views. … The newspaper has printed many other strongly voiced views about the issues and participants in this national drama, and I believe that is a proper role for the newspaper. … ” Well, it’s better than nothing.

The Wall Street Journal rolled out conservative author Danielle Crittenden to denounce Givhan. She wrote, “Had these columns been written by men, of course, they would never have appeared.” Uh, Danielle, the Post’s Tony Kornheiser likened Harris to Cruella De Vil, saying she looked like she’d been raised “in the woods by Tammy Faye Bakker.” As I used to tell my reporters, “Facts are your friends.”

Givhan is surprised at the venomous calls she’s received, many suggesting she write about Hillary Clinton’s large ankles. “I don’t write about the way nature made people; I write about the choices they make in presenting themselves,” Givhan said. “At a serious press conference, Katherine Harris looked like she was going to a cocktail party. She was saying: ‘It’s all about me!'”

Leadership includes an image component. Sometimes journalists call it charisma; like pornography, we know it when we see it. Many Americans knew Bob Dole was by far the better man in 1996, but they also felt Bill Clinton was the person to follow in a crisis. That leadership image gave Clinton a win over his personal failings — and Dole.

Clothes and makeup count: The doctor doesn’t talk to the grieving family while wearing a clown suit. When I was editor of a local paper in Alexandria, Va., my sales director, a wealthy woman, set up a breakfast with me and our major real estate advertisers to calm them about the stories I was running on the death of the local commercial building market. She called me at 6 a.m to snap: “Do you have any pearls? Well, for God’s sake, wear them!”

Harris’ partisans seem to think that Republican women are such delicate creatures they can’t be held to the same standards of responsibility as men in politics. But I rarely see U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe or Condoleeza Rice done up like drag queens.

The most Republican woman I ever met was Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, who got up every day of her life aware that she had to look credible to be able to deliver the bad news. She was perfectly coiffed, fashionably dressed and never wore too little or too much makeup. She knew her appearance was part of the job, that her image was part of the leadership deal, and she didn’t want to let her people down.

To those folks desperately defending Katherine Harris, I have two words: Remember Maggie.

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