Are prominent conservative pundits really in a catfight over body fat?
At first, it just made you go hmmm: Here was Meghan McCain, 24-year-old daughter of the former Republican presidential contender, blitzing the airwaves with her thoughts on what ails the GOP and using her column in Tina Brown's the Daily Beastto pick fights with Ann Coulter. In a deliberately controversial column that decried Coulter's tendency to deliberately court controversy, McCain wrote: "I straight up don't understand this woman or her popularity. I find her offensive, radical, insulting, and confusing all at the same time." That earned her a week (now spilling into two) of prime time television spots including The Rachel Maddow Show and The Early Show.
But the blonde-on-blonde catfight spiraled into a third dimension of lowlights when conservative radio show host Laura Ingraham—perhaps feeling left out—mocked McCain on her show last Thursday (listen at link) for being, among other things, cute, liberal, and, er, "plus-sized." Meghan, forced now to defend her weight as well as her politics, posted what she termed a "thoughtful" response at the Daily Beast, criticizing Ingraham for making her size an issue, then took the fight to The View yesterday morning, winningly telling Ingraham—while, of course, channeling Tyra Banks—to "like, kiss my fat ass."
In case you're still scoring all this in the margins of your seventh-grade Brenda Walsh yearbooks, Ingraham then took yet another swipe at McCain on her blog, calling her a "useful idiot" and "flavor of the month."
You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. This is the female version of the Rush Limbaugh-Michael Steele- David Frum smackdown for the soul of the GOP? One skinny blonde attacking another skinny blonde who is angrily defended by a third skinny blonde, after which everyone retires in a huff to their favorite health blogs to angrily discuss the importance of a positive body image and the need to support a healthy body mass index?
Ever wonder why some men think women are less than serious political thinkers? It certainly helps explain why so many men continue to believe that when it comes to "political discourse," women are all long, sprawling legs and silky blond hair in a tangle on the dessert cart. It's one thing to air your dirty laundry. But are we really stupid enough to be having a front-page battle over a plus-size thong?
Can you imagine the Y-chromosome version of Meghan McCain's recent appearance on The View? With Rush Limbaugh sitting at a round table surrounded by four supportive men, lamenting that men should help one another out more and that weight is the "last socially accepted prejudice" in America? Can you imagine David Frum sneering about Limbaugh or any other well-known political critic, "I've never heard of him before" as Meghan McCain giggled yesterday about Ingraham? (And can you imagine any serious television hosts chortling in girlish solidarity that "Laura Ingraham" was "the lady from Little House on the Prairie?" Grow up, View!)
If you're going to fight about politics, fight about politics. Here's a useful litmus test: As long as the media continue to cover women's political differences in their "Health" sections, we are probably doing something wrong. Just as Michelle Obama has been reduced to a perpetual fashion story, the fight for the future of young women in the GOP has now become a body-image story. Well done, ladies! Way to get your thoughts and preferences taken seriously!
Michelle Cottle suggests that Ingraham's mistake lay in the criticism by one leggy, blond sex kitten of a younger leggy, blond sex kitten. Perhaps. But I'm uncomfortable taking Anne Baxter's * side over Bette Davis' or vice versa where spectacularly pointless catfights are concerned. My view is generally that an eyelash for an eyelash leaves the whole world blind.
Were Ingraham's comments about McCain's weight thoughtless and stupid? Of course. Are McCain's hands lily white in the catfight rules of engagement? No. Don't believe me? Consider that her first column on Coulter attacked the Republican pundit for, among other things, her "voice." It reminded me of nothing so much as Sarah Palin's claim that she couldn't stand Clinton's "whining." When women, or men, criticize women's voices—whether we're going after Michelle Obama's allegedly angry one or (forgive me, Tina Fey!) Sarah Palin's allegedly crazy one—it's not all that different from going after their weight. It's a way of reducing what they have to say to what they sound like. It's a way of questioning their entitlement to speak at all. Which is why it's not something men typically complain about in other men.
Then there was McCain's nasty little zinger about Ingraham's age. Maybe you missed it amid all the fat chat. But in her column asking Ingraham to lay off the gratuitous weight comments, McCain dug deep and landed this little gratuitous snot-bomb: "Unfortunately, even though Ingraham is more than 20 years older than I and has been a political pundit for longer, almost, than I have been alive, she responded in a form that was embarrassing to herself and to any woman listening to her radio program who was not a size 0."
Get that, readers? Laura Ingraham is really, really, really old. She's so old she's been a pundit for longer (almost) than McCain has been alive. Classic girl-on-girl smear. And not something, say, David Frum would try on Rush Limbaugh because in man-world, being old and experienced is deemed a good thing. McCain has to know that when twentysomethings call fortysomethings old, they really mean it's time for Botox and a good divorce attorney because I'm coming to take your husband. There's a lot of snark in McCain, which will doubtless make her a brilliant heiress to the Coulter-Ingraham crown someday, but it makes her cries of mistreatment somewhat more difficult to tolerate.
And that's the problem. Meghan McCain just hasn't been doing this punditry thing long enough to understand that you can't suck and blow at the same time. The single most baffling line penned in the current catfight comes in McCain's latest salvo against Ingraham:
I also thought the media outlets that reported on Laura's comments about me were out of line. I don't listen to Laura's show, so if journalists hadn't picked up on it and reported on it, I never would have known what she said. I wonder how Laura would feel if at some point someone were to criticize her daughter's weight and broadcast it nationally on the radio.
Now, I don't want to expend a whole lot of energy here close-reading Meghan McCain, but is she, in fact, claiming that the media outlets that joyfully reported on her Coulter claims, interviewed her about them, and then reported on those interviews were "out of line" for covering Ingraham's remarks as well, because such widespread media coverage allowed McCain to hear unpleasant things about herself?? Is the problem here that only Meghan's complaints about others are fair game or that claims about weight are not news? Oh, Meghan. Go out and buy a copy of US Weekly. Weight is always news.
McCain's problem isn't her weight, or her views, or even the fact that she doesn't know a lot. It's that she suddenly holds a rather enormous megaphone without understanding that the person most likely to be smacked on the head with it is herself. I am about to write a sentence I never believed myself capable of writing: I score this game, set, and match to Ann Coulter, who has never met an opponent she won't destroy—including myriad imaginary ones—and yet has remained silent in the face of Meghan's wrath.
Last week, McCain told Maddow "If it was too hot in the kitchen, I'd get out. …" Yesterday, Ingraham retorted that "you know, sometimes the kitchen gets a little hot." The problem with the whole hot-kitchen metaphor is that it's as archaic as these women who keep flinging it around. Women can fight in the kitchen if they want to, and they can crank up the heat if they so choose. But until we remember to argue on the merits, avoid the tired Mean Girls clichés, and speak as though what we have to say matters to men as well as to the viewers of America's Next Top Model, we'll never be taken seriously, in the kitchen or anyplace else.
Correction, March 17, 2009: This article originally misattributed Anne Baxter's role in All About Eve to Anne Bancroft. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Meghan McCain on Slate's home page by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.