How Monica Goodling played the gender card.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
May 25 2007 2:37 PM

The Goodling Girl

How Monica Goodling played the gender card and won.

Monica Goodling. Click image to expand.
Monica Goodling testifies before the House judiciary committee

Monica Goodling and the "girl" card: Nobody seems to want to go there, so we will.

Let's pretend for a moment that the world divides into two types of women: the soft, shy, girly kind who live to serve and the brash, aggressive feminists who live to emasculate. Not our paradigm, but one that's more alive than dead.

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When she was White House liaison in Alberto Gonzales' Justice Department, Monica Goodling, 33, had the power to hire and fire seasoned government lawyers who had taken the bar when she was still carrying around a plastic Hello Kitty purse. Goodling, in fact, described herself as a "type-A woman" who blocked the promotion of another type-A woman basically because the office couldn't tolerate infighting between two strong women. ("I'm not just partisan! I'm sexist, too!") That move sounds pretty grown-up and steely. Yet in her testimony this week before the House judiciary committee, Goodling turned herself back into a little girl, and it's worth pointing out that the tactic worked brilliantly.

Look past Goodling's long, silky blond hair, which may or may not have been a distraction. She's entitled to have pretty hair. Look past her trembling hand as she swore her oath and the tremulous voice as she described her "family" at Justice. What really shot Goodling into the stratosphere of baby-doll girls were her own whispered words: "At heart," she testified, "I am a fairly quiet girl, who tries to do the right thing and tries to treat people kindly along the way." [Late-breaking discovery, courtesy of a sharp reader: Goodling used the word girl in the written rather than spoken version of her testimony.] The idea, of course, was to scrub away her past image as ruthless, power-mad, and zealously Christian. But—as professor Sandy Levinson noted almost immediately over at Balkinization—it was in calling herself a "girl" that the 33-year-old did herself a great favor. It was a signal to the committee that she was no Kyle Sampson. Or Anita Hill.

To be sure, plenty of twenty- and thirty- and eightysomethings refer to themselves and their friends as girls. Particularly when there are mojitos around. But they don't often do so before the U.S. Congress. The same Goodling who once wanted to be powerful, so powerful that she refused to relinquish her power to hire and fire assistant U.S. attorneys even when she changed jobs at the Justice Department, painted herself as helpful and empathetic and out of the loop. She testified that the biggest and most important part of her job was hooking up employees with tickets for sporting events. The little matter of firing assistant U.S. attorneys was a minor extracurricular. She testified that she went to a Christian school because of her devotion to "service." One half expected her to leap up out of the witness chair and start offering canapés to the assembled members of Congress.

And at the heart of Goodling's ingénue performance? The astonishing claim that while she broke the law, she "didn't mean to." This is the stuff of preschoolers, not cum laude graduates of law school. The images we can't shake: By night, the blond demon driver in the convertible who gets pulled over for speeding and charms the cops out of giving her a ticket with lots of hair-tossing and "I didn't know I was doing 90 miles per hour, officer …" By day, the busy-bee administrative assistant Girl Friday, beloved for responding to late-night calls with a winning "can do" flair. All of which would be sexist for us to invoke, had Goodling not gone so far to evoke it herself.

But heed the lesson, girlfriends. It works. Republicans on the House judiciary committee had only gentle words and lavish praise for this girlish Monica. Even as she testified to repeatedly breaking the law, these genial uncles lauded her "class" and her courage, falling over themselves to observe how hard testifying must have been for her. Kyle Sampson must be wondering where all this sympathy was when he was on the stand. For the most part, even the Democrats were too bamboozled to be effective. It's no accident that some of the day's most brutal questioning came from Reps. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.; Maxine Waters, D-Calif.; and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas; who may well have been as annoyed by Goodling's Girl Secretary performance as they were by the underlying conduct. But even brutal isn't necessarily effective, and by and large, the Democrats let opportunities for key follow-up whiz by. On the few occasions in which they mounted a real offensive, their GOP counterparts came swinging in on their vines to save her. Dan Lundgren, R-Calif., was so desperate to rescue Goodling that he fought to get her a chat with her lawyer that she politely declined.

Ever since Goodling surfaced in the middle of the e-mail traffic about the U.S. attorneys purge, her gender has been crucial to the role she's played in the tale. She's the only one who cried to other DoJ officials. She's the only one who took the Fifth. This woman who was single-handedly firing interns and hiring immigration judges and stonewalling new applicants, brilliantly cast herself this week in the earnest helpmeet role. And the reason this has worked so well for her is that it's hard to call attention to that without getting tied up in knots. The first thing we noticed on Thursday (didn't everybody?) was Goodling's hair—great highlights! But to even say that is to trivialize her, right? And for us to say it, as women, is to launch a catfight. It's to separate her from the big boys, by calling her a girl.

But we're prepared to wade into the girl stuff because, to be lawyerly for a minute, it was Goodling who first put it into evidence. And because it's useful to observe that her girl performance was a kind of generational throwback. Other famous-for-being-infamous Washington women—the other Monica, Anita Hill, Hillary Clinton—never deliberately savaged their own professional importance with such remarkable professionalism. Their gender mattered, but they all fought to be taken more seriously in spite of it, while Goodling seems to be doing her utmost to be taken less so.

For a performance like this, the most apt role model we can think of is Fawn Hall, Oliver North's former secretary and the heart of the Iran-Contra affair. Hall also was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony to Congress in 1989. She confessed to shredding documents and even to hiding some inside her skirt so she could smuggle them out of the building. But she told Congress, "Sometimes you have to go above the law." Eventually, though reluctantly, she helped convict North, by turning government witness.

Maybe Goodling studied Hall's experience for pointers. Saying that you've crossed the line, as this week's Girl Secretary did, sounds much nicer than claiming to be above it. None of her former colleagues are facing time because of anything she has said. And Hall was named a Playboy "Sex Star" in 1987, a trap into which Goodling, with her ardent faith, presumably won't fall. But what's distressing, as a matter of gender politics, is that when Hall said, "I did not know many of the details relevant to the Iran and Contra activities," her claim was plausible precisely because she really was a secretary and thus not in on North's meetings. When Goodling says she doesn't know what Sampson and Karl Rove were up to because she was busy finding sports tickets for her co-workers, she's playing down power she indisputably had, power her sisters and aunts have fought for. That the line still works for her is testament that we haven't come as long a way as we'd hoped, baby.

What will happen to Goodling? She'll lay low for a while. She'll leave Washington, maybe. And then she'll re-emerge in another position of power; power that she will cast as reflected glow from greater men. Because to help yourself by playing helpless is the stuff of real smarts and savvy. Goodling's day in the spotlight wasn't exactly a good day for feminism. But in the end, maybe she's bamboozled us, too, because if we ever have to testify before Congress, hand us the pigtails and lollipop.

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate