JONATHAN COHN OCTOBER 16, 2010
With some help from the media, various officials at the National Organization for Women, and her opponent’s clumsiness, California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman succeeded in turning an offensive epithet uttered in private by a Jerry Brown staffer into a major campaign brouhaha. Now, Whitman has officially called an end to “Whoregate” by accepting Brown’s apology for his minor role in the saga and saying she wants to get back to “the issues.” And no wonder, since “Whoregate” served her purposes quite well.
For those who somehow missed the whole thing, a month-old phone tape leaked to the L.A. Times--and left because Team Brown failed to hang up the receiver on a call--recorded a staffer wondering aloud if the campaign should attack Whitman as a “whore” for exempting a police union (which subsequently endorsed eMeg) from her high-profile proposal to eliminate defined-benefit pensions for public employees. Jerry Brown did not object to the use of the word, which Whitman, happily promoting the “story,” interpreted as a “personal attack” on her and an insult to the women of California. It was a major point of discussion in the candidates’ final debate last weekend, in which Brown did not handle the controversy terribly well.
Now, a moment’s thought should establish that it was more than a little unlikely Brown intended to “attack” anyone via the unusual means of failing to hang up a phone and hoping eavesdroppers would tape the subsequent discussion and then leak it. As for the insulting nature of the private use of the term “whore,” it’s also reasonably clear that the Brown staffer was not trying to suggest that Whitman was employed in the world’s oldest profession, and instead deployed a gender-neutral meaning of the term (as convincingly argued here at TNR Online by linguist John McWhorter) as short-hand for her alleged sale of a policy position in exchange for an endorsement. That’s certainly the way I interpreted it—and I spent a number of years being occasionally called a “corporate whore” by some of my progressive friends for working at the Democratic Leadership Council.
There’s no evidence so far that Whitman’s efforts to encourage female voters to feel her pain about the alleged insult have worked. But whatever wounds she’s suffered have certainly been ameliorated by the obliterating impact “Whoregate” had on Whitman’s recent problems associated with her hiring and firing an illegal immigrant named Nicky Diaz. Here’s news site Calbuzz describing how one “story” affected the other:
With a major assist from an aggressive Team eMeg, which kept blowing and blowing on the smoldering little story until it finally got lit, and aided by the lackadaisical nonchalance of his own handlers, Brown lost his firm grip on the [“Whoregate”] narrative and momentum of the campaign in the 10 days between the Oct. 2 Fresno debate – when he dominated eMeg with a righteous scolding of her dealings with Nicky Diaz – and the Brokaw [debate] event.
In the end, the bizarre whore story may still not matter much to the outcome of the race. However, it is inarguable that Brown’s mishandling of it not only allowed Whitman to instantly change the subject, but also enabled on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-minded members of the press corps to begin drawing a false equivalence between a person in his orbit blurting a rude word in a closed door campaign klatsch, and the more serious matter of Whitman’s employment of an undocumented worker for years.
In other words, it’s the Diaz dustup, not “Whoregate,” that Whitman is happy to escape in her return to “the issues.” The next time the Republican candidate is likely to make major national news is when she shatters the $150 million cap she originally imposed on the personal funds she was willing to spend in this campaign. Meanwhile, the Brown campaign needs to watch its language and learn how to terminate a phone call.