Apparently, the thing that once made Hillary Clinton hip is now part of the reason she’s “unpopular.”
As anyone with even a passing awareness of the Internet will recall, Clinton became the subject of her own meme four years ago, when fictional texts were added to a now famous photo of the then-secretary of state. Wearing sunglasses, sitting on a military plane behind a pile of briefing books and looking at her Blackberry, Clinton looked like the picture of a no-nonsense executive, professional and absorbed in her work. As ABC News wrote of the meme last year: “The success of ‘Texts from Hillary,’ along with her unrelenting itinerary and rigorous travels across the world, helped transform Clinton’s image.”
But New York Times columnist David Brooks cast (in a column published in The N&O on May 25) that all-business image in a different light, attempting to explain what people have against Clinton by her apparent, ahem, lack of hobbies (“can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun?”) and the way people “tend to talk of her exclusively in professional terms.” Her “career appears, from the outside, to be all consuming,” Brooks wrote, noting her professional ties with her family and friends, as well as that “it’s hard from the outside to think of any non-career or pre-career aspect to her life.”
The column was met with plenty of criticism, with some mocking it by dreaming up hobbies for Clinton and others noting the well-researched double standard – not mentioned by Brooks – to which ambitious, professional women are held. “Because she’s a woman, Clinton’s dogged dedication to her job becomes a hurdle to overcome instead of a strength,” wrote New York Magazine’s Jessica Roy. “But even if his theory is true and people wish Hillary would show us her softer side, exactly why they expect that of her does not factor into Brooks’ column.”
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Yet in his argument, Brooks makes another puzzling statement that seems at odds with how we view other leaders. “Clinton’s unpopularity is akin to the unpopularity of a workaholic,” he writes. The implication is not only that Clinton’s workaholism makes us dislike her, but that we distrust or don’t like other people whose professional lives are all-consuming, too.
Wait, what? This is a country that idolizes grit and hard work and industriousness; one where ambition and moxie have long been seen as fundamental national character traits. It’s one that mythologizes the inventors, entrepreneurs and leaders who succeeded after being wholly preoccupied with their work – think Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs or any other tech CEO who got the top by pulling all-nighters working out of their garage for years.
Meanwhile, her own likely opponent’s obsessive work ethic is often held up in a positive light. Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump has touted that he gets just three to four hours of sleep a night. He has said he doesn’t think of himself as a workaholic – just before saying “I’m a workaholic – but I don’t consider that a bad thing.” Trump’s own son, when asked whether his father had the energy and commitment to keep up a presidential campaign’s pace, defended his father by calling him the “Energizer bunny” and saying, “I’ve literally never seen the man take a vacation.”
When it comes to major CEOs, the brutal daily schedules and a devotion to work are often seen as illustrations of their fitness for the job. Renault-Nissan Alliance CEO Carlos Ghosn has been known to fly 150,000 miles in a year. Tim Cook, one of America’s most admired CEOs – at least as measured by his peers – has tweeted that a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call is “sleeping in.” When he returned to the CEO job in 2008, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz told employees, “I’m in this 100 percent. My passion. My commitment. This is the most important thing in my life besides my family.”
Americans themselves might say they don’t like the idea of workaholism, but they certainly don’t act that way. In a study by one Harvard researcher of an elite professional services firm, the people who worked long hours got good performance reviews, but so did the people who were “passing” workaholics, pretending to put in more hours than they really did but still getting the work done. We regularly don’t take all the vacation time we’re offered – and when we do, many of us continue to check email or hide behind auto replies that simply say we’re “out of the office.”
Clinton is not a natural campaigner – she has said so herself. She can come across as rehearsed and guarded. Like it or not, personality and accessibility have become significant factors in a presidential election, and these are not her strong suits.
But Clinton came of age in a world where women had to put on a professional face at every turn, wary of seeming too soft or talking too much about their personal lives. Or that we live in a world today where women in leadership roles continue to face a double bind in how they act, what they say and how they’re viewed.
So no, David Brooks, workaholism isn’t “unpopular.” We might pretend we don’t like it, but in many cases, it’s rewarded – even glorified. It just depends on whom you’re talking about.
The Washington Post