02.17.09

Obama Macho

Any hope that Obama’s White House might curb Washington’s boy’s club traditions? Forget it. His press secretary is the worst offender.

I have a girl pet peeve: the macho prevalence of sports talk in White House briefing rooms and Washington green rooms.

It is an unwritten rule that at some point in the conversations that take place in those vestibules to power, the discussion will turn from brains to balls. At which point, the women in the room will fall silent.

In the Obama press operation, ball talk is a staple. Less than a month in and Gibb’s baseball quips are already part of briefing-room lore.

And in this baseball, basketball, and football loving White House, this insidiously sexist barrier to entry for female journalists is getting harder to overcome. Tim Russert did it, Chris Matthews does it, George Stephanopoulos, I’m told, does it, and, now on Pennsylvania Avenue, Robert Gibbs is the worst offender.

"Bottom of the fifth [inning], the sausage race is [at] the beginning of the next inning, so stay tuned, and the starting pitcher is in there, still throwing nice curveballs and [he's] still got a lot of heat on the fastball," was how the new White House press secretary described the progress of the economic stimulus bill at a recent briefing, presumably quite seriously expecting most of the correspondents in the room to understand what on earth he was saying. Most of the men that is.

Sports banter is a big part of Washington’s male political bonding.

Here’s how it works on TV shows. At about 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, the guests for a network talk show gather in the green room an hour before airtime for a sip of coffee and a slap of makeup. They chat. The conversation starts with the news topic of the day. It’s an animated discussion on the fiscal stimulus package/the latest machinations of the dastardly House of Representatives/the poppy crop in Afghanistan. Take your pick. OK, there’s a bit of the peacocks fanning their feathers about it, but it’s basically sober stuff. Until, some 20 minutes into the banter, the host, or one of the male guests, casually slips in the results of last night’s game. And that’s when the women quietly disappear into their notebooks.

I can talk politics with the best of them. I can even make reasonable sense of toxic mortgage assets. Give me Paris, Moscow, or Tokyo and I can usually muster an intelligent observation. But when the talk turns to innings, dunks and touchdowns, sorry, I’ve nothing remotely sensible to add.

At first, I thought I was alone. These are, after all, singularly American games and maybe, as a Brit, I just hadn’t grasped the local sports. I even made an effort to learn. I watched the Super Bowl with an expert, and gave yardlines and quarterbacks my undivided attention. For about 15 minutes. But I soon realized that understanding sports was just one more item to add to my “have to learn about” list, and one more thing which takes me away from all the other things competing for my attention—kids, spouse, job, house, dinner, unread New Yorker, un-bought Foreign Affairs, rest of life. Added to which American football, as I discovered in that brief tutorial, is fiendishly complicated and would actually take a great deal of time and energy to master. And, anyway, I’m now told it’s basketball that’s “in,” politically, so my brief flirtation with football was redundant.

A quick canvass of female political reporters has convinced me this is not a sports-averse issue, it is a more universal XX chromosome issue.

What’s even more daunting is when that preshow chitchat becomes on-show analysis. Then we women find ourselves having to feign comprehension and interest, live on air. “Policy discussions are a cakewalk compared to trying to seem knowledgeable about baseball on air sitting next to George Will,” confesses ABC’s Claire Shipman of her Sunday roundtables on This Week. “I usually just hide under the table when sports comes up.”

Of course, some women love sports and a handful of female political journalists are delighted to discuss Duke vs. UNC. But by and large, this is male terrain and when it filters into the political-discussion forum, with the frequency it does, it all feels very macho. When it comes top down from the White House podium, it’s particularly irksome.

Talk shows are one thing, and it doesn’t really matter too much what happens in green rooms. If women are smart and articulate on the show, they’ll get invited back. But now it’s coming from the administration down. In the Obama press operation, ball talk is a staple. Less than a month in and Gibb’s baseball quips are already part of briefing-room lore. Unless you don’t get the joke, in which case they’re a rather tedious distraction from the real job.

“Plenty of women are sports buffs,” says the Washington Post’s White House reporter, Anne Kornblut, who spends a lot of time at those Gibbs briefings “I’m just not one of them. So unless they’re talking about the Redskins, there’s a good chance I have no idea what they’re talking about. Fortunately, I don’t enjoy idle banter, so it doesn’t matter!”

Except that it sort of does matter. Because women feel excluded from these sports discussions, our normally confident voices are subdued. To turn the tables, imagine if these public conversations were liberally sprinkled with references to fashion, or yoga. It’s as if Dana Perino had compared getting out of Iraq to extracting yourself from pigeon pose, or tracking Osama to finding vintage Pucci on eBay. But she didn’t. She’s a woman and more inclusive than that.

Katty Kay covers US politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation and is Washington correspondent for BBC World News America. Kay is a regular contributor on Meet the Press , The Chris Matthews Show and a guest host for the Diane Rehm Show . She is the author, with Claire Shipman, of the upcoming book Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success.