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Obama's Term of Endearment Leaves Bitter Aftertaste

Here’s the truth: I’m sweet on Barack Obama, and the man can call me whatever he wants as long as he doesn’t let that war-mongering glad-hander into our White House. No, not Hillary. The other one.

But last week the likely Democratic nominee said something that left a bitter taste in some Americans’, um, ears: He called a journalist “sweetie.”

During a Detroit factory tour, a TV reporter asked how Obama planned to help autoworkers, and the senator said, “Hold on, sweetie, we’ll do a press avail,” meaning he’d make time for questions soon.

In fact, he never did answer the very legit question, or make time for others. And what most peeved the press was not his evasion. It was his condescending remark — a word he had also lobbed at a Pennsylvania factory worker just last month.

Barack, baby! Honey! Sugarlips! This ain’t no way to win Clinton’s bra-sporting supporters.

As a woman, and a reporter, I can tell you there’s little that chafes the patience like being addressed — in a professional setting — with the same patriarchal smarm you’d use to charm a waitress at a pie shop off the interstate.

Actor Jimmy Smits called me sweetheart once during an interview — you know, in that smooth-as-cream voice of his — and I instantly hated him. Still do. I don’t care how high your cheekbones are, or how much better you looked in the nude than Dennis Franz; sexist banter is a turn-off. And my reaction to it was visceral.

But why? This is not the worst thing a man could say to a woman. It’s not that thing McCain allegedly called his wife. Come to think of it, I’d rather be called sweetie than a lot of the names I’ve had beaned at me — many of which were well-earned.

Most gals don’t mind the label when it comes from, say, a doting dad. Or an elderly gentleman asking for a hand getting off the bus. But in most other settings, it’s patronizing. It attempts to establish an ad-hoc gender hierarchy where none actually exists, and implies (here’s where we bitches really bristle) that there’s something adorable about a dame doing serious work. Getting in a candidate’s face. Demanding answers.

That said, we can’t condemn Obama without demanding some more answers: First, if female professionals are so tough, why would we let such a minor slight ruffle us? Second, if the senator had been walking with the reporter, and had stopped to hold a door open so she could pass through first, would he have been called chauvinistic or chivalrous?

Chromosomal carping aside, I’m not as depressed about his mistake as I am impressed with his response to it. When an aide pointed out the gaffe, Obama personally phoned the reporter and apologized — both for failing to field press questions and for speaking thoughtlessly.

“That’s a bad habit of mine,” Obama confessed of his sweetie slip. “I do it sometimes with all kinds of people. I mean no disrespect and so I am duly chastened on that front.”

In the good-ole-boy culture of politics, it’s not unusual for men to talk down to women. But it’s rare for any politician, male or (ahem) Iraq War-voting female, to own up to stupid errors. And rarer still for them to do it eloquently.

Duly chastened? That, sweetie, is how you turn “sexist” into “sexy.”

Published inColumns

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