Does gender -- or does the supercharged combination of gender and race -- play a role in the preemptive strikes on not-yet-Secretary of State nominee Susan Rice?
For perspective on this complex question, it helps to return to 1974 and the nomination of another woman, Alice Rivlin, to head the Congressional Budget Office.
As Rivlin tells the story, the office had just been created, she was selected by a search committee -- and the House Budget Committee chairman made clear his adamant, gender-based opposition.
"Over his dead body was a woman going to run this organization," Rivlin recalled at an Atlantic magazine "Women of Washington" lecture last year.
No one would say that today. No one, I'd venture, would even think it. A woman, after all, has been secretary of state for all but four of the last 16 years. During the male interregnum, the job was held by a black man. House Republicans are getting well-deserved grief right now because of the absence of women among committee chairs.
But to note the progress women have made is not to say that the problem of sexism has been erased. It persists in the shadows of consciousness. Its manifestations are more subtle than the over-my-dead-bodyism of Rivlin's experience.
The public dialogue has moved from denying any gender differences to celebrating them, to the advantage of women. Consider the self-congratulatory discussion over the record 20 women set to serve as senators next year. "Women tend to be problem-solvers; we work together," Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar told CBS. "They didn't get there by swaggering around, they got there by getting things done."
A lapsed political consultant, male, told me that the one candidate who might lure him back into the field would be a woman presidential nominee -- because, he said, it will take a female president to solve the country's problems.
The model of female leader has morphed from Iron Lady to soft power. And the controversy over Rice stems in part from the fact that she does not fit comfortably into this model of collegial, nurturing, division-healing woman.
The adjectives used to describe her are fraught with sexist undertones. Blunt. Sharp-elbowed. Driven. Egotistical. Some of these terms come from her friends. No one thinks she would win Miss Congeniality.
Writing on ForeignPolicy.com, Rice's Clinton administration colleague David Rothkopf called her "hardheaded and prickly." But, Rothkopf added, "The nonsense that she is somehow not qualified for the job is indefensible. ... As for her temperament, raising it is pure sexism. Why is she called abrasive, when clearly, similar toughness was hailed in our most powerful and respected secretaries of state -- from Henry Kissinger to George Shultz to James Baker?"
It goes too far to say "pure sexism," but I think gender plays a role, however subconscious. My analysis assumes that the Rice critique does not stem solely from her comments on a single Sunday morning of talk-show rounds.
Something more is going on here: A touch of chummy old-boy (and old-girl, for that matter) networkism in support of Senate colleague John Kerry. A residue of bristling over previous encounters (see Rice's tart 2008 comments about then-GOP presidential nominee John McCain).
A bit of Rice battle as proxy war for taking on the president himself. An effort at inoculation with the GOP base, or maneuvering to win another GOP Senate seat if Kerry is chosen. The legacy of Rice neglecting to assiduously cultivate senators and other allies -- an art at which her female would-be predecessors excelled.
And also sexism, albeit of a modern, less overt variety. Let's face it: Society has more tolerance for men behaving badly than for women.
Men with problems working well with others can get dinged -- see Richard Holbrooke, to whom Rice famously flipped the bird at one meeting, and whose outsized personality interfered with his ambitions. But women are granted even less space for bad behavior or foul language.
Race feels like less of a factor, but I wonder whether, to some critics, her aggressiveness edges into insolence. Thinking about Rice brought to mind Obama's description, in "Dreams from My Father," of how he learned as a young black man that people "were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves."
There is a double standard at work here, more nuanced and less intentional, but at the same time more insidious than what Rivlin confronted nearly four decades ago.