The XX Factor

Susan Rice’s Voice: “Always Right on the Edge of a Screech”

Susan Rice as she prepares to screech at Israeli U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images.

A D.C. convention I can’t stand: The anonymous Temperament Takedown. As in this, about U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, as her prospects of being nominated for secretary of state cloud:

A longtime foreign-policy expert who has worked for Democratic administrations, and has dealt with Rice personally, also raised questions about her suitability. “She’s quite smart but temperamentally unfit for the job” because she doesn’t brook disagreement well, this expert said. “Her voice is always right on the edge of a screech. You want somebody who has a sense of authority. It’s like [Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner at the beginning. He had no air of authority about him.”

It’s a cleverly constructed quote that walks up to the line of sexism—“right on the edge of a screech”—and then insulates itself with the Geithner comparison. The basic idea, though, is that Rice is thin skinned instead of authoritative, aggressive instead of thoughtful. It reminds me of the anonymous attacks on Justice Sonia Sotomayor (conveyed by Jeff Rosen) before Obama nominated her: “not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench,” and “domineering during oral arguments, but her questions aren’t penetrating and don’t get to the heart of the issue.” Then as now, people who had worked with the temperamentally unfit woman in question leaped to her defense.

I don’t know whether Obama should choose Rice or not, but I really hope this temperament attack isn’t part of his calculation. In a city in which Rahm Emanuel’s profane eruptions were celebrated, it’s hard not to suspect a double standard. Maybe this is just one more example of confusing personality with policy, an equal opportunity problem.

I suppose it’s true, as the anony-mouse says, that Geithner, too, got dinged for being unauthoritative before he took office. I don’t hear anyone saying that anymore. Here’s the D.C. rule I’d propose, impossible as it would ever be to enforce: No anonymous attacks on the temperament of a prospective nominee unless the person is truly a screeching banshee whose co-workers cower under their desks.