Frame Game

Beta Wolf

For more on Naomi Wolf, see this week’s ” Assessment.”

Just when it looked like this was going to be the most substantive presidential election in years, along comes the brouhaha over Naomi Wolf. This weekend, Time reported that Al Gore’s campaign has been paying Wolf, a feminist author, $15,000 a month (recently reduced to $5,000) to transform Gore from a weak “beta” male into a strong “alpha” male. The media seized on the story (“Gore’s Secret Guru,” shouted Time) as a fresh source of groans and titters. Pundits agree that by hiring such a “controversial feminist,” Gore has embarrassed himself and exposed his personal and political “confusion.” The real confusion, however, seems to be over why Wolf is controversial or embarrassing.

1. She’s too radical. The prevailing complaint against Wolf is that she’s a permissive, condom-loving liberal who pushes sex on kids. Every news story mentions her latest book, Promiscuities (which, as every reporter notes, is written in “the first person sexual”), in which she reportedly “urges the teaching of sexual techniques” in school–specifically, “instructing teenagers how to masturbate and perform oral sex.” (Wolf’s idea was to let teens satisfy themselves without resorting to intercourse, but never mind.) Critics also point out that Wolf has defended former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who lost her job in part for advocating similar ideas about masturbation.

Republicans are having a field day with naughty quotes from Wolf’s book, reading them to reporters and faxing them to conservative talk shows. The GOP’s favorite quote from Wolf is, “I want to explore the shadow slut who walks alongside us as we grow up, sometimes jeopardizing us and sometimes presenting us with a new sense of authentic identity.” The Republican National Committee has issued a press release playing up the “shadow slut” quote and suggesting that Gore should “run like crazy” from Wolf because he’s “married.” Pundits have even equated Gore’s naughty adviser with Clinton’s adultery. In a CNN interview, Karen Tumulty, the co-author of the Time article, quipped, “With Bill Clinton you get a sex scandal, and with Al Gore it’s a sex-education scandal.”

2. She’s too retro. Having branded Wolf a “controversial feminist,” the media turn around and deride her hierarchy of “alpha” and “beta” males as a macho throwback. Time snickers that she has counseled Gore to “bare his teeth” at Clinton and “take on the ‘Alpha male’ ” in order to become “the top dog.” Other reports say Wolf is trying to make Gore “aggressive” and “dominating.” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen jokes that Gore may begin to “growl,” “sniff” Clinton, and “challenge him to arm wrestle. … This will surely win Gore the respect, admiration and sighs of countless Americans.” RNC Co-Chair Patricia Harrison mocks the insecurity of “Vice Presidents who worry about their Alpha Male Status.”

3. She’s too powerful. While poking fun at Wolf’s obsession with male power, critics insinuate that she’s accumulating undue influence in the campaign. In a front-page report on her “behind-the-scenes influence,” the Post cites sources who say “Wolf’s tentacles stretch far beyond” the project to which Gore assigned her. Pundits call her Gore’s “guru” and “mastermind.” “FEMINIST WEARS THE PANTS ON TEAM GORE,” screams the New York Post. The RNC headlines a news release, “Al Gore & the Big Bad Wolf.”

4. She’s overpaid. According to the critics, Wolf is somehow wielding all this undue power without earning her consulting fee. The Post quotes a Gore aide who wonders “why there’s a premium on her advice.” The RNC says Gore “spends money” on Wolf “like a drunken sailor in port.” Conservative satirist Christopher Buckley advises Gore to hire other ineffectual literary celebrities at absurd rates. Cohen, gasping at the size of Wolf’s retainer–“for what?” he asks–adds, “Who else is on the payroll, Al–Richard Simmons?” Fox News Sunday host Tony Snow voices dismay that Wolf was “making more money from the Gore campaign than Al Gore was making as vice president”–a status that surely no male consultant could have achieved on George Bush’s 1988 campaign.

5. She’s dangerous. Wolf may not be doing anything for her paycheck, the skeptics conclude, but she’s planting plenty of crazy ideas in Gore’s head. Time calls her a “mad genius.” The Washington Post says she demonstrates Gore’s “weird” taste in consultants. The RNC calls her a “kook.” Fox News Sunday commentator Brit Hume warns that her “strange” advice is full of “psychobabble.” Fellow panelist Juan Williams calls her a “wild cannon.”

6. She’s frivolous. When they’re not fretting that Wolf has too many pernicious ideas, the critics scoff that she has none. They dismiss her as a mere “wardrobe consultant” who has shuffled Gore’s “shirt-and-tie combination,” instructed him to wear “brown, olive, and tan,” and told him “to wear different colored suits and all that”–evidently to no effect, since, as Cohen dryly observes, “polls have yet to record the difference.”

7. She’s a crutch. Having declared Wolf insubstantial and impotent, her detractors again reverse course, accusing Gore of relying too heavily on her for guidance and a definition of himself. “An alpha candidate would not need Wolf at all. He would not have to be told who he is,” writes Cohen. The RNC jokes that “Real Alpha Males” don’t have to hire consultants “to learn how to be Alpha Males.”

8. She’s a dirty little secret. Unable to agree on why Wolf should be embarrassing, pundits have fallen back on the implication that she must be embarrassing, since Gore has been employing her “secretly,” “funneling her payments through other consulting firms,” and conspiring to “conceal her from the press.” Time likens her to “Clinton’s own once secret consultant, Dick Morris” and suggests that Gore may have been keeping her under “deep cover.” The Washington Post’s front-page story notes, “Gore has gone to great lengths to conceal Wolf’s role.” And what exactly is the scandal about Wolf that Gore is covering up? The media have no answer. Evidently, it’s their little secret.