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By Lisa Taggart
The first press secretary for President Bill Clinton—and the first woman ever to serve as press secretary—Dee Dee Myers has a simple prescription for fostering political, economic, and environmental well-being: Put more women in control.
“If there were more women in positions of power, not just in Congress, but across the United States and around the world, lots of things would be better. Not perfect. But better. We’d have more representative government; a stronger economy; and a healthier and more sustainable planet,” she writes in her new book, Why Women Should Rule the World.
Both a memoir of her time in politics and a call to the country’s leaders to adopt a more cooperative, inclusive approach—using traits traditionally labeled feminine—the book is as conversational and reasonable as the title is provocative. She’s not interested in trashing men but wants to bolster the system with a female dynamic.
Myers herself has gotten an up-close view of power in the United States, as White House press secretary in 1993 and 1994. And she’s familiar with common stumbling blocks for women: As the first woman to hold the press secretary job, she was a pioneer—but she was given less authority, a smaller office, and a smaller salary than previous secretaries.
On campus recently, Myers elaborated on her thesis at the Mayer Theatre in conversation with Mary Bitterman ’66, President of the Bernard Osher Foundation, and continued the talk over lunch with Santa Clara Magazine.
Her argument is not simply that it would be symbolically better to have more women at the country’s top spots, but that if a critical mass of women were involved at all levels of decision-making the conversation about power and values in this country would change. Women add a “collaborative dynamic,” Myers writes. “They bring different ideas and perspectives to the table, broadening the content of board discussions.”
Myers is aware of the contradictions in her logic as she advocates for equal space at the table because women inherently approach things differently. She frames the argument’s vulnerability simply: “If women are more nurturing, if they’re better at relationships, isn’t it also possible that men are better at, say, math or science?”
Myers’ real focus, though, is the current moment, and her goal is pragmatic. “It’s not an argument about what is politically correct,” she told the audience at Santa Clara. “It’s an argument about what’s in our self-interest. Bringing more women into the process, into public life at all levels and in all fields, does a lot of things. It makes businesses, believe it or not, more profitable.”
What about when it comes to writing about politics: Would the presence of more women automatically make for a more civil discourse? “There’s always an Ann Coulter out there, but I do think they’re the outliers,” Myers said. With more women participating, “there would be people who would work harder to try to find common ground.”
Bait and switch
Admittedly, there were multiple factors that made her start a rocky one. “I was from California, I never lived or worked in Washington, and I was a woman,” she said. “This is the trifecta of how not to start your career.”
After a year and a half, she went to see Clinton’s new chief of staff, Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63, to talk salary. Ultimately she had to take her case to the president himself; she negotiated for equal treatment and adequate power, but at a cost. “I got the increased access, the traditional office, the higher rank and salary,” she writes. “I finally felt I had the tools I needed to do my job. But the price I paid to get them was agreeing to leave.”
After the White House, she worked as a television political commentator and host, was a consultant and contributor to NBC’s The West Wing (where the character of C.J. Cregg was said to be based on her), and married and had two children. She says she is improvising a new career path, working as a political analyst and consultant, and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, where her husband also works as the national editor. “I more or less invented my current ‘job,’” she writes, “which I sometimes describe as ‘stay-at-home pundit.’”
The middle daughter of three, Myers says her family experience probably helped her as press secretary. “I always had to adapt to get along. And that’s a press secretary trait; we’re adapters.” Her sister Betsy Myers, who also worked in the Clinton White House, is chief operating officer for the Obama campaign. (“I talk to her all the time,” she said. “I don’t even tell my husband what we talk about.”) Her other sister, Jo Jo Proud, is a makeup artist in Los Angeles and has done Myers’ makeup for television interviews.
Got the bug
Myers says she got the “political bug” while an undergraduate at Santa Clara. Originally a biology major, she switched to political science after being inspired by Professor Dennis Gordon’s international relations course her freshman year.
She also lived on the first coed floor in an SCU dorm, Swig Hall—where Gerdenio M. “Sonny” Manuel, S.J., now rector of SCU’s Jesuit community, was the resident advisor. Manuel recalls that it was not a particularly sedate floor.
“When I was a freshman, somebody threw a truck tire off the top of Swig and squashed a car,” Myers said. And, drawing a college lesson on gender differences, she added, “I’m willing to go out on a limb here—that wasn’t the girls.”
After graduation, she stumbled into campaign work by default: Graduate school didn’t pan out, but electoral politics was where she wanted to be anyway. So she called California Democratic Party headquarters, began volunteering, and one thing led to another.
She gained campaign experience in the loser’s arena—Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis are notable early employers—before starting as campaign spokeswoman for Bill Clinton in 1991. “No one gave him, really, a snowball’s chance in hell of being elected president,” she said. And she was even a little surprised herself at his success: At the election night celebration party, she suddenly thought, We have to work in the morning!
Myers’ book comes at an interesting time in presidential politics. She says when she was in the White House, she and Hillary Clinton did not share much good will: “I, for one, never felt she was particularly supportive of me—or even sympathetic to the ways in which being a young woman made my job harder,” she writes. But Myers spoke admiringly of Sen. Clinton’s campaign.
“It’s a very unusual election in terms of its dynamics,” she said. “Obama’s had a great message. But Hillary lived it; she knows that the ups are followed by the downs. Sometimes that’s a liability for her, because her skin is so thick.” She notes Hillary Clinton’s particular challenges: She “had to work harder to prove that she was qualified to be commander-in-chief.”
How the Democratic primary season would ultimately play out was still up for grabs when we spoke in the spring. But for her part, Myers didn’t mind seeing the contest carry on. “I think the campaign so far has been really good for the party and really good for the country. Because one of the things I think has been frustrating to voters is the thing gets wrapped up in February, and three-quarters of the country hasn’t had a chance to have a say,” she said.
She has also pointed out repeatedly that Hillary Clinton has already made history. Before New Hampshire in ’08, no woman had ever won a party’s statewide presidential primary.
Midway through the interview with SCM, Myers received a call from her editor at HarperCollins, letting her know that Why Women Should Rule the World had made the New York Times bestseller list. She was startled, and a bit speechless: “I’d kept telling my husband, I just don’t want to get creamed in the reviews,” she said.
She wasn’t following her own advice. Self-deprecating is not the style she advocates in Why Women Should Rule. On the contrary, “Women have to be willing to own their accomplishments—and to talk about them,” she writes.
But humor comes easily to Myers. “If I have a good laugh line, I have trouble keeping it to myself,” she said. It’s an impulse she had to occasionally squelch in the White House briefing room. And posturing, she notes, increases in proportion to the number of cameras in the room. That’s something that Dana Perino—the current press secretary, and only the second woman to hold the post—has to face.
“The briefings have become even more confrontational,” Myers said. “I think there’s no question that cameras make everybody a little more ready to jump at you. The whole culture has become less formal. People can be freer to be a little snarkier in their questions, or a little more flip in their answers.”
At 31, Myers was also one of the youngest people to become press secretary. She broke ground as the first woman to hold the job; learned to cope with the constant scrutiny of her clothes and hairstyle (though she says she still regrets some of her choices); weathered the healthcare meltdown, the Republican takeover of Congress, and Clinton’s first military strike (in response to the Saddam Hussein-backed assassination attempt on former president George H.W. Bush); and adjusted to life in D.C. But there are a number of things she’d do differently, she says.
“I think I’d be much better at it now,” she said. “But, you know, I’m not going there.”
Lisa Taggart is a writer/editor in the Office of Marketing and Communications. Her most recent book is Women Who Win: Female Athletes on Being the Best.
The superdelegate phenomenon
“Republicans are always much simpler. You vote, you get a delegate, you go to the convention; the guy with the most wins. It’s like, no, we can’t possibly do it that way; we’re Democrats.”
Success and failure
“When a woman fails, she’s failing for all womankind, and is proof that women can’t lead.”
“When I worked on my first campaign, one of the reasons I thought being a press secretary would be fun was because all the reporters would come flying into town with Vice President Mondale, and they filed their stories at six and went straight to the bar. Those were the good old days; it doesn’t happen anymore. (It wasn’t The Hut—but, you know, what is?) Now it’s much more demanding in terms of the around-the-clock need to respond.”
Myers' Top 10 books by women
Dee Dee Myers closed her last White House press briefing with two Top Ten lists (presidential accomplishments of the year, as well as things she wouldn’t miss). To follow the tradition, we asked for a list from her.
Wait Till Next Year—Doris Kearns Goodwin
To Kill a Mockingbird—Harper Lee
West with the Night—Beryl Markham
All seven Harry Potter books (The Deathly Hallows was my favorite)—J.K. Rowling
An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time—Lillian Hellman
The Big Wave—Pearl S. Buck
We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters—Cokie Roberts
The Feminine Mystique—Betty Friedan
Circle of Friends—Maeve Binchy
The Birchbark House (a children’s novel)—Louise Erdrich