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Posted by on May 15, 2008 in Politics | 20 comments

Obama’s not quite Macaca moment, but “sweetie” reporter none too happy (UPDATED)

Okay – can we just get this out of the way? Watch for yourself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4STLISLdxi4

Now, look – I chastise my father whenever he calls me anything remotely close to sweetie, and he’s used a whole bunch of those terms (let me be brutally honest since my mother reads this blog but my father doesn’t: I hate it when my father uses alleged terms of endearment like “doll” “babe” or “baby” – but I don’t like it when anyone calls me those things either – never have).

And after watching the clip, I believe Barack Obama when he says it’s a bad habit, as here in the Detroit Free Press:

Sen. Barack Obama, who is edging toward the Democratic presidential nomination, offhandedly called a Detroit television reporter “sweetie” during a tour Wednesday of Chrysler’s Sterling Stamping Plant in Sterling Heights after she hurled a question at him: “Senator, what are you going to do to help American autoworkers?” The incident got picked up by the national news media, and the video, which shows Obama saying, “Hold on one second, sweetie, we’ll do a press avail,” to WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) reporter Peggy Agar, is playing on YouTube.com.

Several hours later, Obama left a message on Agar’s cell phone, apologizing.

“It’s a bad habit of mine,” he said in the voice mail, which is on the TV station’s Web site. “I mean no disrespect, so I am duly chastened on that front.”

Agar said in a televised report that she was more upset that Obama didn’t answer her question.

But you know what? That not answering the question, that’s exactly right. Enough readers have seen how I get when I don’t get my questions answer. And the “sweetie” spin is a very, very common way of trying to say, in what too many people find to be an acceptable tactic, “now calm down there – I’ll get to you when I’m ready – you little woman you” kind of thing.

It is a bad habit, and a lot of people do use it, men and women – I use it with my kids to put them off or cool their jets.

So you better believe Obama had an intention, even if unconscious, that when he is soothing with sweetie, the tough question can be finessed away. Calm down, now – I’ll get to you when I’m ready, don’t you worry now.

But he never did get to the question.

So why doesn’t this rise to the level of a macaca moment? Because a lot of politicians use similar techniques with the media, and private citizens use it too. It’s too common a bad habit to make it a macaca moment, which was really quite outrageous and mean-spirited.

However, the good senator would be very wise to work on undoing that bad habit because at its base? It was an avoidance tool that got turned at a female reporter. I understand it in context, but a lot of people, particularly men and women of voting age – may not.

See also The Moderate Voice’s Joe Windish’s post on the incident. T-Steel leaves a comment mentioning that the sweetie involved is a “good reporter” whom he sees all the time on the Detroit news (that’s very helpful commentary – thank you btw).

Cross-posted at Writes Like She Talks.

UPDATE:
The Los Angeles Times’ Andrew Malcolm covers the incident and writes, in part:

Later, the station said Obama had left an apology on the reporter’s phone, admitting he had a problem calling women “sweetie” and saying he intended no disrespect.

If there’s no disrespect intended, why wouldn’t he have used it during, say, one of his debates against Sen. Hillary Clinton? “Now, Sweetie, you’re not describing my health care plan accurately.” How would that go over?

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  • Neocon

    This sweetie never did get an answer.

    Thats cause their are no answers.

    Not from Obama. Not from Hillary. Not from McCain.

    They only want the power. They will once again offer us promises and leave us behind when election day is over. However this time might be different. When the democrats have a filibuster proof majority in all 3 houses they will have to perform or they will be on the chopping block just like Bush with 82 percent saying the countries in the wrong direction.

    When that day comes they will have no one. No one to blame but themselves.

  • Neocon, as I wrote, it’s a tactic, which is why it’s not exactly a macaca moment re: a slur against women specifically. It IS something used to “calm” women down, but it’s used by men and women WITH men and women so…

    As you point out, the issue really is the passing up on answering the question, which is much more deserving of attention or critique. The sweetie element just makes it even more unsavory.

    We’ll have to see if he does in fact work to turn that habit around.

    • RememberNovember

      What if he said “sweetheart” instead of the diminutive form? Would it still feel like condescension? Perhaps- maybe a habit he has from calling his wife “sweetie”, who’s to say. He did apologise. Not like he chuckled like McCain when the B-word bomb was dropped. Not everyone gets their questions answered, male or female-there is only so much time allowed on the schedule for softball . Is this any different from Georgie Porgie lobbing sobriquets at the press on a whim? “Macaca” is a racial epithet- “sweetie” is a term of endearment used (possibly) out of context. The comparison falters.

      – And why isn’t anything being written about the McCain junkets that are chock full of of gaffes which open a window of insight into this man’s convoluted mind-set? You’re focusing on the smudge when the window latch is broken.

  • MaryL

    I was very bothered by this and somewhat relieved when he apologized. I don’t ever want to hear him call a grown woman “sweetie” again.

    Re the unanswered question: I can give him a pass on this. It isn’t as if he answered questions from a bunch of male reporters and ignored just the woman’s question. It sounds like a campaign or candidate screw-up: he was sweeping through the plant and had a bunch of questions shouted at him by more than one reporter in a jostling crowd. He didn’t answer any of those questions, maybe because he really did expect a presser later, but that didn’t happen. In fact, when he apologized to the reporter, his first apology was for not answering her question, and he promised to make himself available to her the next time he was in Detroit.

    And I wouldn’t expect him to talk to Clinton in the same distracted way during a debate. A “sweetie” in the atmosphere of a debate would be nothing but a deliberate diss. I think Obama didn’t realize how condescending “sweetie” sounds to a grown woman, even when spoken reflexively while he’s focusing on something else, but I hope to hell he gets it now.

  • AustinRoth

    I, for one, am tired of the constant need of the press to manufacture a new ‘crisis’ every day.

    We complain that our politicians are too disconnected from ‘normal’ people, and will not speak plainly to us. Then, we eviscerate them when they do.

    Calling her ‘sweetie’ may not have been PC, but I just can’t get myself riled up over this.

  • AustinRoth – no question people have different levels of tolerance/points at which they get upset over something. That’s fair.

    But part of the issue here is the undercurrent of “it’s unpleasant but it happens” in sexism and being patronized and minimized. That’s why I say it’s an almost macaca moment but not really, yet. If it’s a pattern, then we have a different issue.

    But it does show that a 40-something man who is married and has two girls needs some diversity training to fully appreciate how what seem to be even the most trivial habits really are connected to old ways of sending really inappropriate and no longer acceptable messages.

    I also wouldn’t call this a crisis – and I didn’t. But I do believe it deserves attention and discussion – which is what we’re doing. Thanks for adding.

  • Mary – thanks for commenting. Let me just re-print one thing from your comment:

    “I think Obama didn’t realize how condescending “sweetie” sounds to a grown woman, even when spoken reflexively while he’s focusing on something else, but I hope to hell he gets it now.”

    To me – this is the crux of the problem – not only for Obama but for many people, primarily but not always men.

    It’s the “didn’t realize” part. This is really really critical.

    Why didn’t he realize? How often doesn’t he realize? In what other contexts won’t he realize?

    And I mean this in the most generic form of “he” – because it IS all over the place, that is, SO many people do what he did.

    But it’s not okay. It’s not the end of the world, yet, but it isn’t acceptable. And we have to press this.

    He does a good job pressing on these subtle things related to race. There is no reason for him to not press on the same subtle things as they relate to sexism or any other putting down of one group versus another.

  • Disclaimer: I’m not brining up the Clintons in order to start a fight. Now, as we’ve seen with the Clintons it’s really easy to not realize when you say something problematic. Being part of a minority group doesn’t in the least inoculate you from potentially offending members of another group. I don’t believe Obama is a sexist any more than I believe that Hillary is a racist. She just got the short-end of more obvious and frequent mis-speakings. If this sweetie thing is a habit, Obama’s very lucky that he hasn’t slipped up more often. That’s the only reason he’s getting the benefit of the doubt now.

  • Ginny_in_CO

    I read about this before I headed over to the hospital for my night shift. First thing an aide said to a patient we went in to clean up him up was “How are you sweetie?”. I’ve always been really negative on that kind of personal comment to a stranger but run across it all the time in this business. What I’ve learned is that for the most part these folks come from families or areas of the country where this is expected behavior. I doubt Obama does not understand that some people find this demeaning. Hospitals have taken to explaining this in orientation classes. Habits are hard to break completely. As much as some of us are acused of considering him infallible and some kind of mesiah, it seems some times it is the outsiders who insist he has to be perfection.

    Chill.

  • RememberNovember

    Ginny said:

    First thing an aide said to a patient we went in to clean up him up was “How are you sweetie?”.

    Sounds like they were trying to use terms of comfort rather than cold clinical speech.
    Was the aide male, the patient female? Reverse the roles and you’ve got the old double standard.
    Language/interaction will always be context specific, and in the cold phosphorous of the internet, and traditional media -it gets put out of context.

  • Tully

    As I said elsewhere, it’s a lapse in professionalism on his part. And yes, dismissingly and condescendingly sexist in that context. In that context, he insulted her professionalism and dismissed her, on the basis of gender. If he were talking to someone he had a social relationship with, it’d be different.

    Having said that, it still seems overblown to make much of it without a pattern of such behavior. Yeah, like none of us ever slipped up and commited a social gaffe. Macaca moment? That describes effect–even the macaca moment wasn’t much, save as it was puffed up by the rabid hordes.

  • HappySurge

    Sweetie is a regional thing. In this sense, the only impropriety to be attested to was informalism. Like, when John McCain calls someone ‘buddy’ or ‘friend.’

    He apologized and offered to answer, though, which ain’t bad.

  • pacatrue

    Sweetiegate! Sweetiegate!

    By the way, probably 100,000 dead in Myanmar.

  • runasim

    Thanks, pacatrue, for a breath of sanity in the blogosphere.

    Of all the ridicuous ‘issues’ manufactured for the sake of the fight, not anything of substance, this is darn close to being the winner.

  • pacatrue

    To be a bit more constructive, using “sweetie” is indeed offensive to many, probably most, women in America, and I know why. It rubs me the wrong way as well. But if Obama can handle the truly important issues better than the other candidates, I will put my hands over my ears for a couple sweeties, particularly when he apologizes for it, and vote for him.

  • Tully – 100% with what you said, how you said it. Thanks.

  • runasim

    My pet pevve (one of many) is being called ”honey’ by people who don’t sincerely love me.
    At the same time, I recognize that’s it’s not malicious. It’s merely fawning.

    In a world of much maliciousness, terms of false endearment .will not keep me awake at night.
    Wars and natural disasters are much more likely sleep deprivers.

    Perspective, you know.

  • pacatrue

    There is a difference between ‘macaca’ and ‘sweetie’, though. Sweetie is a regular old word that can be used quite harmlessly in many contexts. A father might quite naturally call his young daughters “sweetie”. Depending on your dialect of English, you might call strangers even in a business environment “sweetie” (I’ve had tons of waitresses call me honey or sweetie, and I’m not that cute.). What Obama did was use the term in a way that is condescending and inappropriate, and he should (and has) apologize for it. But had anyone ever hear of the word “macaca” before it became a political issue? The term has pretty much no other use in English except as a bit of racial insult.

  • Pacatrue – I agree with your interpretations – all of them in the comment just above mine here.

    But I would add to it: the fact that such a condescension is so ingrained into some individual’s language use, when we can all recognize it as what you say – condescending and inappropriate – demonstrates just how ingrained sexism has become. In some ways, that makes it far more dangerous, as well as difficult to root out.

    And (I’m editing in here): still unacceptable.

  • StockBoySF

    Who among us hasn’t said something, which would offend someone, in a rush of the moment that we didn’t think through? The “macaca” comment was deliberately used to intimidate the young guy and make him feel as though he didn’t belong.

    Obama’s “sweetie” comment is probably something he says to his children. While it might be inappropriate, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. I mean people call me sweetie and honey (which really rankles me) but I don’t make an issue of it… it’s just the way those people are.

    But I think the most important point is that Obama is aware of this habit and apologized afterwards, which seems sincere. He didn’t wait for it to be reported on the evening news before he took action.

    So yeah, it’s inappropriate, but it’s not a macaca moment, nor is it even a “near miss” macaca moment.

    As to why Obama didn’t answer the question, I can’t say for sure…. But I would guess he was in the crowd and his attention was being pulled in different directions. I don’t know if he just walked through the plant and left or if there was a question and answer period, which would have been the right place to ask the question. In fact (and I watched the video a couple times) Obama said, “Hold on one second, sweetie, we’ll do a press ….”.

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