The devil wears parkas? A (limited) defence of Amy Klobuchar

Nicholas Clairmont

Senator Amy Klobuchar’s public persona as the warm and personable “senator next door” (as she titled her book) took a big hit Wednesday, days before she announced her 2020 run for the presidency. Far from the pop-culturally iconic “Minnesota nice” Marge Gunderson in Fargo — Frances McDormand’s relentlessly intelligent and supremely decent character—reporting from the Huffington Post sourced to multiple staffers painted Klobuchar as something more like Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, the raging nightmare boss in The Devil Wears Prada.

Reports depict an office environment in which the senator regularly and publicly berates staffers for work that fails to meet her standards, one in which employees regularly cry and regularly quit, and one in which, Buzzfeed has it, she even throws office supplies in moments of extreme anger. One errant flung binder apparently even struck an aide. She’d copy unrelated colleagues on unnecessarily critical emails calling work “the worst” she’d ever seen to shame people in a public way, the articles continue. She’d yell often.

Klobuchar’s ire, and the threat of it, is apparently a feature of a job with her. According to the Huffington Post: “A former employee in her Senate office recalled her struggling to find an outside candidate to replace an outgoing chief of staff. A staffer in another Hill office recounted losing interest in a job opening with Klobuchar when a current staffer, the one conducting the interview, conveyed that avoiding Klobuchar’s anger was a significant part of the job.” Klobuchar is seemingly now struggling to find someone to head up her presidential campaign because of how difficult she is to work for and with.

In a cultural moment when we are reckoning not only with workplace sexual harassment but with abuses of power more broadly, this doesn’t bode well for Klobuchar—especially given how this view of her jars with the “downhome”, midwestern, unfailingly nice reputation she had before. And I don’t propose to defend throwing things, berating underlings, and generally acting like a bully. There’s certainly some truth in the idea that “it is the way one treats [her] inferiors more than the way [she] treats [her] equals which reveals one’s real character.”

But this is also a time when public figures are being taken down by bombshell, revelatory reports about misbehavior behind closed doors, and it’s easy to fall into a routine in which a public figure becomes sorted into the part of your brain labelled “taken down.”

At Klobuchar’s level, or any sufficiently high-level environment, it would be nice if every manager could be encouraging and fair and self-aware while also being hard-working and getting things done. But the work of the United States Senate is a heavy responsibility. In the end, what needs to get done there needs to get done, and that deserves some deference.

I’ve worked for a yeller, and I’ve also worked for a famous sex pest who got taken down by #MeToo. It’s not a minor difference, trust me. On a level that matters, the world’s angry bosses should not be treated as harassers who must be driven from polite society the way sex pests should, especially if they also perform important work and get it done well.

Klobuchar should not be unfair or unkind to her employees or anyone else: that should go without saying. Most worryingly, it sounds like her outbursts caused staff turnover and hindered her office’s work. If it’s true, then that should give the senator serious pause for thought.

Going forward, she must reckon with all of this if she wants to represent Minnesota as effectively as she can and make the best bid for the presidency possible. But for us judging from home, she deserves more than being filed away as unfit for office. Let’s consider that women being attacked for being “difficult” in politics is nothing new, and afford her the benefit of the doubt that might be given to a tough, straight-talking male counterpart. Because the niceness bar is always set a little higher for female politicians, and even if she isn’t really “the senator next door”, Klobuchar might still have a lot to give.

Nicholas Clairmont is Associate Editor at Arc Digital and a regular contributor to the Washington Examiner