Sexual stereotypes often go to war against political stereotypes in Washington. Not since Anita Hill was mocked as a "scorned woman" and Clarence Thomas accused his enemies of attempting "a high-tech lynching" have so many sexual and political stereotypes clashed in confirmation hearings for a nominee to the Supreme Court. Martha-Ann Alito's tears all but drowned the Democrats who had spent the week accusing her husband Sam of abusing women and children.
Certain professional women, who work hard at being as tough as men, were embarrassed by her tears. Women who stay home with their children, content with the role of "wife of," were angered by the suggestion that Mrs. Alito was weak or soft simply because she reacted in an emotional way to attacks on the man she loves. The Washington "wife of" usually hasn't developed the tough, scaly skin she needs to withstand the slings and arrows aimed at her husband's outrageous fortune.
Others in the salons and saloons of the capital accused Mrs. Alito of cynical exploitation of the feminine wiles once thought to have been consigned to the ash heap of history. The judge in turn was accused of hiding behind his wife's skirts. Liberals said her crying game was a fake; conservatives who notice that the differences between the sexes are still with us -- the Democrats were both astonished and devastated when they saw how the episode was playing out beyond the Washington Beltway -- said nothing is more natural, after all, than a loving wife shedding tears at the sight of her husband relentlessly attacked as a monster of narrow-minded attitudes by a bullying senator with a history of ethical challenges.
As melodrama, the episode was delicious. There was the chivalric Southerner, Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, galloping to the rescue on a white charger, describing the judge as a "decent, honorable man" and apologizing on behalf of his colleagues to both husband and wife for "having to go through this." Mrs. Alito rewarded him with a hug and a smile.
All's well that ends well, and we'll see how well it ends for the Alitos next week, when the Senate votes. But it's already a demonstration to both red and blue states of how Washington works: Less important than what you see is how you spin it. The Democrats are the sensitive Mommy Party, eager to make government ever more maternal; the Republicans are the severe Daddy Party, eager to make the citizens ever more independent and self-sustaining. But the Mommy occasionally lapses into insensitivity, as when Teddy Kennedy blusters and badgers like a resurrected Joe McCarthy, less to elicit information than to project guilt by accusation.