Kathleen Parker: Permission to dissent
WASHINGTON -- Only in the strangest-ever presidential election could a former beauty queen’s weight be considered a deal-breaking issue of, if I may, gargantuan proportions.
Pretend it’s two weeks ago: Who is Alicia Machado?
Now: How happy is Alicia Machado?
If I weren’t paid by the word, I’d be speechless.
The former Miss Universe of 1996 has risen from the ashes of former fame to become the nom du jour thanks to some delight-inducing opposition research by the Clinton campaign. As everyone now knows, Donald Trump was once nasty to Machado, whose coronation as the most beautiful figure in the world apparently coincided with the arrival of her appetite.
According to Machado, who has appeared on numerous talk shows, Trump called her “Miss Piggy,” “eating machine,” and “Miss Housekeeper,” by which we are to infer that he was cruel, lacking in compassion -- though he says he interceded when pageant officials wanted to fire her -- and a classist, racist, misogynist ogre.
I’m sorry. Who didn’t know?
More baffling than the fact of the political twist we’ll naturally call “weightgate” is the breathless, hand-over-mouth reaction, primarily, it must be said, among the media and the Clinton campaign -- not that Trump hasn’t participated in giving this story rather good legs.
News flash: Donald Trump was mean to a beauty queen, who, contra her contract, according to him, gained too much weight. Pardon, but have The Deeply Offended been circling the moon the past 20 years? Trump didn’t suddenly become a jackass; he didn’t suddenly begin treating women as chattel; he didn’t suddenly show his nasty attitude toward those he considers beneath him.
If his long-ago comments to Machado, resurrected by a very clever Hillary Clinton during the first presidential debate, have provided enlightenment to anyone over the age of, say, 10, well, then, just awesome sauce. For the rest of the polity, this is hardly revelation.
It’s just ol’ Donald being ol’ Donald -- then, still and always.
What makes this dusty offense resonate now?
Ostensibly, it’s because our daughters, our granddaughters, wives, sisters and selves have body-image issues. Thus it has always been, though lately (meaning the late 20th century to the present), we’ve become more attuned to how girls and women feel about their bodies -- and, of course, what the president of the United States can do about it.
This isn’t to make light of eating disorders, which are serious health concerns. But this episode in political un-reality demands perspective. Plainly, Clinton tossed in the Machado tidbit knowing that Trump would seize the bait and get tangled in the nets. He can’t help himself, as any witness to recent history knows.
That he would double- and triple-down, tweeting in the middle of the night four days later, is more than Clinton could have hoped for. Early Friday morning, Trump apparently couldn’t sleep for thinking about it and tweeted that Clinton had been duped into mentioning his comments about the “disgusting” Machado.
Keep it up, Donnie, and Machado will have her own reality show before you get yours back.
Clinton’s expectation, which is somewhat sexist in itself, was to capture the women’s vote by exposing Trump’s bullying of Machado. This expose would be especially effective, presumably, because every woman in America has uttered the words: “Does this make me look fat?”
I once asked my father this question when, three months after giving birth and still wearing 30 extra pounds, I donned a cashmere poncho with Western-ish markings to greet friends I hadn’t seen in years. He sized me up and replied: “No, you look like three Indians in a teepee.” We died laughing. The old man raised us to survive a harsh world but not so much with sensitivity training.
Clinton also hoped to gain the support of millennials, who, we’re told, are more recent to the body-image struggle -- just possibly exaggerated by constant self-documentation? -- and are also more sensitive to older generations’ attachment to stereotypes and -isms.
Whether voting-age women will clamor to vote Clinton because of remarks Trump made nearly 20 years ago will keep the commentariat chewing the fat for a bit. The meat of the matter, meanwhile, is what Trump’s remarks then and now tell us what is crucial in a presidential election: The man can’t control himself.
This should be enough.
Kathleen Parker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post.