Media Matters

The Jomo Kenyatta Professor of Law

Susan Estrich has a mau-mau problem, and it didn’t start with Michael Kinsley.

By 3.1.05

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Lawyers are not usually good at math. There is no quantitative section on the LSAT and aside from figuring percentages as contingency fees most lawyers are blissfully ignorant of numbers. Susan Estrich, professor of law at University of Southern California, however, loves math, arithmetic to be precise. (Full disclosure: I am a graduate of USC Law and took two classes from Estrich.) In keeping with the title of her most recent book Sex and Power she has dedicated the latter half of her career to adding up the number of women in influential positions. For the past three years she has tracked the number of female writers to appear on the Los Angeles Times op-ed page with more diligence than an aircraft controller at LAX the day before Thanksgiving. Before that she also kept tabs on the number of women in the male power structure that was the 2000 Gore campaign. Both must have been wearying tasks, which may explain why she assigned them to her students as graded research projects.

What they found shocks the conscience of a nation: "In the two years that students at USC Law School have been collecting numbers," she wrote recently to opinion editor Michael Kinsley in a email cc'd to the Washington Examiner, "the very best the Los Angeles Times has done in terms of representation has been 20 to 25 percent women; most of the time, its record has been far worse." The Gore campaign was no less a disappointment. It allegedly maintained "a white boys' model of politics in which women are deputies and assistants, and men are on top." Such inequities demanded remediation, and not the genteel academic sort: In both cases, full of vim and vinegar, she contacted the relevant authorities, threatened to publish a humiliating expose if they didn't hire her or her friends, and then publicly denounced them when they refused to submit to her blackmail. She has what the law calls a modus operandi and what you might call a frame-up.

Actually, scratch that last sentence. She isn't entirely consistent. Only with the Times did she actually follow through on her threat to go to the press with her complaints. When her bete noire was just mild-mannered Kinsley, a man at whom she felt comfortable tossing out insults such as "your illness may have affected your brain, your judgment, and your ability to do [your] job," she felt comfortable mau-mauing him within an inch of his life. (Kinsley was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.) "How's your health? Are you enjoying this?" she teased in a different email. Kinsley, ill health or not, refused to submit to such shabby treatment and so Estrich took it to the streets -- er...Internet -- with a very public attack on his character.

But when up against Al Gore and Bill Clinton, two men with real power who could cause her professional harm, who invited her to their parties, she caught the vapors. All of a sudden she forgot her sworn "obligation to make a contribution during the brief time we have here on this earth." She didn't just bury the lede: she spiked the piece and refused all public comment until she'd had time to publish the story in Sex and Power with the facts sanded and stained until she gleamed like those painted mahogany saints one finds in typical Los Angeles bodegas. In truth, she seems to have killed the piece in exchange for the watery pottage of a White house sleepover invitation. And it didn't hurt that Al Gore threatened her right back; as they say in the mean Compton streets that surround USC, "you can't play a player."

THIRTY YEARS AGO NOBODY would have imagined it would turn out this way for the first female editor of the Harvard Law Review. Her bona fides -- clerk to Justice John Paul Stevens, lecturer and then professor at Harvard -- and groundbreaking scholarship stimulated rumors that she was on a path towards a seat on the Supreme Court herself. In 1986 she wrote a powerfully written article for the Yale Law Journal titled simply "Rape" that drew on her own harrowing experience as a victim. Time and again, she noted, the system placed unfair burdens on the victims and deferred to the criminals. Though this sounds like boilerplate today, at the time she was on the vanguard of an important movement in criminal law and she can rightfully take some credit for changes in the rules of evidence that now prevent defense attorneys from questioning rape victims about their sexual history.

Since then her scholarship has suffered, à la Cornel West, as she embarked on a career as political macher and then political maven. Running hard on the tenure track, between 1990 and 1992 she published four law review articles in prestigious journals on rape and sexual harassment law, usually anchored to well-known events like the Clarence Thomas hearings and the William Kennedy Smith trial. Between 1992 and 2002, however, her production slowed as she published only three law review articles. True, she did write a few books (including the regrettable Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women) but none -- the diet book not excluded -- are of the sort of work one would expect from a Supreme Court short-lister.

Her 2000 Sex and Power is a perfect example of her recent work product, a slim jeremiad chock full of namedropping and feminist clichés, and no footnotes or index. It reads as compilation of freshman term papers from a mid-ranked college's gender studies department. Her course curricula in Election Law and Gender Discrimination, if they ever were good, were by the time I was there not much more than dorm-room election handicapping enlivened with an alternating series of war stories that might all well have begun "This one time! -- At Dukakis camp ..." Nowadays her time is spent hanging around the Fox News set, where she is a paid contributor, and writing a syndicated column of modest public interest. It is fair to say she is no longer on anyone's shortlist for the Supreme Court. She also keeps up an eye on Michael Kinsley, an effort that requires a certain bit of mental sacrifice.

Estrich is one of the few people, let alone women, who read the Los Angeles Times op-ed page. She reads it even though she often can admittedly get "to the NY Times faster by doing what most people in LA do...which is to read none of it." And what she has learned through her reading is that the Los Angeles Times does not print enough op-eds written by women. Even worse, "nor do they carry my own column...twice a week, by the way." In a Valentine's Day appeal to fifty prominent Angelenas she asked them to "break some hearts" and sign a letter to the Times detailing Kinsley's "blatant sex discrimination." Attached to the copy sent to Kinsley was another signed only by Estrich that said she represented "some of the most powerful women in town" and that if he refused to print it they would the next day upload a website entitled "latimesbias.org" that would list his failures in detail. Kinsley admitted that he had not printed enough female writers but rightfully refused to give in to what he characterized as blackmail. He instead offered her the opportunity to write an op-ed piece herself on the issue in the near future.

One would still be willing to forgive Estrich as an overzealous but sincere advocate if not for the fact that the whole episode sounds somewhat familiar. She tried the same manipulative techniques with Al Gore in 1999 that she used with Kinsley in 2005, but that time, after threatening a public humiliation and rousing a cadre of powerful Los Angeles women to her standard, she quietly slinked away without saying or printing a word, despite the campaign's wobbly response to her complaints.

SO WHAT HAPPENED to speaking truth to power, to challenging the old boys right there in their offices, and, in her own words, "how you can make change happen if you're willing to stand up to people who call you names, and reach out to other women, and not get scared and back down"? What happened was that she received an invitation to a White House sleepover that she coveted too much to jeopardize. So much for feminism...and too bad for the readers of her book who were treated to a dishonest account of the episode and led to believe that Estrich nearly martyred herself for the cause. In fact, a comparison between her treatment of Gore and Kinsley reveals a classic female bully, the type who on the schoolyard would push you off the swings and then run to the teacher when you pulled her hair. These types quickly learn to push the much smaller. And to kiss up to the teacher.

According to Estrich's account in Sex and Power, in 1999 she became aware that the senior staff of the Gore campaign, with which she was sympathetic but had no official role, had no women. She began calling and writing the campaign but received no response. Infuriated at being ignored she then called again with an explicit threat: she had organized an action group with Lynne Wasserman (wife of MCA mogul Lew Wasserman, and who was also involved in the Kinsley episode) and if the Gore campaign didn't hire more women they would immediately run a column through Estrich's syndication service with a lead that read "Al Gore may turn out to have a bigger problem with women than his boss. But in Gore's case, the problem is professional."

Estrich was then faced with an etiquette dilemma unknown to Post or Baldrige: "USA Today wants to run the column on Monday....On Monday, I am taking my children to the Easter Egg Roll at the White House. Then we're spending the night there." If she ran the column first she might by uninvited to the sleepover, but if she ran it afterwards she risked looking snarky and manipulative. And if she didn't run it at all one might get the impression she had been bought off or bullied. It was, she recalls, an easy decision for a woman of her integrity. "The only thing to do," she writes, "was to send it in and let the chips fall. I told my children we might be uninvited, but this was a matter of principle, and power. I sent the column to my syndicate."

But did she? She waffles a bit about it all in the next paragraph, disingenuously claiming that she "didn't know if any of the papers who take my column ever bothered to run it." Contemporary accounts, as well as NEXIS, are more certain on this point: it was never published. According to the New York Daily News, Estrich in fact killed the piece after being yelled at by Al Gore. She also admitted that she withdrew a separate column intended for USA Today after a White House meeting where Clinton, just as Kinsey did in regards to his own office, admitted the campaign had a woman problem. Clinton's acknowledgement was enough for her to call off the dogs still unaccounted for, and when the campaign made only lackluster attempts to assuage her she kept her mouth shut even after her spiked column was reported in the press two months later. In the meantime, Gore did little to increase the number of women on the senior staff.

Kinsley, however, is no Bill Clinton or Al Gore. He was ripe for professional and personal abuse. He couldn't offer her a stay in the White House; her children weren't interested in rolling Easter eggs on his front lawn. In short, he had nothing she wanted and she had nothing to lose. Having educated herself about power, having spent thirty years dissecting the way the old boys network used power, she had become a crafty abuser herself.

LOOKING AT HER WRITING her obsession becomes clear. One is reminded of what Tom Wolfe wrote about the mau-mauers of the 1960s who used physical intimidation to exact money and jobs from bureaucratic lifers. That their demands -- the full employment of minority youth or the release of all black prisoners -- were usually irresponsible and impossible to grant, was never much of a concern. The point was just to threaten, to degrade the dignity of the bureaucrat who symbolized the "white power structure" and "old boys network," loaded phrases still used by mau-mauers to this day, including Estrich. It was empowering to make these straw-man enemies soil themselves in their own offices. "It wasn't just that you registered your protest and showed the white man that you meant business and weakened his resolve to keep up the walls of oppression," wrote Wolfe. "It wasn't just that you got poverty money and influence. There was something sweet that happened right there on the spot. You made the white man quake. You brought fear into his face." [Emphasis in original.]

Estrich revels in her ability to intimidate others and so prides herself on how many enemies she has made one looks for them on her c.v. Describing a previously successful project to dictate the content of the Times, she recalls, like an old mafia don describing his favorite union shakedown, "...a number of us got together and launched a successful campaign to pressure them; while we (me especially) probably didn't win any friends, it is better to be feared than liked, and we won." [Emphases added.] She is likewise proud that "there are some inside the Gore campaign who still hate me."

Having found an enemy in Kinsley she then threatened Kinsley's job and his livelihood. "Usually, it takes an insult -- a tough one -- to provoke us" she wrote on her website. "But when provoked, watch out. Just ask Harvard President Larry Summers. His days are numbered. The opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times would do well to consult with his fellow Harvard man on the topics of women and the cost of arrogance. His are, too." And when Kinsley called her demands "blackmail" she announced on her website that she hired celebrity attorney Bert Fields to represent her in a libel suit. As a law professor she knows better than anyone else that Kinsley's statement is protected speech. She also knows, indeed relies upon the fact, that a libel suit can be as draining and expensive for the defendant as well as the plaintiff. (Truth, of course, would be Kinsley's best defense.) Estrich dedicated her early career to the powerless. Now that she has power, she has forgotten why she studied it in the first place.

I don't know Kinsley but I feel confident that he'll make it past this sorry episode with his job, bank account and self-respect intact. Throughout he has handled himself with impressive restraint and composure. Estrich, on the other hand, has not. She created false choices and blackmailed Kinsley when he refused to choose. She threatened his job and insulted his dignity. She made me ashamed to be associated with USC Law. She made a mockery of true feminism. And she shut the door on what was once a respectable career. I, for one, am glad of it.

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