“Yes, I can be tough, and yes, I can push people,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said shortly after announcing her presidential bid in Minneapolis. “I have high expectations for myself, I have high expectations for the people that work for me, but I have high expectations for this country.”
Klobuchar, a popular senator who was first elected in 2006, has been at the center of discussions about bad bosses, sexism, and the standards women in power are expected to live up to ever since her reported toxic treatment of her staff — a somewhat open secret in D.C. — was made public in a series of reports. One particularly shocking anecdote from a New York Times piece recounts an incident in 2008 when a petulant Klobuchar berated a staffer for forgetting a fork for her lunch, ate said lunch with a comb she pulled out of her purse, then proceeded to make the staffer clean the comb.
My father was in the Army and growing up on military bases, I’ve had many friends with parents who were “tough” like Klobuchar. Two sisters I was particularly close with, Diane* and Lydia*, had to, at all times, call their mom and dad "ma’am" and "sir." Their parents, the father a sergeant and the mom a deeply devout Southern Christian, demanded soldier-like respect and obedience from their daughters, something that wasn’t unusual in the world I grew up in.
I remember Diane and Lydia being scared of their parents, who would often fly off the handle with screaming, groundings, and sometimes physical beatings if things were not cleaned exactly to their standards by the time they got home from work. It was very clear that in their household, the parents were always right and the kids were always wrong; there was no gray area or room for discussion. One incident that has stuck with me all these years was when Lydia spilled something on her mother’s couch one summer afternoon. She was so afraid of her parents’ reaction, she ran away and came back a few hours later.
Reading through the stories about Klobuchar, I was reminded of the tension, uneasiness, and fear I felt radiating from Diane and Lydia when they were in the presence of their parents, who also had “high expectations.” But, just like some of Klobuchar’s staffers who have come to her defense, the sisters were incredibly loyal to upholding their parents’ reputation as an upstanding, Christian, military couple.
But, where is the line between tough and toxic? It’s difficult to discuss Klobuchar’s behavior without examining the possible reasons behind it — and the latent sexist characterization of it.
Just like some of Klobuchar’s staffers who have come to her defense, the sisters were incredibly loyal to upholding their parents’ reputation as an upstanding, Christian, military couple.
Klobuchar has been open about her fraught relationship with her alcoholic father, who is now sober and still in Alcoholics Anonymous. “When you’re only 17 years old, and you’re going up with your dad to visit your grandma for Christmas, and you see him drinking out of the trunk, and you have to say, ‘No, I’m taking the keys away,’ yeah, that doesn’t happen to most kids that age,” she told Vogue in a January profile. According to the profile, it was her tumultuous childhood that taught her how to “compartmentalize character flaws.”
“I don’t see things in black and white as much as some people,” Klobuchar told Vogue. “I tend to maybe forgive.” While that sounds clearly at odds with how former staffers say the senator treated them, the operative word here is maybe. According to psychologist Chloe Carmichael, PhD — who has not treated Klobuchar — people who have had difficult upbringings often develop rigid and inflexible boundaries and expectations because they’ve had to deal with parents or authority figures who were out of control and undependable. “If you are someone that overcame that type of situation through learning how to set standards, and then making an unfailing commitment to yourself that you will not allow anyone to violate those boundaries because you know how toxic and terrifying it can be…it becomes a healthy reaction [to you] to defend your boundaries quickly and decisively any time someone crosses them,” she said.
She added that on the flip side, children of alcoholics and others who have been raised in volatile environments often grow up to be successful leaders because of the unpredictability they have had to handle: “Adult children of alcoholics are actually known for being incredible, astute observers of people because they had to really study and watch their parents to learn their triggers and learn how to manage and navigate around them.” This could explain why Klobuchar is an incredibly efficient senator, getting the most bills signed into law, and is known for effectively working across the aisle.
But being a skilled dealmaker with colleagues of her same status doesn’t mean Klobuchar’s behavior toward subordinates isn’t unhinged. “Being unhinged means that you’re actually a little bit out of control yourself and if you’re out of control yourself, then it’s very hard to lead other people,” said Dr. Carmichael.
Beyond the obvious ridiculousness of the comb incident, there are more unsettling allegations of belittling, demeaning, and borderline abusive behavior by the senator. Former staffers told BuzzFeed News she has thrown things, flipped out over paper clips, regularly insulted their intelligence, and even tried to block them from other employment opportunities. According to one person, anxiety “permeates the office… It’s an overwhelming sense of panic and not being able to plan. You never knew what was going to come at you.” This anxiety mirrors what I often felt when I would be playing at Diane and Lydia’s house and their parents came home unexpectedly: The air would drain from the room and we would all fall silent, afraid to move because we could never know what kind of mood they were in that day.
Dr. Carmichael said that calling coverage of Klobuchar’s behavior “sexist ” is an oversimplification of what’s happening, considering the backdrop of the #MeToo movement. “I work with many male executives who feel like they’re under such a microscope,” she said. “I almost feel like it’s a little bit of a pat answer to suggest that just because she’s a woman people are judging her harshly.”
I almost feel like it’s a little bit of a pat answer to suggest that just because she’s a woman people are judging her harshly.
Although the salad-comb story may fade from people’s minds by the 2020 primaries, and voters may not care that Klobuchar is “tough” to work for, Dorothy Bland, a professor at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism, said Klobuchar’s inability to maintain a stable office environment could spell trouble for her presidential aspirations, as the senator has already had problems finding people to work for her campaign. “She’s going to need campaign workers and people who believe in her and her platform, and if you can’t put together a successful campaign team, then you’re not going to be very successful,” Bland said.
Bland said that while men often get passes for their aggressive leadership style and women face an undue amount of scrutiny for their looks and likability, Klobuchar’s managerial style brings up the real issue of workplace bullying that can’t be overlooked. “I think that we need to talk about what is abusive behavior and what is bullying,” Bland said, citing a 2010 Workplace Bullying Institute survey that found 13.7 million American adults reported being bullied at work. “I think that that could be an issue. I can’t say that that’s an issue in her specific case, because I haven’t worked in her office.”
With Donald Trump, arguably the biggest bully in the country, currently occupying the Oval Office, the question is: Does America really need another bully in the White House — even if it’s a woman, which would be a revolutionary first? The chaos within the Trump administration has been fodder for headlines since he took office, and his critics point to the president’s record-breaking staff turnover as a sign that he is unfit to lead the free world. Klobuchar, whose office has had the highest turnover of anyone in the Senate, will have to explain why she should be judged by a different standard. Research has shown that bullying, like any other social behavior, is learned. And while aggressive, domineering behavior may actually sometimes be positively reinforced by society with job promotions and improved social status, ultimately, bullying is a character flaw — not a management technique.
Before they ended up moving out of state, Diane and Lydia began to struggle in school, getting into fights and being insubordinate to teachers. I think about them often, about where they are now and what they could’ve been had their mistakes been met with compassion and understanding instead of rage. America, in many ways, is facing similar tumult and uncertainty; the difference is, however, that we can’t just cover the stain with a cushion and pretend it’s not there.
Hindsight 2020 is Refinery29’s weekly column about the women running for president in 2020. Women who aspire to political leadership face higher levels of scrutiny. (See: being blamed for taking sexual harassers to task.) With more women than ever in the race for the highest office — on the heels of the sexism surrounding the 2016 campaign and in the shadow of a president who has admitted to sexual assault — it’s crucial to explore the roots of our biases. While we won’t cheerlead candidates solely based on gender, we believe that awareness of gender, race, and sexual orientation can help shape better policies. The U.S. has never had a female president. When will we finally break the glass ceiling? Buckle up and find out, right here.
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