Clinton and Pelosi, Power and “Perky”

“Perky” is the perennial word used to describe Katie Couric.

When I was thirty or so, I suppose I might have been described as “perky.” I was in training for a professional discipline, and “perky” and “unprofessional” seemed to correlate, so I gave up being “perky.”

It struck me, over this past weekend, as I watched Hillary Rodham Clinton’s announcement of her candidacy for the Democratic nomination, that there she was, hovering around the age of 60, being perky! On further thought, this observation, of a perkiness in presenting oneself and one’s material, seemed to apply also to Nancy Pelosi, the current Speaker of the House of Representatives, who is older than Clinton. And yet I’ve seen Clinton in action in Senate committee hearings, and she is nothing if not relentless and very very smart. In her response to news programs presenting analyses of President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address, she was quite analytic and simply smart, with little perkiness.

Pelosi’s perkiness surfaces–and gets her in trouble–when she wings it in a press conference that is somewhat about her. That is, when she needs to provide a fairly succinct response to a question about how she works as Speaker of the House to keep party members in line. To provide that succinct response, she talks about using her “mother of five” voice. That seems perfectly fine to me; I knew what she meant. But to many commentators Pelosi’s perky, even flippant, remark seemed to indicate that she was less than serious about being Speaker of the House, and third in line to the President. That is, she lacked suitable gravitas.

It seems to me that all three women become perky as a mode of self-presentation that suits particular circumstances. As women used to become coy, and Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer still do, “perky” is turning out to be a working mode of self-presentation for women of any age.

Consider:

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  • <><>”Perky” is not flirtatious, so both men and women listen with little threat.
  • <>The “perky” woman has a wide range of “adapted child” observations available that say smart things while at the same time disowning them or their full impact, which may be a good way to present some material. Think of the incredible number of interviews that Katie Couric did on the Today Show.
  • “Perky” projects energy and healthiness and a noncomplaining personality. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s complaint about a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was definitely not perky!<>
  • <>”Perky” projects denial of that one aches or hurts or fees “hormonal.” That is, one is female without being “a female.”
  • “Perky” is the next mode down from gravitas, a shift of tone from always being somber.

There are some other points: “Perky” works better for shorter women. Fortunately this applies to Clinton and Pelosi — and me. It did not apply to Geena Davis, the actor who portrayed the President in the short-lived TV show “Commander in Chief.” She is much taller than Clinton, Pelosi, and me.

I fear that “perky” will become identified with official falseness and political insincerity–I like you as long as you go along with me/vote my way, but if you don’t, remember the “hormonal” woman.

That is, because “perky” has built-in denial of realness and aches and pains, it has falseness written into it, which can backfire.

<>Couric began her Today Show hosting in 1990 at the age of 33; being perky in the morning worked for her for a very long time, until she needed the gravitas of a news anchor. As it turns out, she can do both. I mostly can’t, related to professional and academic training.