Members Only | February 25, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Tale of Amy Klobuchar’s Salad and Comb

Social complexities usually do not fit into the stories we tell ourselves.

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I’m going to talk about Amy Klobuchar and the recent news that the Minnesota senator and presidential candidate has an alleged history of mistreating her staff. Before I do, however, I want to bring up another event, one that’s wholly unrelated, that I think illuminates an aspect of the Klobuchar story that isn’t being addressed.

That event involves a trustee of Gettysburg College in rural Pennsylvania. His name is Bob Garthwait. He graduated in 1982. He has since donated about $1 million to his alma mater. At issue is a yearbook photograph in which Garthwait is at a kegger dressed in Nazi regalia, including a Swastika armband. The school’s student newspaper reported the photo after which it was shared on social media.

That’s when Bob Garthwait resigned.

From Inside Higher Ed:

“The photograph appeared in the 1980 yearbook, showing the event, which took place when Garthwait was a sophomore. Janet Morgan Riggs, the college’s president, sent an email to the campus in which she called the image (with Garthwait at right) ‘deeply disturbing.’ She added, ‘Anti-Semitism clearly contradicts our values as an institution today, as it did when this photo was taken.’”

Garthwait was appropriately contrite:

“I understand how disturbing this image is to members of the Gettysburg College community, especially those who are Jewish. As a sophomore in 1980, I was not fully aware of the significance of those symbols. While this is no excuse, I am deeply embarrassed and regret participating in this event where Nazi symbols were used.”

So the moral of the story: man of prominence caught celebrating a genocidal state is held accountable for his past actions. All’s well that ends well? Maybe not.

Turns out, according to Garthwait, the photo is from a themed party. The theme was “Hogan’s Heroes,” an old TV comedy about a group of US prisoners of war who always manage to pull one over on their Nazi captors. The POWs are so good as this, and their overseers so hilariously incompetent (Sargent Schultz was famed for saying, “I know nothing!”) that they use the prison camp to conduct espionage for the Allied powers.

Now, Garthwait could be lying. A “Hogan’s Heroes” themed party could have been convenient cover for a real celebration of white power. I don’t know. The student reporting that unearthed the photograph is unlikely to provide more information now that Garthwait has stepped down. My point is that social complexities usually do not fit into the stories we tell ourselves. Yet we still want them to. And in wanting them to, we risk distorting reality while avoiding hard questions we could be asking.

There are three stories emerging from Klobuchar’s campaign.

On the one hand is the story of Amy Klobuchar, the “bad boss” now famous for the “Salad Scandal.” The Times reported Saturday the time when a former staffer lost the forks needed to eat salad for dinner. So Klobuchar “pulled a comb from her bag and began eating the salad with it, according to four people familiar with the episode. Then she handed the comb to her staff member with a directive: Clean it.”

On the other hand is the story of Amy Klobuchar, the victim of sexist political journalism. Would it be newsworthy for a man to demand his staffer clean a comb he had just used to eat a salad for dinner? Our society does tend to approve of such traits in men, if sometimes begrudgingly, while disapproving of such traits in women. Indeed, l’affaire salade probably foreshadows the kind of reporting we will see that casts deep suspicion on the very idea of a woman seeking presidential power.

Finally, there’s the story of Amy Klobuchar, the stand-in for the generalized fight over workplace inequities. Some argue her alleged history of staff mistreatment is fair game given what the reaction would be if she were man and the staffer a woman, and the issue wasn’t a comb or a salad but instead sex for favors. For this reason, those decrying sexism are the real sexists. They see women as victims, not abusers.

All these stories are compelling but none seems right to me. Not yet anyway.

It would be different had Klobuchar transgressed a clear ethical or legal boundary. But I’m not seeing that in reporting so far. (The closest is her paid family leave policy, and she is changing that since the Times report came out.) She comes off as an unkind employer, perhaps, but not an immoral one. If that’s where things stand, Klobuchar is in good company. All presidents are prickly. All presidents have mood swings.

Put another way, Klobuchar’s alleged history of mistreatment is far from clear. (Some former staffers, including sources for the Times report, are now coming forward to say the good far outweighed the bad.) Yet being unclear does not deter some who insist on clarity, and who feel compelled to force social complexities into neatly told tales.

That’s too bad. A liberal democracy ought to be comfortable with moral complexity, and Democratic voters should be able to parse the difference between being an unkind senator (if that’s what she is) and an immoral one. Fortunately, time is on Klobuchar’s side. Unlike Bob Garthwait’s, her story isn’t going to end any time soon.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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