No booby prizes in this campaign

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There’s an important lesson for the likes of Barack Obama, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney hidden (but not well) in the depths of Hillary Clinton’s cleavage. You can bet the wisest among them are already taking notes.

It’s tough for a man to run against a woman.

The point of a presidential campaign, or even for an office considerably less grand, is to rough up your opponent, early and often. Leave a modest bruise and draw a little blood if you can. How candidates respond to the roughing up tells the rest of us what we need to know in making choices. Politicians understand this, and when the brawling is done only rarely nurture grudges. That’s how the game is played.

But roughing up women is neither nice nor smart. The idea of getting rough with women goes against the male nature (except for the thugs and slugs of gridiron and arena), and the mildest and meanest pol among us knows to weigh every word and measure every nuance in every debate he can’t avoid. Women in politics insist they want to be treated just like men in serious policy talk but when the going gets tough the smart and discreet male pol retreats to the safety of the pink and fuzzy.

Robin Givhan, who covers pink and fuzzy at The Washington Post, has written about Rudy Giuliani’s comb-over, of the vicissitudes of the hair days of John Kerry and John Edwards, of Dick Cheney’s sloppy attire at a solemn ceremony of remembrance at Auschwitz, and the only noise from her readers were chuckles and approving clucks. But when she stepped into Hillary’s cleavage the high dudgeon flew off the charts.

As cleavages go, this one went a long way. The boys in the newsroom at The Post were sitting around watching C-SPAN, ever alert for a victim to write about, and alerted Mzz Givhan that U.S. senators, of all people, were getting more than an eyeful as Hillary stood pointing with pride and viewing with alarm on both the Senate floor and TV screen. Mzz Givhan wrote that Hillary was spilling the goods while threatening to spill out of an unripped bodice, and that “was surprising because of the [stuffy] location and because of the person.” Senators don’t go for that rough-and-randy stuff, and nobody but Bill had heretofore thought of Hillary as a provocative hottie.

Ann Lewis, the schoolmarm assigned to monitor who’s making eyes at whom at Camp Hillary, pretended to be hot. (You don’t have to be a hottie to be hot.) She called Mzz Givhan’s column “insulting” and “grossly inappropriate.” But it was only pretense, because soon she dispatched a fundraising letter inviting prospective donors to “take a stand against this kind of coarseness and pettiness in American culture.” It was the column and not the cleavage, she forgot to say, that was “coarse” and “petty.”

She was properly “appalled” by the column, in the way that Grandma Grundy is appalled by lascivious behavior she insists on describing in fulsome detail. “I didn’t realize the attention and anger it was setting off nationally,” she told Howard Kurtz, the media reporter at The Post. But as soon as she realized it she put pen to paper and sent out for a lot of stamps. “Can you believe that The Washington Post wrote a 746-word article on Hillary’s cleavage? I’ve seen some off-topic press coverage, but talking about body parts? That is grossly inappropriate.”

Perhaps we should shed a sympathetic tear for Hillary. Who knew what a shoestring she and Bill must live on? She clearly ran out of silk when cutting the cloth for the bodice, and had to either cut it short at the top or short at the bottom. Anyone who has ever stitched a seam understands.

Ann Lewis works for Hillary but she’s eager for rivals to take her caution to heart. She insists the women of America are indignant at being looked at, which is why they spend billions of dollars every year on clothes, cosmetics and low-cut bodices. Women can’t help it if the dress and bodice designers cut the cloth too low or too high. They’re counting on men, even senators, not to look, as Mzz Lewis rightly observes.

The unfortunate men who must run against Hillary can only put the back of a hand to a tortured brow when confronted with such coarseness and inappropriateness. Hillary’s rivals can’t all be winners but they can all be gentlemen. Or else someone at Camp Hillary won’t have a choice but to write another letter to raise the money to fight the serendipitous blight. It’s the American way.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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