Morley Safer, Ed Rendell, and women

Eyes of the beholder

Two quotations from prominent men went viral in May — one ostensibly for its profundity, the other ostensibly for its tactlessness. But when you parse these two comments, it’s hard to decide which is which.

Impolitic — but also profound?

First, the profundity. Upon the death (May 19) of Morley Safer, the veteran TV correspondent for 60 Minutes, the Associated Press inserted this line into its 27-paragraph obituary, presumably as a demonstration of Safer’s sagacity:

“Safer famously said: ‘There is no such thing as the common man; if there were, there would be no need for journalists.'” That quotation was quickly recycled by hundreds of news outlets without a single raised eyebrow.

Meanwhile, on May 13, Pennsylvania’s voluble former governor, Ed Rendell, dropped this pearl to a Washington Post reporter while trying to explain why Donald Trump’s misogynistic comments about “ugly” women would backfire: “There are probably more ugly women in America than attractive women.” That boorish quote quickly generated headlines and outrage throughout Pennsylvania and even in People magazine.

But upon closer examination…

Shallow medium

What, exactly, did Morley Safer mean when he said, “There is no such thing as the common man?" That each of us, no matter how obscure, has a story worth telling? If so, that’s a point worthy of reflection.

But then Safer added: “If there were, there would be no need for journalists.” Will someone tell me what this means? If there were what?

And if there were such a thing as the common man, why would there be no need for journalists? Because the stories of common men and women aren’t worth telling? Even if you accept that dubious proposition, wouldn’t you still need journalists to tell the stories of uncommon men and women?

Safer might as well have said, “If there were common men, there would be no need for dentists.” His alleged nugget belongs in a class with “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” or “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

60 Minutes has rightly been cited as an example of TV journalism at its best, and Safer was one of the program’s most celebrated correspondents — profiling heroes and villains, exposing frauds and corruption, and dramatizing the horrors of the Vietnam War. But his celebrated quotation mostly reflects the shallowness of the medium in which he worked.

Mobile phone interview

Now, about the context of Ed Rendell’s “ugly women” gaffe.

Rendell’s comment appeared in a Washington Post article about the shifting politics of Philadelphia’s suburbs. Its author, David Weigel, explained in a follow-up article that he reached out to Rendell as a politician “who had mastered the art of winning the city and suburbs in his two thumping gubernatorial wins.” Weigel heard back from Rendell at 5:19 on Friday the 13th, just as Weigel was parking his car for a 5:30 pm interview.

As Weigel tells it, he spent the next eight minutes interviewing Rendell on his mobile phone while taking detailed notes “on the laptop perched on my steering wheel”— hardly an ideal setting for a thoughtful conversation. And in any case, not everything Rendell said made it into print.

"You can’t be a 10"

According to Weigel’s follow-up piece, Rendell expressed his theory that moderate Republican women would reject Trump. “The Republican women in the suburbs — I think he’s got an awesome burden to win them back,” Rendell told Weigel. “I think he’ll lose some thoughtful women and men.”

Weigel followed up by asking whether Trump’s crude comments about women would offset the votes of angry Democrats switching from Hillary Clinton. Rendell replied, “For every one [who switches to Trump], he’ll lose one and a half, two Republican women. Trump’s comments like, ‘You can’t be a 10 if you’re flat-chested,’ that’ll come back to haunt him. There are probably more ugly women in America than attractive women.” At this point, according to Weigel, Rendell laughed, then added, "People take that stuff seriously.”

Locker room banter

That was the extent of Rendell’s words as quoted in Weigel’s original story. Cut from the story was Rendell’s elaboration: “He [Trump] demeans women. He demeans Mexican Americans. I think women are rightfully irritated by how he talks. Plus, you don’t know where he stands. One day he’s for Planned Parenthood, the next day he’s against it.”

Rendell — who, God knows, shares the same proclivity for adolescent male locker-room banter that infects Donald Trump — quickly apologized for what he called his “incredibly stupid and insensitive” remark. And indeed, if you look beyond Rendell’s indelicate phraseology, you find a perception that’s surely more profound than anything uttered by Morley Safer: that many if not most women resent being ranked for their appearance by the likes of Trump and Rendell.

The larger issue here, of course, is Plato’s: “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.” The notion that there is (or ought to be) a single standard of attractiveness for women (or men) is simply juvenile.

The film critic John Simon spent years trying to hound Barbra Streisand out of the movies by repeatedly mocking her nose; Streisand’s millions of fans felt otherwise.

Value of a compliment

If I were advising Trump (or Rendell), I would refer them to Charles Kopp, a longtime Philadelphia lawyer who in his wheeler-dealer prime advised national Republican figures like Senator Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee. In particular, I would tell them an anecdote about Kopp that still brings tears to my eyes.

Kopp owed his success partly to his problem-solving ability and his attention to detail but mostly, I suspect, to his cheerful knack for making everyone he dealt with — even opposing lawyers — feel good about themselves. He understood the value of a compliment, no matter how ridiculous it might seem — because, deep down, everyone yearns for validation. Once when I ran into Kopp, he exclaimed, “Dan! Gee, you look terrific! Say — you’ve lost weight, haven’t you?”

I remember thinking, "I’m wise to his game. And yet he’s made me feel good anyway."  

At a social gathering thrown years ago by one of Kopp’s clients, Kopp was overheard complimenting the hostess on the beauty of her daughters — two awkward teenagers whom conventional Trumpian wisdom would surely have relegated to a plain or homely category. One of Kopp’s alarmed partners took him aside. “For once," the partner scolded, "you’ve overdone your exaggerated compliments.” Not so, it turned out; I’m told that the hostess glowed for the rest of evening, and for a week thereafter she was heard speaking of “that nice young Charlie Kopp.” In that mother’s eyes, you see, her daughters were beautiful.

To paraphrase Morley Safer, there is no such thing as a common woman. If there were, there’d be no need for journalists. Or Donald Trump’s beauty pageants.  

On second thought, I’ll stick with Plato.   

Our readers respond

Rick Soisson

of Philadelphia, PA on June 02, 2016

Spot on, Dan. While Safer was a fine reporter, the remark here is silly upon reflection as you demonstrate. It not so obviously doesn't have that hidden wisdom of some of Yogi Berra's observations, like his famous evaluation of playing the left field in Yankee Stadium: "It gets late early out there." (It not only is a comment on the afternoon shadows, but, some feel, about life itself.)

Rendell's problem was in using the magic word "ugly," but he would have also been jumped on for saying there are more women who aren't 10s than there are because the 10-woman notion is demeaning — although if it's granted that designating a woman a 10 is a subjective (albeit objectifying) judgment, then this revised comment is true, just as it would be for men. And yes, yes, women are obviously more demeaned in this regard because of that childish Bo Derek film.

Roz Warren

of Bala Cynwyd, PA on June 08, 2016

I'm a common woman and I enjoyed this essay.

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