Politics & Policy

Ten Centuries From Normal

Karen Hughes speaks softly and carries a stick shift.

Nobody threw tomatoes at her, so in that regard, Karen Hughes fared better on her rainbow tour than Eva Peron did on hers some 55 years ago.

Another improvement: No one questioned Hughes’s virtue, despite her shocking disregard for societal norms by exposing her face–and neck!–to the king of Saudi Arabia.

But to read Hughes’s press, you’d think she should slink back from Turkey under cover of night, or burka. Accounts said Hughes was, at times, “nervous” …”hammered by” … “not sure”…. “taken aback” at the strident Muslims she encountered on her first diplomatic foray as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and her first trip to the Middle East ever. Another day or two over there, and the tomatoes surely would fly.

(They do have tomatoes in Turkey, right? As a xenophobic, patriotic, war-mongering Yank, I don’t think I’m supposed to know.)

Should Karen Hughes, “working mom” and churchgoing infidel, be the face of America when it comes to cleaning up our p.r. messes abroad? Nah, probably not. But the former Speaker of the House in South Carolina shouldn’t be the ambassador to Canada, and it’s too late to change that, too. Say what you want about our president, but he does look after his friends.

As presidential picks go, Karen Hughes is no John Roberts. But really, who would be? There may be, somewhere, an Ivy-League-and-Oxford-educated Muslim woman who can eloquently and believably say “y’all” and “Allah Akbar” in the same sentence, and who raised vast sums of money for Republicans in the last two election cycles, but she has yet to come forward. Maybe she hasn’t gotten permission yet from her male guardian.

Oh, sorry, I’m being xenophobic again. It’s that bad old media at work, giving me the wrong idea about Saudi Arabia again. This, of course, was one of the topics on which Hughes was “hammered” by an elite gathering of Saudi women in black–”the negative portrayal of Saudis in the U.S. media.”

This has been a problem for a while, apparently, as in 2003 the Saudi embassy in Washington had to buy ads in 25 U.S. media markets to, according to the Saudi ambassador, “broaden American perceptions of the country” and to show “how far we have come in the last 30 years.”

I don’t know how much you paid for those ads, but hey, guys: They didn’t work. And it’s not that we don’t have our own sins of past generations that merit atonement. Thirty years ago, Helen Reddy had three–three!–top 40 hits. But we moved on, and so have you, and now half of your college graduates are women (even though only five percent of your workforce is), and as of, oh, April, you banned forced marriages, and you’ve opened career doors to women beyond philanthropy and education so that you now have women pilots, only they have to be driven to their jets by a man.

And that, boys and girls, is where you lose us.

Maybe Condoleezza Rice, with her elegant manners and perfectly coifed hair, can visit Saudi Arabia and talk to 500 pairs of eyes peering out from under black veils and not mention the elephants in the room, but frankly, most of us aren’t that well behaved.

Most of us will listen respectfully and thoughtfully absorb the varying points of view until the female gynecologist named Fouzia stands up and says American women put on a “good smiling face” as our evil male oppressors force us to drive our Volvos and Navigators around town to pick up the kids and the dry cleaning.

At which point, the honest person stops being polite and says, “Are you nuts? Have you ever driven a Navigator?”

But, of course, the answer is no. They haven’t driven a Navigator, or a Suburban, or even a 1996 Ford Windstar, which, once you get past the inherent indignity of driving a minivan, is still a heck of a lot of fun to maneuver.

Driving is about freedom, as Hughes explained to her defiant audience. But there’s more: It’s also about fun, which is something that appears to be in short supply in the land of the Wahhabi. Driving is one of the many perks of being a grown-up. Don’t they get VW commercials over there?

Stephen Schwartz, author of The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud from Tradition to Terror, has written that the Wahhabi clerics see women driving as “a form of sexual advertisement or prostitution.”

I would mock this way of thinking as lunacy, except it triggered a memory closer to home. I was a Rotarian once, not long after Rotary International first started accepting women as members in 1989. After I’d been a member for a while, a male Rotarian, a Presbyterian minister, told me that, at first, he didn’t want women to be able to join the service club, because it opened the door to temptation for many of the men.

I behaved like the polite southerner that my mother raised: I winced inwardly, but he never saw it.

Today, older and wiser and feistier–the 40s will do that to you–I would say to my friend, “Are you nuts?” He may have been, but I would at least have the conversation and not let such idiocy go by without comment. You can be too polite.

Karen Hughes, God bless her, spoke softly and carried a stick shift in a country where, unlike the title of her memoir Ten Minutes From Normal, the culture is ten centuries from normal in a disturbing number of ways. Some of those ways–like the driving, like the prohibition against red flowers around Valentine’s Day–are little more than quirks. If a democratic society decides that all women should have chauffeurs or that Geraldo Rivera should be on the air, who are we to meddle? But when you think limb amputations and public beheadings are reasonable methods of keeping order, yeah, you’re going to have a p.r. problem with me, and a lot of other Americans.

When you fix those things, guys, get back to me. I’ll be somewhere out on the interstate. Man, that old green minivan can fly.

Jennifer Graham, an NRO contributor, writes and drives (Beltway permitting) in the suburbs of Washington D.C.


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