07/31/2007 12:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Memo to Hillary: Why Can't We Admire Your Cleavage -- Along with All the Rest of You?

"Grossly inappropriate" and "insulting." So says the Clinton campaign of a recent article prompted by the fact that during a speech on the Senate floor, the New York Senator wore a black top with a neckline low enough to reveal a small amount of cleavage.

How could anyone notice anything so trivial, let alone write about it for a newspaper? How could any decent-minded commentator focus on the senator's cleavage, of all things, rather than on the substance of her speech -- the burdensome cost of higher education? In effect, that's what the Clinton campaign now says in its latest fund-raising letter, where Clinton adviser Ann Lewis urges donors to "take a stand against this kind of coarseness and pettiness in American culture."

OK, children, let's have a show of hands. How many of you have actually read the Washington Post article that kicked up all this fuss?

Just in case you haven't, you should know that it was written not by a male chauvinist pig but by a highly intelligent woman: a fashion writer named Robin Givhan who last year won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Now let's sample her piece on Hillary's cleavage. Having first carefully explained that Hillary showed just enough of it to be noticed but not so much as to be "unseemly," Ms. Givhan writes:

"Showing cleavage is a request to be engaged in a particular way. It doesn't necessarily mean that a woman is asking to be objectified, but it does suggest a certain confidence and physical ease. It means a woman is content to being perceived as a sexual person in addition to being seen as someone who is intelligent, authoritative, witty and whatever else might define her personality. It also means she feels that all those other characteristics are so apparent and undeniable, they will not be overshadowed.

"To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation. It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style."

This is insulting? Gross? Coarse? At the risk of being called an uncurably benighted male, I find it hard to imagine how any woman could write more flatteringly about another woman's sense of style as an asset to her whole personality. In other words, Ms. Givhan handed Hillary a rose. But all her campaign can see is a fistful of thorns.

Of course we all know why. Justly proud of her professional achievements, running on the strength of her experience and ideas, and never forgetting that sexual indiscretions nearly sank the presidency of her husband, Senator Clinton recoils at the mere suggestion that sex appeal could infect -- though I'd rather say enhance -- her political message.

But if Hillary is vexed by comment on her cleavage, she's forgetting something fundamental about politics. Male or female, shapely or dumpy, black or white, no politician can escape the way he or she appears, can edit what we see when we look at them -- in person or on television. All a candidate can do is decide what to wear as well as what sort of make-up to use, if any. (Back in 1960, when Nixon spurned make-up for his first TV debate with John Kennedy, who covertly used a light make-up himself, Nixon appeared with a five o'clock shadow that led most viewers to think he lost the debate -- while most radio listeners thought he won it.)

If Hillary or her campaign advisers thinks it's insulting and trivial for anyone to notice what she's wearing, let me remind them all of a fascinating passage in a novel that I'll bet Hillary knows, perhaps from her days at Wellesley: Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. At one point the heroine -- a free-spirited, self-confident American girl staying with her aunt in England -- gets a lecture on clothing from a sophisticated older woman named Madame Merle. "There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman," says M.M. "I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear." Isabel disagrees. No mere possession, she insists, can express her -- "certainly not the clothes I choose to wear, and heaven forbid they should!" When Madame Merle tells her that she dresses very well, Isabel gives her no thanks and insists again that her clothes do not express her because she doesn't choose to wear them; they're "imposed" upon her by society. Whereupon M.M. asks, "Should you prefer to go without them?"

Outside of a nudist colony or a nude beach, we can't choose nudity without getting arrested. But beyond that, we can and do choose the clothes we wear, and any woman as wealthy as Senator Clinton (or Nancy Pelosi, for that matter) has a very wide choice. If she wanted to hide her breasts entirely, she could have worn a muumuu. But even when she wears one of her signature pantsuits, she reveals somewhat the shape of her breasts -- as nearly all women do, whatever they wear. What then was she thinking when she chose to address the Senate while wearing a top that would expose a bit of cleavage? Was she testing our capacity to focus on her words and resist the charms of her appearance, which is what the campaign officially seems to want? Or was she thinking -- at some level -- just exactly what Ms. Givhan suggests: that an intelligent, witty, authoritative woman can subtly disclose her sexuality without forfeiting or in any way compromising her authority?

To paraphrase an old saying, the first casualty of political war is subtlety. That's why Hillary's campaign feels bound to reject any hint of her sexuality as an insult, not a compliment. But isn't she the one who's telling us that "sometimes the best man for a job is a woman"? What's wrong with her reminding us -- by her appearance -- that she's not only a woman but a mother too? Or has everyone forgotten what breasts produce besides opportunities for ogling, political outrage, and fund-raising?