"My Favorite Mistake" is a biweekly series in which writer Seema Kalia asks various luminaries about the one mistake that taught them the most.
This week's MFM interview subject shares her perspective on a highly public and still raw professional mistake. Naomi Wolf talks about the frustrating consequences of accepting a paid job as a campaign adviser on Al Gore's failed bid for the Presidency in the 2000 election. By switching from long-time political volunteer to paid consultant, Wolf was barred from addressing her attackers, who managed to shift the discourse, at least temporarily, from the candidates to her role in the campaign.
Seema Kalia: What has been your favorite mistake?
Naomi Wolf: Professionally, my biggest mistake [was] in 2000. I worked for [Al Gore's presidential campaign] and took money to do it. That is a big mistake for any writer because you can't then say whatever you want to say whenever you want to say it. That was the great luxury of being a freelance writer and beholden to nobody--which I had been, up until then.
Writers have to be free to criticize anybody and criticize the powers that be and to always be transparent with their readers. So since I was formally signed up with the campaign rather than volunteering as I had in '96 I wasn't in a position, contractually, to hit back against the evil Republican National Committee when they started to circulate pernicious things about what I was doing on the campaign. The whole "Alpha Male" flap, the whole "earth tone" (wardrobe) flap was completely invented out of whole cloth - the stuff of urban legends, but they were such good urban legends they quickly got picked up by the mainstream media because no one was fact-checking it, and my hands were tied.
On the [Republican] side they've learned - and this is Karen Hughes' genius, and I think Karl Rove had a hand in this (and I don't think he's gone), they've learned that Americans now really get their information from dramatic media and from comedy shows and from Oprah so they're competing on that stage.
So it was very frustrating, when I'm used to being able to speak up, to not have a voice when the Bush Team was doing such a brilliant job of what we have subsequently learned is their specialty: creating imaginative lies and saturating the media with them.
But let me tease this out - I think women should be paid for their work. I think if I were a political operative I should have taken money, but I think writers shouldn't put themselves in that position.
SK: But now political operatives have to be writers, don't they, in order to reach the American public?
NW: Sure. Political operatives should be writers, but writers shouldn't be political operatives. Writers have to stay unaffiliated. Not professionally affiliated.
SK: Did you feel muzzled at the time?
NW: I do want to say that I felt "muzzled"...[but] I only have myself to blame for having to not talk back and push back on the attacks. No one forced me to do that. That was my own decision. I was responsible for that mistake, and I can't blame that on anyone else. I signed that contract.
SK: When you signed the contract, do you recall thinking that this would be a big burden for you?
NW: Well, my Dad, Leonard Wolf, who is an old lefty, has been on every protest march for the last 60 years told me it was a very bad idea for a writer to sign up for that role. I should have known better.
SK: Why do you think you did it?
NW: I'm a feminist. If I was going to do the work, I wanted to be compensated the way men are compensated for similar work.
SK: So what are you doing differently now as a result of your mistake?
NW: What I'm doing now, which is raising my voice independently. Helping to co-found an organization of five million Americans, The American Freedom Campaign with partner organizations who are raising their voices independently and putting pressure on our elected officials to support the constitution, respect the rule of law, pass a ten point legislative agenda to preserve democracy. I'm involved in an incredibly important historic and timely call by 1000 lawyers to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the crimes this Administration may have committed.
SK: Most of us won't be in a position of having to weigh the costs of being high level political advisors, so is there a lesson here for the rest of us?
NW: Well, you're right to say that I had unusual circumstances. But the thing I hear across the country from people in any job, they can feel that they have to censor themselves either about coworkers or higher ups in the company. People often feel they can't say anything. People with a lot of privilege can feel silenced. We still have the power to raise our voices, and my advice to anyone is that we should cherish that right. Especially at a time like this, when there's a concerted effort to close down a democracy it is a terrible mistake to think silence will protect us. Silence never protects you. We have to be verbal - everybody all together. Your silence won't protect you, your innocence won't protect you. That's why people will join our call to speak up.
SK: So one shouldn't be afraid to be a troublemaker?
NW: Well, you shouldn't be afraid to be a troublemaker in the millions. If you don't speak up, there's no power is passivity. If millions of people make "trouble" together, that is the role of a democracy.
SK: But somebody has to be first.
NW: Yes, and I applaud those who went first in every community.
SK: Maybe you need to re-brand the term "troublemaker" or come up with a catchy euphemism to market it better.
NW: Actually we're thinking of calling it "The Resistance."
"My Favorite Mistake" will be back on Wednesday January 12th with Joan Rivers.