In its November 2008 edition,The Atlantic jumps onto the national trend of chronicling the wonders of D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The lede of the story delves into an old story—that is, Rhee’s astounding record of returning all e-mail that comes her way.
“Every e-mail a parent sends me, I answer,” she said, a boast that even her critics grudgingly concede.
And from there, author Clay Risen offers more of the same: Change-agent with sharp elbows alienates the school system’s vested constituencies and tilts against old-time politicos, including Marion S. Barry Jr.
The only objectionable passage comes here:
And [Rhee] does not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. When I asked her how she would characterize her ideal relationship with parents, she replied, “That’s a great question. So often reporters ask me stupid questions. I had one interview yesterday, and I was like, ‘Okay, you are not smart.’”
Let’s unpack a bit here. A few notes on this terribly rendered moment:
1) It’s not that great a question. Nor is it a complete dog. But think about it: You are a reporter and you’re profiling someone, someone who has a vested interest in getting you to write favorably about them. Think you might overstate the case a bit when rating the questions coming at you?
2) The trait that this episode reflects is not that Rhee doesn’t suffer fools; it’s that Rhee is an operator, a really political person. It’s clear that the author here, Risen, is very flattered by Rhee’s boast. Why else include it in the story?
3) Another trait that the episode could reflect is that Rhee is mean and judgmental. What if that journalist who asked dumb questions the day before was just new, or perhaps a bit nervous about the interview? Is this kind of intellectual hard-linerism—nastiness—what we want out of a schools chancellor?
Perhaps not, but Risen just tucks it neatly into the established Rhee narrative—tough administrator doesn’t suffer fools!