Kellyanne Conway had a two-word weapon that she deployed with shrewd skill during her almost-four-year stint at the White House, and it left her targets defenseless.
Excuse me, she would say, needling a news anchor to permit her to barge into the conversation and take it in a more alternative-factsy direction.
Excuse me, she would say to fellow guests who tried, unsuccessfully, to join in with their own opinions. It was a filibuster of false manners, a prim reminder that she would not be yielding the floor.
"What if his spittle — excuse me — what if (Joe) Biden's spittle had gone beyond the teleprompters and everybody there was at risk?" she demanded, absurdly, at a news conference earlier this summer, turning attention away from President Donald Trump's own coronavirus failures. In a 2018 interview with Chris Cuomo regarding payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, she once excused herself a half-dozen times, all the while steamrolling a narrative that her boss was the real victim in the whole mess.
For Conway, "Excuse me" really meant "Excuse you." It was a shaming. It implied that the the other party was in the wrong for not permitting her bulldozing, browbeating and bloviating. It relied, successfully, on the assumption that nobody wanted to be seen interrupting a tiny blonde woman on live television. And so it excused her.
She is brilliant. She is terrifying.
She is also gone, theoretically. Earlier this week Conway announced she would be resigning from her role as senior adviser to the president. Her Wednesday speech at the Republican National Convention was a farewell of sorts, the last time we can expect to see her behaving as an official mouthpiece for Trump before she retreats to her new "less drama, more mama" lifestyle.
It was the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote, so she approached the podium and talked about her own place in the history of American women. "A woman in a leadership role can still seem novel," she said. "Not so for President Trump. For decades he has elevated women to senior positions." She talked about being raised in an all-female house, and she thanked — in a way that seemed sincere — "all the women who empower me."
Sigh. What to make of Kellyanne?
No part of me will miss the triple-jointed way she manipulated the media, and by extension the American people. But it was darkly fascinating to watch her relentless femininity — her excuse me's and pardon me's and God bless you's — and how she skillfully she wielded it on behalf of a mostly male administration.
She used her very presence to bat away charges of sexism against Trump. Again and again she reminded us — as she did again Wednesday — Trump had named her the first female campaign manager of a winning presidential ticket. How could he possibly be sexist?
And then there were times that she used her status as a woman to accuse others of non-existent sexist behavior, as when CNN reporter Jim Acosta accidentally knocked the arm of a White House intern as she reached for the microphone in his hand. "No young woman should have someone swiping away at them," Conway said at a news conference, language that implied Acosta's behavior had been misogynistic or violent.
Ever since the dawn of the #MeToo movement, affronted male readers have occasionally written me to say they are tired of reading about toxic masculinity all the time, and wondering whether there was a female corollary: toxic femininity. If there is, I can't help but think it looks like Kellyanne Conway: someone who takes the stereotypical gentle niceities we once sent girls to charm school to learn — and uses them to sow information chaos.
On Facebook, a liberal friend of mine recently confessed that, against all possible reason and for reasons she could not explain, she felt vaguely sorry for Conway right now. Her husband, George Conway, hated her boss and daily shamed the administration she dedicated her life to. Her boss hated her husband, and her marriage became a source of prurient speculation.
Beneath all of Conway's falsehoods and repugnant policies, some primal sisterly recognition had sprung up for my friend: an acknowledgment that Conway had worked her butt off to reach the top of her career, in a profession and political party that make it impossible for women — and now she was leaving it, to surrender to domesticity.
There is absolutely zero need to feel sorry for Kellyanne. But she does make me feel ... something. Some combination of awe and repugnance and confusion that she's spent so many of her obviously prodigious talents spinning stories for men who need their stories spun. Some mixture of rage and embarassment at the memory of her brittle grimace and her defiant untruths, spooled for four years into our living rooms, unstitching the country she claims to love. Wearing her suffragette white to give her address at the Republican National Convention, in an ode to whatever perverse feminism she'd worked out in her own head.
Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.
Monica Hesse wrote this piece for The Washington Post.