"How did everyone like the salad?" presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked a roomful of politicians, journalists, and other D.C. elite types at the annual Gridiron Dinner on Saturday. "I thought it was okay, but it needed just a bit of scalp oil and a pinch of dandruff, would be a little better."
Klobuchar, the Gridiron Club's Democratic speaker for the night, was referring to the story reported by The New York Times that she had once berated a staffer for forgetting to bring a fork for her salad on a plane trip, ate the salad with a comb she pulled out of her purse, and then made her employee clean the comb.
She followed the salad joke with, "So when Jerry [Seib, Gridiron Club president] called me about tonight, he asked, 'Do you need a microphone, or do you just prefer to yell at everyone?' I said, 'microphone.'"
Sometimes the most accurate way to sum up a reaction is: ?
The bigwig crowd reportedly ate it up. "In the room of ultimate political insiders, Klobuchar's jokes landed well and some of the rougher edges of her reputation were smoothed over," former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart opined on CNN.
Somehow we doubt that an audience of actual Capitol Hill staffers — people who work long hours and don't always make a living wage — would have been as amused, although they might have laughed along politely so as to keep their jobs. Klobuchar's humiliation of staffers and abusive behavior has been well-documented in various recent media stories. The people whom her behavior has actually affected were more likely to be complaining about their jobs at a dive bar than laughing and rubbing elbows with millionaires at a fancy dinner.
The white-tie affair, where reporters and politicians present satirical skits and speeches, is known for being an event that highlights the lighter, "human" side of politics. The president typically speaks, although this year, he sent Ivanka in his place, who whined that being his daughter is "the hardest job in the world" (LOL). The speakers are strategically chosen, and it's seen as a chance for politicians to publicly redeem themselves, at least to the inside-the-Beltway audience. As a veteran Democratic operative told Politico, the chief question of the night for Klobuchar was, "How do I turn this on myself in a way that humanizes and disarms and conveys a sense that I get it?"
She seems to have succeeded. But while the salad jokes may have gone over well with her peers, it remains to be seen whether voters will be turned off by Klobuchar's behavior with staff. Some say all the media coverage of her managerial style is a sexist double standard — many men in Washington are tougher bosses and we never hear about it — while others believe that, gender issues aside, her angry outbursts are disqualifying. Dozens of former staffers have stuck up for Klobuchar, testifying that her tough style and the demanding environment of her office has made them better at their jobs.
"The best way I can describe it is sort of like Navy SEALs training," Zach Rodvold, who worked on Klobuchar's first U.S. Senate campaign in 2006 and headed her Minnesota office from 2007 to 2009, told the Star Tribune. "It’s not intended to be fun. It’s hard. But what you get from it is you become very, very good at what you do." He said he has seen Klobuchar throw a pen in frustration (another staffer told BuzzFeed she almost accidentally hit them with a flying binder), and that there were times he thought she had unreasonably high expectations, but also that she was funny, charismatic, and worked harder than anyone else.
Klobuchar, without directly apologizing, told the Star Tribune that she intends to treat her staff better. "I’m incredibly proud of the work our staff has done and I would not be here without amazing staff," she said in a statement. "I know I can be tough, I know I can push people too hard, and I also know I can do better — and I will."
The Minnesota senator prides herself on being one of the most efficient lawmakers on the Hill, ranking first when it comes to the number of bills signed into law. She also ranks high in introducing bills, cosponsoring bills, and getting bills out of committee, and is known for effectively working across the aisle. Maybe in the end, that will be enough.
"I will win this election because I’m a woman and all the powerful people in the room told me it’s a sure thing. What could possibly go wrong?" Klobuchar said in her speech.