Basketball game sparks complaints of a man’s world at White House

By Mark Leibovich
New York Times / October 25, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Does the White House feel like a frat house?

The suspicion flared in recent weeks - and not for the first time - after President Obama was criticized by women’s advocates and liberal bloggers for hosting a high-level basketball game with no female players.

The president, after all, is an unabashed First Guy’s Guy. Since being elected, he has demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of college hoops on ESPN, indulged a craving for weekend golf, expressed a preference for adopting a “big rambunctious dog’’ over a “girlie dog,’’ and hoisted beer in a peace-making effort.

He presides over a White House rife with fist-bumping young men who call one another “dude’’ and testosterone-brimming personalities like Rahm Emanuel, the often-profane chief of staff; Lawrence Summers, the brash economic adviser; and Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, who habitually speaks in sports metaphors.

The debate about the all-male game has become a nagging concern for a White House that has battled an impression dating to the campaign that Obama’s closest advisers form a boys’ club and that he is too frequently in the company of only men - not just when playing sports, but when making big decisions.

While senior adviser Valerie Jarrett is undeniably one of the president’s closest White House confidants, some women inside or close to the administration complain that Obama’s female advisers are not as visible as their male colleagues or, they suspect, as influential.

“Women are Obama’s base, and they don’t seem to have enough people who look like the base inside of their own inner circle,’’ said Dee Dee Myers, a former press secretary in the Clinton administration whose sister, Betsy, served as the Obama campaign’s chief operating officer.

Obama, in an interview with NBC on Wednesday, called the beef over basketball “bunk,’’ saying that the players were largely picked from a regular congressional game and that the list of invitees was reviewed by women on his staff.

“I don’t think it sends any kind of message or signal whatsoever,’’ said the president, who often points out that he is surrounded by strong females at home (where he is the only noncanine male). He added, in the interview, that he had hired women for “some of the most important decision-making positions in this White House.’’

Jarrett similarly rejected the notion that the West Wing had been overrun by Y chromosomes. Jarrett said such complaints were “a Washington perception that has nothing to do with the reality on the ground.’’

She cites the prominent women Obama has appointed to top positions - including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; the health care czar, Nancy-Ann DeParle; and the domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes. According to figures provided by the administration, there is a 50-50 gender split among employees of the Obama White House.