Who's Afraid Of Naomi Wolf?

Something about Naomi Wolf sets the Washington establishment on edge. Is it because she's radical? It it because she's ambitious? Because of teh money? Because she's a girl? `Don't forget the hair," says a publishing executive who has followed Wolf's career. `The hair is not to be underestimated.' -------------------------------

WASHINGTON - Outside the Beltway, people are talking about the usual stuff - movies, shootings, the latest episode of "Ally McBeal." But inside the Beltway it's another wacky week, folks, and everybody, just everybody, is talking alpha-beta soup and whether the veep and Tipper support mutual masturbation.

The punditocracy and political consulates remain hot and bothered over news that comely best-selling author Naomi Wolf has been surreptitiously talking - for big money - to Vice President Al Gore. She is advising Underdog, they say, about everything from attracting younger voters to the color of his shirts to distancing himself from the Oral Office guy. To hear them go on, you'd think the man had hired Jeane Dixon, astrologer, rather than Naomi Wolf, feminist intellectual.

Fox News's Brit Hume names her "some exotic consultant from the, you know, feminist psychobabble movement."

Martha Burk from the Center for Advancement of Public Policy sneers that the Rhodes scholar is a "bimbo feminist."

The Republican National Committee's Mike Collins brands her a "kook" and The New York Times' Maureen Dowd spears the writer with her own words - "The rape crisis center starved for lack of fun" - a silly shred grabbed from hundreds of pages of published materials.

Precious little has been said in her defense. Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, says some vaguely supportive things about how all presidential candidates should have advisers on women's issues. Wolf's feminist contemporaries Susan Faludi and Deborah Tannen don't respond to requests for comment. The editor of Wolf's book "Promiscuities," from which much shock erotica has been rudely plucked, does not return calls.

Something, then, about Naomi Wolf sets the teeth of the Washington establishment on edge. But why?

Is it because she's radical? Is it because she's ambitious? Is it because she's not a card-carrying member of the political consultancy consortium of America? Because of the money? Because she's a girl? Because she's a girl who writes about sex all the time?

"And don't forget the hair," says a publishing executive who has followed Wolf's career. "The hair is not to be underestimated."

The hair is luxuriant and bountiful, dark and glossy, like Maria Shriver's, or Monica Lewinsky's. It has crowned Wolf since she burst into the cultural consciousness eight years ago with her first book, "The Beauty Myth." She was 28, a poet who had grown up in San Francisco, gone east to Yale and further east still, to Oxford.

"The Beauty Myth" argued that the fashion ads and music videos and billion-dollar beauty industry conspired to foist upon women a cycle of obsession over their looks. Her ideas were not original - Gloria Steinem had been railing against same for some time - but Wolf wrote deftly and spoke compellingly and presented such an effective package that she became the go-to quote on a whole field now known as "body image issues." The book became an international best seller, Wolf became a recognizable talk show feminist, and the sniping that trails her began, not coincidentally.

Easy for you to harp against expectations created by fashion models, the critics said. You look like a fashion model. When Philadelphia Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano interviewed her back then, she greeted him wearing "a pair of flimsy see-through orange harem pants, scarely obscuring black panties."

Now we know that was because she finally had gotten in touch with her inner slut, according to her third book, "Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood," which used her own coming-of-age experiences to illustrate how the sexual revolution opened the playground up for women, but never protected them from the banged-up knees of unwanted pregnancy, disease and despair. "When Martin and I went together to the clinic to arrange for contraception some weeks before the actual deed, no experience could have been flatter," she writes of having her first diaphragm fitted at 15. "It was weird to have these adults just hand you the keys to the kingdom, ask `Any questions?,' wave, and return to their paperwork."

Many years and many men later (she puts the number at 30), Wolf is a married lady. Her husband, David Shipley, is an editor at the Sunday magazine of The New York Times and a former New Republic editor who wrote speeches for President Clinton and the first lady. They have a 4-year-old daughter, Rosa, named for the civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Wolf has said she wrote "Promiscuities" for her.

Topping this week's pundit playlist of book extracts is Wolf's concept of "sexual gradualism," a step-by-step program that would teach girls to gratify their inherent sexual desire in an emotionally and physically safe fashion. But her advocacy of teaching mutual masturbation as a way to prolong virginity sounds less like crackpot feminism than practical talk from a public-health sex educator. And some of her thinking on sex could be embraced by the religious right.

"I have a young daughter and I want her to value sex more than I could, to not have intercourse earlier than she is ready to have it," Wolf said in an interview in 1997. "I want us to create a society where both boys and girls could say this is as far as I want to go. . . . Teens are bombarded with morally bankrupt messages. We need to use our words to weave a context, to see sexuality with a moral ground."

What about this makes Wolf a controversial feminist? "A controversial feminist," says Nancy Van Meter, a labor union policy analyst who has followed the flap with dismay, "is a feminist."

Or maybe it's just the sex. Well after Margaret Sanger, well after the Pill, the last thing we need in politics is sex. Witness the awful ordeals that began with the errant hair on the Coke can and moved along to the pizza delivery girl in the thong and sizzled out with Reps. Henry Hyde and Bob Livingston. Witness the platform issues of the first ladies, which move gingerly from celebrating folk arts through literacy and onto health care, never, ever touching on a call for family planning.

So lest any voters convulse in alarm over a sexpot counselor, a senior Gore aide assures: Wolf "is not advising the vice president on policy. She's not going up for surgeon general."

Plus, plenty of other Yale grads and Rhodes scholars in Washington quietly seethe at their keyboards, thinking about the money Wolf has received for yakking away - $15,000 a month since January, according to Time magazine. "I would've picked out ties for the candidate for a lot less than $15,000 a month, had he asked me," said the National Review's Kate O'Beirne. "If only I'd known! If only I'd known it paid that well!"

Wolf's negotiation of that contract, slashed recently to $5,000 by Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, must flow from her philosophy that women deserve equal pay to men, which seems to be in tension with her newly found sense of service, as she detailed last year in Tikkun magazine. "I went to a consultant for writer's block . . . and this consultant put me into a meditative state. I then had a spiritual experience, an overwhelming and inexplicable mystical encounter that turned my world upside down," she wrote. ". . . Part of what was shocking to me was getting that all the things that the world I knew tended to privilege - things like status, money, beauty, self, fame - were all stripped away and that the only reality is service, the joy and beauty of it." So it's first-class service she's after.

"They're telling Naomi Wolf that she should have no voice, because her voice is different, and that's discrimination," says Brazile. "I don't know her, but I defend her right to be at the table - but at a reduced rate."