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'Secretary' title is a blast from the past

By Megan Carpentier, Special to CNN
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Thu April 12, 2012
Obama speaks about the Buffett Rule, flanked by
Obama speaks about the Buffett Rule, flanked by "assistants," at the White House on Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Megan Carpentier: Political discussion revolves around "Warren Buffett's secretary"
  • She says the word "secretary" conjures up images of a bygone era, of pearls and sweater sets
  • This is another case in which a secretary is in shadows behind powerful, wealthy man, she says
  • Carpentier: Secretary is a "work wife," rather than "administrative professional"

Editor's note: Megan Carpentier is the executive editor of The Raw Story, a progressive news and politics site established in 2004. She previously served as an associate editor at Talking Points Memo. Before her time as a journalist, she was a D.C.-based lobbyist for seven years.

Washington (CNN) -- It's the punchline of a joke no one bothered to write the set-up for: Warren Buffett's secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does.

It's a joke about the fishnet our tax code turns into when it snares a golden snapper instead of a few million sardines, a joke about the kind of man who still employs a person he refers to as his "secretary" in 2012 and a joke about a rich guy who allegedly cares enough about his secretary's tax rate that he'll get behind a government effort to raise his taxes but can't bring himself to call her an executive assistant.

And it's now the punchline on which the Obama administration decided to rest its efforts to increase taxes on the wealthy in an election year. What was one semi-faceless woman on the other side of the mahogany doors of Buffett's office is now a road show featuring four wealthy Obama donors and their (at least in some press accounts) still-nameless assistants story.

Megan Carpentier
Megan Carpentier

No one called them "secretaries," though.

The word "secretary" conjures up images of a bygone era, of pearls and sweater sets, sensible heels and knee-length skirts, and the right mixture of efficiency and self-effacement to fade into the background while acting as a powerful man's right hand. Perhaps that -- and the plethora of lawyers in the city limits -- is why the phrase "Warren Buffett's secretary" didn't strike any odd notes in Washington even as most of the rest of the country would consider the word consigned to the same heap containing "stewardess," "love child" and "going steady."

In 2012, we don't celebrate Secretaries' Day; we celebrate Administrative Professionals Day. We have -- when we have administrative support at all, which is increasingly rare in the post-recession hyper-productive economy -- administrative assistants, executive assistants or (if you're a celebrity) personal assistants. And while it probably goes without saying that at least a few still fetch coffee for the higher-ups, a fair number of administrative and executive assistants would probably look askance at a boss who asked them to stop answering phones, planning for meetings and dealing with the time-consuming minutiae of keeping an office functioning to do a personal task like that.

Plus, in the modern economy, there's no longer a secretarial pool: More likely, a group of employees and managers will be pooled together to use the resources of one administrative assistant, who then gets to juggle not only their work demands but their desire to have their demands met before those of their colleagues. If you bring five different people coffee on demand, that's less assisting one's supervisors and more waiting on them.

At its core, being an assistant -- or an administrative professional -- is framed as a career upgrade, even if many of the tasks are essentially the same: It's a way of acknowledging the importance of administrative work and support to the success of many projects and even many people.

A secretary served one boss -- and it's the service nature of that categorization that perhaps rubs us the wrong way nowadays -- with both professional tasks and more than a few personal ones. "Administrative professional" denotes strictly professional assistance; "secretary" still holds the connotation of "work wife."

The phrase "Warren Buffett's secretary" sounds strange. Are we supposed to conjure up a modern-day Joan Holloway, Doralee Rhodes, the "sweet" and loyal Maria of the R.B. Greaves song or the stern, all-knowing mother-figure of an assistant? Do they still get coffee, buy gifts for relatives, even take dictation? And how does Buffett's "secretary" feel about being the invisible half of his political punchline-turned-policy?

If nothing else, Debbie Bosanek -- who, despite having a real name, is still known to the world as "Warren Buffett's secretary" -- seems to have a sense of humor about the whole thing. Though, when conservative commentators take her limited role in the fight to raise rich people's taxes seriously enough that they decided to speculate that she is too rich to be the poster child for the downtrodden, she'd have to be amused, if she wasn't going to get annoyed.

It's probably not the first time that her boss' needs have trumped her personal desires, and at least it netted her a seat at the State of the Union.

But it's interesting that, even in the wake of the Occupy movement calling for more attention to be paid to income inequality, the legislation is still called the Buffett Rule. The rule designed to even the playing field by putting Buffett's taxes on Bosanek's scale isn't called the Bosanek Rule or the Secretaries' Rule. It makes no obvious reference to the people to whom Buffett is to be made more equal.

Instead, it's the Buffett Rule. It's about him; it concerns him; it affects him; it takes his name. Bosanek will probably go back to being the anonymous secretary of the story (if she hasn't already done so), and the legislation inspired by Buffett's epiphany about her unequal tax rate will get named after him.

Even when legislation is intended to ding the 1%, it still bears their name, and it's still with the permission of at least some of them -- whether it be Buffett or the four donors with whom Obama shared the stage this week -- that it's even on the political agenda. It's not getting pushed because Bosanek deserves it but because Buffett thinks she deserves it. After all, that's what secretaries do: They fade into the background.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Megan Carpentier.

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