Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success. The views expressed here are his own.
"Can you smell the English Leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of mature man’s shaving cream, or whatever, you know, after he shaved? Do you smell that sort of—a little bit of cigar smoke? You know, whatever."
It will not surprise you to learn that the one who spoke those words was Chris Matthews, nor that the “mature man” about whom he was speaking was the Republican flavor of the month, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson. Matthews’ references to English Leather and Aqua Velva, male grooming products whose status (along with Old Spice) as totemic signifiers of American manhood faded some 30 years ago, could hardly be more apt.
Thompson’s rapid ascent up the polls, before his campaign has officially begun, has been judged a product of the weaknesses of the leading Republican candidates. It’s aided by an admiring press corps, never more enraptured than by a persona carefully crafted and maintained with skill, swooning that he is “Reaganesque” and “looks like a president.” Apart from Hillary Clinton, no candidate’s bid hinges so much on the impact of traditional ideas and assumptions about gender.
As Peggy Noonan, able chronicler of the GOP id, put it, Thompson’s campaign is “aimed at the major pleasure zones of the Republican brain.” Those pleasure zones are activated most surely by someone who challenges nothing they believe, and whose appeal could be easily transplanted back in time to the halcyon days for which they pine. The fact that those days never existed, except on television and in the movies, makes Thompson, the actor, the perfect man to embody their spirit.
If Romney sells himself as the M.B.A. president George W. Bush was supposed to be, efficient and capable, and Giuliani posits that only he can keep the murderous horde of terrorists at bay, the Fred Thompson brand is straight out of 1950s television. This persona, honed in role after role, is tough but fair, firm but caring, wise and strong, the kind of man whose dog brings him his slippers when he walks through the door at the end of the day.
Country singer Lorrie Morgan, one of Thompson’s ex-girlfriends, recently told the Financial Times ,
He’s majestic. He’s a soft, safe place to be and that could be Fred’s ticket. Women love a soft place to lay and a strong pair of hands to hold us.
She also noted that Thompson is “the kind of man little girls dream about marrying, who opens doors for you, lights your cigarettes, helps you on with your coat, buys wonderful gifts. It’s every woman’s fantasy.” And who is it that little girls dream of marrying? Their fathers, of course.
And it isn’t just his ex-girlfriends. Sally Quinn, wife of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and the den mother of the Washington establishment, recently penned a column nearly pleading with President Bush to push Dick Cheney to the curb and take on Thompson as vice president. A better indication of the cheers with which Thompson would be greeted inside the Beltway would be harder to find.
Some might think that Thompson’s years of playing the field, and the fact that his second wife is a comely young lady a quarter century his junior, might be a detriment to his candidacy. But the trophy wife is actually a key accoutrement of the kind of man Thompson portrays himself as. Both McCain and Giuliani cast off wives in favor of younger women; when Dennis Kucinich told David Letterman that his wife is 29 years old, the studio audience applauded vigorously. The younger second wife is a reward of a life well-lived, whose flaunting demonstrates to others the man’s power and virility. A man with a trophy wife is a man who understands society’s hierarchy, and his place at its apex.
If there is one thing Thompson shares with the man currently holding the office he seeks, it is an understanding of the role of masculinity in presidential image-making. In 2004, the Republican convention featured a video entitled “The Pitch,” seven of the most lushly produced minutes in American political history. The voice-over was provided by none other than Fred Thompson, possessor of the GOP’s most mellifluous set of pipes. “How do you tell the story of a presidency?” Thompson intoned. “How do you tell the story so far? The story is in part, but inescapably, the story of a man.” Listen to it and you can hear Thompson pour every ounce of feeling his modest acting talents would summon into that one word.
And he has no doubt learned a lot from Bush, who understood how familiar archetypes enable voters to quickly and easily snap a template onto a candidate, providing a way to understand him or her. From the beginning of his national career, Bush has posed as a cowboy, perhaps the most important and viscerally understood American archetype. The cowboy embodies all the qualities Bush wanted Americans to believe he possessed: strong, masculine, principled, compassionate, courageous, plain-spoken, clever without being educated, while capable of solving problems with his fists or his gun. When he bought his ranch in 1999, Bush wasn’t just looking for a place to live. And when his 1994 Senate campaign leased a red pickup truck to trot out at appearances, Fred Thompson wasn’t just looking for something to drive. He knew that the pickup truck bespeaks not just the “authenticity” that is supposed to accompany anything rural, but a particular brand of masculinity. Who drives pickups? Men, real men, particularly men who work with their hands.
Thompson may not have much to say about issues, but he knows image. You can already see the careful attention to detail in his just-constructed website: “I read Sen. Barry Goldwater’s book, The Conscience of a Conservative,” Thompson tells us, “and the ideas were as clear as a church bell on a cold winter night.” Conservative bona fides, check; nod to Christian religiosity, check; small-town folksiness, check. And all in one sentence.
Many a Democratic campaign has suffered from paying too much attention to the substance of issues and too little to image and identity. At the moment, Fred Thompson has a firm grasp on the identity he wants to create. Whether there will be any substance to it remains to be seen.