Macho, Macho Man
June 28, 2006
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, just released by John Wiley & Sons. The views expressed here are his own.
As we head toward yet another election in which the Republican case to the voters will be, “We’re strong and they’re weak,” it’s worth noting just how many times we’ve seen this drama played out. While it’s easy to see this argument as just being about the Iraq war, or just about national security, in fact it goes much deeper. These arguments delve into the psychology of voters and the officials they elect, and the political effects of our continuously evolving ideas about gender.
Time magazine’s Joe Klein, in his continuing quest to become the GOP’s favorite columnist, recently took the occasion of the president’s latest super-secret trip to Iraq to inform his readers that George W. Bush is one red-hot hunk of man meat. Admiring the fact that at one point Bush stepped into his plane’s cockpit, Klein noted that:
George W. Bush's body language—let's call it the full jaunty—was reminiscent of his last, infamous cockpit trip, onto the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 to announce the ‘end’ of major combat operations in Iraq, beneath a mission accomplished sign. His public language is more cautious than it used to be, but he seemed downright frothy in a private session with the congressional leadership after his press conference ... Bush had reason, finally, to strut.
Jaunty, frothy, strutting—is he the leader of the free world, or a Chippendale’s dancer?
It certainly brought one back to those heady “Mission Accomplished” days. Just after the mother of all photo-ops in May 2003, former Dan Quayle speechwriter Lisa Schiffren wrote an embarrassing column in the Wall Street Journal pronouncing Bush “really hot. Also presidential, of course. Not to mention credible as commander in chief. But mostly ‘hot,’ as in virile, sexy and powerful.”
And it wasn’t just the ladies who were ruminating on the majesty of Bush in his flight suit. Ex-felon G. Gordon Liddy waxed rhapsodic on "Hardball" about how Bush's parachute harness “makes the best of his manly characteristic. You go run those—run that stuff again of him walking across there with the parachute. He has just won every woman's vote in the United States of America. You know, all those women who say size doesn't count—they're all liars. Check that out.” I picture the crew in the studio glancing at each other uncomfortably as Liddy went off on this riff.
Actual reporters may have been more restrained in their comments, but there is no mistaking their admiration for Bush’s testosterone levels. How many times have we heard reporters speak of Bush’s “swagger” or his “muscular” foreign policy?
In response to Klein’s column, the blogger Digby posed a question:
Bubba was female friendly (if you know what I mean) and was the object of a great deal of derisive coverage for his tomcat vibe by the priggish D.C. press. What worked in his favor out in the country—his smarts ’n sexual charisma—made the Washington media squirm like a bunch of little old ladies caught by accident at a Marilyn Manson concert. And then along came the codpiece and they all fell in love. Wassup with that?
The answer, to put it bluntly, is that people like Joe Klein are weenies. If they’re going to develop a man-crush, it’s not going to be on a sensitive new-age guy like Clinton; it’s going to be on somebody whose feet are planted in a traditional conception of manliness. The object of their man-crush will be someone who’s rough ’n ready, who knows how to give a steely gaze to a tinhorn terrorist, who thinks facts are for wimps and who’ll smack reporters around and make them like it.
Or at least someone who can play the part. With the possible exception of Teddy Roosevelt, no president in our history has worked as hard to convince the voters that he’s a real man as George W. Bush. With the fervor of the converted, Bush went whole-hog in working to create his cowboy persona. And it is just that—a persona—one carefully constructed in advance of the 2000 campaign. The ranch in Crawford was purchased in 1999 so that Bush could have a place to go and clear brush for the cameras. (Just wondering, hasn’t all the brush been cleared by now? Where’s all that brush coming from?) And when he pulls on the jeans, the boots, the belt buckle, and the hat, he’s playing dress-up with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old girl donning her first princess costume.
In contrast, Bill Clinton’s sexuality didn’t come from the clothes he wore or the way he puffed out his chest. Clinton’s was a contemporary sexuality, one that wasn’t afraid to get choked up, even shed a tear, with the knowledge that it would make the ladies melt. He felt your pain, and before you knew it you were letting him feel some other things, too. Those who have met Clinton in person often say he has an almost hypnotic effect, that within a few seconds he’s able to create a bubble of intense connection around the two of you, and suddenly you feel like you’re incredibly important to him.
Bush has a certain charisma, but it is of an entirely different sort. It’s more distant, one that says not, “I want to kiss you,” but, “Check me out—aren’t I cool?” He wants us to watch him while he struts. And the likes of Joe Klein have been gazing on in admiration for Bush’s entire time in public life.
There is no doubt that Bush’s particular brand of manliness has yielded political benefit. His entire 2004 campaign was built around the idea that he was strong and John Kerry was weak. The most important television ad of that campaign was “Ashley’s Story” (paid for by a conservative “527” group), in which the girl named in the title, whose mother was killed on 9/11, is emotionally closed until the strong and powerful father figure Bush comes to town and gathers her up in his arms. “He’s the most powerful man in the world,” says Ashley, “and all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe.” Who’s your daddy?
And the White House guards the image carefully. On that trip to Iraq, aides Dan Bartlett and Tony Snow were photographed in flak jackets and helmets during the helicopter ride between the Baghdad airport and the American embassy looking somewhat less than studly . Bush was wearing the gear too, but administration aides begged photographers not to take any pictures of the commander in chief in a less-than-heroic pose, and the photographers assented.
All this is happening at a time when the culture is awash in visions of hyper-masculinity born of anti-feminist backlash (even if “The Man Show” is no longer on the air). Not only are humor titles like “The Alphabet of Manliness” and “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell” flying off the shelves, but Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield even offered up “Manliness,” an attempt to build a serious case for men’s superiority—which ended up being the funniest book of the bunch. In the 1950s, a man who pushed nothing but paper on the job would come home to watch Matt Dillon stare down a bad guy on “Gunsmoke” (at one point in 1959 there were two dozen westerns on prime-time television). Today, the guy who spends all day staring at a computer screen settles into his couch for some Ultimate Fighting, telling himself that he could do pretty well if he ever had to go one-on-one in the ring.
No one exemplifies this desire for neo-macho legitimacy more than the president himself, whose guy’s guy act may stem from feelings of inadequacy regarding his father. (I realize I’m veering into Maureen Dowd’s turf here, but what the heck.) While Poppy was a star athlete, Dubya was a cheerleader. Poppy was a war hero, and Dubya didn’t bother to show up for training in the “Champagne Unit” of the Texas Air Guard. And though the son once challenged the father to go “mano a mano” after getting scolded for driving drunk, one suspects Dubya would have gotten his ass handed to him.
Nonetheless we’ve come a long way since Ed Muskie’s 1972 presidential campaign imploded after he shed tears while defending his wife’s honor from Republican attacks. Male politicians are now allowed to cry (just a little—no sobbing), and nobody likes giving a fatherly hug more than the president. But rest assured, the Republicans will undertake a campaign of feminization against whomever the Democrats nominate in 2008, just as they have against pretty much every Democratic nominee going back to the 1960s. (Of course, there’s one potential candidate whom they can’t accuse of being a girl, because, well, she is one. But that’s another story.)
The Democrats could, of course, stoop to the Republicans’ level. If someone is desperately trying to prove he’s a man, nothing will drive him crazy quicker than making fun of him for failing. So they could say Bill Frist throws like a girl, or Rudy Giuliani likes to dress up in women’s clothes , or Mitt Romney looks like he spends a little too much time on personal grooming, if you know what I mean.
It isn’t necessary to be that crass, but it is vital for Democrats to prepare themselves for the arguments Republicans will make and be ready to hit back. When Ronald Reagan joked in 1984 that he would arm wrestle Walter Mondale any time, Mondale responded, “The issue that worries Americans is not arm wrestling but the need for arms control.” Even Democrats probably said, “Sheesh, what a wimp.” When you get challenged that directly, the best response may be to shine a light on what the other side is doing. Democrats should have been talking for years about how insecure Bush seems about his masculinity.
But more importantly, they need to understand why the charge of weakness so often sticks. Some in Congress believed that if they voted for the Iraq war, they’d look strong. How do they look now? Like a bunch of pushovers who didn’t have the guts to stand up to George W. Bush. An image of strength doesn’t come from voting like you think a hawk would vote. It comes from being willing to take political risks for the sake of principle. It comes from not apologizing for what you believe in. It comes from not being afraid to alienate some voters, particularly those who aren’t going to vote for you anyway.
For too long, Democrats have been gripped by fear—fear of being called weak, fear of losing votes in the South, fear of their own shadows. If they can get over that and start showing some courage, the charges Republicans throw at them will bounce right off.