In the annals of infotainment, few moments match the sight of George Bush leaping from the cockpit of a fighter jet and striding across the deck of a carrier at sea. Top Gun: The Pseudo Event enchanted the public, horrified liberals, and galvanized the press. Suddenly media mavens noticed that Bush’s handlers have elevated the photo-op to pure cinema. So what else is new?
Actually there was something novel about this occasion, but it passed utterly below the radar. Discretion prevented anyone from mentioning that Bush’s outfit gave him a very vivid basket. This was the first a time a president literally showed his balls. Check it out—your subconscious already has.
This manly exhibition was no accident. The media team that timed Bush’s appearance to catch just the right tone of sunlight must have chosen that uniform and had him try it on. I can’t prove they gave him a sock job, but clearly they thought long and hard about the crotch shot. As students of the cinematic, they would know that the trick is to make the bulge seem natural, so it registers without raising an issue. Tight jeans (a staple of Bush’s dress-down attire) can achieve this look, but nothing works like fighter-pilot drag, with its straps that frame and shape the groin. Most people presume this effect is merely functional. That frees the imagination to work, and work it does, in men and women alike.
Say what you will about the male body being objectified. We may expect a dude to display himself like an Abercrombie & Fitch model—but the president? Clearly Bush’s handlers want to leave the impression that he’s not just courageous and competent but hung. Why is this message important to send? That’s a very salient question, if only because it’s unlikely to be addressed.
Among modern presidents, Kennedy projected the studliest aura (though the sexual evidence was closely held at the time). Yet, in an era of body-hugging menswear, JFK wore loose-fitting suits. Clinton was perhaps the ultimate rogue in chief, but he shrank from showing his body—he wouldn’t have dared. Cartoonists alluded to Clinton’s libido by giving him a large bulbous nose, which became his emblem. Look at the face cartoonists have given Bush: The ears are outsized while the nose is modest. Big ears are not exactly phallic signifiers; if anything, they connote a state of permanent childhood, à la Mickey Mouse. In caricature Bush looks like a perplexed piker. There’s a reason he once drew the ultimate Texas dis: “All hat and no beef.” This sissifying contempt still lingers under the hoopla about Bush’s prowess.
9-11 scared America into solidarity, but if people perceive the Republican agenda as an equal threat, their doubts about Dubya’s manhood will resurface. They will notice his reliance on strong-willed advisers, his association with a patriarchal father, and even his diminutive size. Karl Rove’s rangers must be aware of this possibility since they’ve crafted an image to counter Bush’s macho problem. His public affect—the narrowed eyes, the locked-and-loaded look—is calculated to annul his liabilities, present and past. Imagine what the Republicans would make of a Democrat who was a cheerleader in prep school, who wrangled his way into Yale on family connections, and who weaseled out of active duty. Clinton was butch-baited for less.
Bush could easily have lived up to his home-state nickname, Shrub—and in the early hours of 9-11, he did. But rehabilitation is the master narrative of Bush’s presidency. This party animal turned commander is Prince Hal to his own Falstaff.
Overcoming is a powerful American theme; hence the proliferation of log cabins and front porches in the iconography of presidents, even some who grew up in splendor. Bush may be a master of populist pretense, but he can’t claim to be self-made. His saga rests on his quest to be a man. The real triumph of Bush’s media team is not a matter of lighting and positioning but of creating a presidential persona that radiates stead-fastness, plainspokenness, sexual continence, and righteous religiosity. These are the hallmarks of conservative macho.
But something about Bush’s image seems as artificially enhanced as his crotch. His need to flaunt it can be read as a response to anxiety. If you have to show your balls, maybe it’s because you can’t take them for granted. That isn’t just Bush’s problem. If macho seems so tragicomically x-treme these days, it’s because many men think masculinity could actually disappear.
All men must cope with the complications of feminism. I would argue that the demand for sexual equality is a major reason for the global rise of fundamentalism. Bush owes his fortune to this movement in America, but his appeal goes far beyond the Christian right. He represents a model that invites female initiative and counsel but not control. This is the Dred Scott compromise of our time, and it’s evident in Bush’s administration as well as in his marriage to an intelligent woman who knows how to stay three steps behind her husband. But Bush also embodies the primal uncertainty many men feel in the face of sexual change. This angst, which threatens to pop up like a sour belch, solidifies his bond with threatened men. They identify with his struggle to carry off the feat of macho, and many women empathize with that effort. A lot of people root for Bush to make it as a man, and they’re happy to see his big basket (even if it does suggest a male version of the push-up bra).
If America remains preoccupied with terrorism, the sexual politics I’m describing will affect the 2004 election only obliquely. But if voters focus on other things, the macho issue could be as crucial as it was in 2000, when Al Gore was wussified. Rove’s rangers have already begun bashing the Democratic candidate most likely to make Bush look like all cake and no beef: John Kerry.
First they questioned his patriotism, then they accused him of looking French, and now they’re landing on his wife, casting her as a hyper-Hillary. Teresa Heinz Kerry’s outspokenness, her devotion to her dead former husband, her current prenup, and her vow to maim any man who steps out on her are all being used to portray her as a ball-breaking bitch and John Kerry as her emasculated victim. So powerful is this harridan image that it actually allows the Bushies to bash Teresa for her wealth. If she doesn’t finance Kerry’s campaign, she’s dissing him; if she does, he’s a kept man.
Kerry isn’t the front-runner, yet the White House has singled him out for sexual calumny. To understand this fixation, you have to consider Kerry’s stature (he towers over Bush), his war record, and his sloe-eyed Kennedy aura. In another era, these would be clear signals of masculinity. Today, you have to flash your stash, and Kerry’s patrician style doesn’t lend itself to that. But he does have those tales from ‘Nam, and in a one-on-one he could expose the angst under Bush’s aggression. If the economy tanks while Iraq seethes, we just might have a real contest.
Fasten your crotch straps. With luck, we’re in for a bumpy ride.