This column was written before the New Hampshire primary. Let’s assume that anything short of Dennis Kucinich kicking ass can happen. At the risk of looking ridiculous in retrospect, I’ll stick to this thesis: The race belongs to the red-meat man. That’s the test a Democratic candidate must pass this year—for better or worse.
No poll measures a politician’s butch rating, but nearly every voter thinks about it—and Democratic strategists obsess about it. When they talk about electability, manliness is a big part of what they really mean. Give-’em-hell Howard Dean might have met that need, but then came his primal scream. As an emblematic error, it ranks with Michael Dukakis’s tank trauma, Ed Muskie’s unseemly tears, and the rabbit attack on Jimmy Carter.
Why was Dean’s performance so unsettling? The most common explanation—that it wasn’t presidential—doesn’t get at the gut-level distress even many of his supporters felt. No self-deprecating shtick can overcome this blunder. Dean still has the fans and the funds to be a player, but no matter how well he does in New Hampshire, he’ll be haunted by that manic moment for the rest of his political life.
Dubya couldn’t remember the names of foreign leaders, but that didn’t ground him. No one ever lost macho points for being stupid. Male hysteria is another story. Most women recoil from it, and most men show contempt, which is why late-night comics (all of them guys) rushed to piss on Dean. In a more relaxed time, his performance might have been regarded as passionate and roguish. But in this anxious age, it tapped into one of the worst nightmares for many men: losing your grip in a clinch. For a wannabe dude-in-chief, that’s not just a sign of instability; it’s a violation of gender expectations.
John Kerry positioned himself to take advantage of just this sort of slip. Even before Dean’s implosion, Kerry had staked his claim to the masculine mystique. He won in Iowa despite the fact that three-quarters of caucus-goers opposed the war in Iraq. Kerry never quite explained away his support for shock and awe—but it didn’t matter. His war-hero persona had endeared him to many men without turning off women—and middle-aged women were the largest group of caucus voters. That’s why John Edwards did so well, and still does; women are his major constituency outside the South. But Kerry prevailed because his appeal crossed gender lines. It’s no reach to say that he owes his success to his mastery of male aura.
How did Kerry turn around dismal numbers and an image that would make Calvin Coolidge seem bubbly? In November, he hired a new campaign manager with strong feminist ties. It says a lot about the current moment that her first move was to give him a makeover. Just one night after her tenure began, Kerry roared his way into Jay Leno’s show on a motorcycle. His bomber jacket has been augmented by a canvas coat out of Orvis, and his photo ops are tailored to showcase his prowess as a jock. Last weekend Kerry was seen on TV playing hockey in New Hampshire. This is the equivalent of kissing babies for a Democrat now.
Kerry’s speeches bristle with suck-on-this epigrams. “I know something about aircraft carriers for real,” he brags, alluding to Bush’s famous flight-deck appearance in fighter-pilot drag. Unspoken (but not for long, once his surrogates get busy) is the contrast between Kerry’s bravery in Vietnam and Bush’s retreat into the Texas National Guard, courtesy of his daddy. In a turnaround worthy of a Situationist, Kerry has latched onto one of Bush’s best-known comments, uttered when he was asked about the danger posed by guerrilla warriors in Iraq. “Bring them on!” brayed the president. Change the pronoun and you’ve got Kerry’s unofficial campaign slogan: Bring it on! Then throw in an arsenal of taunts worthy of a boxer mouthing off before a big fight. Somehow this verbal sparring doesn’t seem unpresidential. Real men dare their rivals and demean each other’s manhood, don’t they? Real men have beef, and when they raise their voices, they holler or bellow. Only women—and Howard Dean—scream.
I had hopes for Wesley Clark. He came with the stars, bars, and cheekbones of a winner. But there’s a reason why Clark’s argyle sweater was such a hot story. It evoked a Carteresque gentility that the Democrats can’t afford. When Clark remarked that he was a general while Kerry only made it to lieutenant, he looked testy rather than tough. You’d think being endorsed by Madonna and Michael Moore would loosen Clark’s image up, but they make him look like Sammy Davis Jr. in a Nehru jacket. This guy actually needs a babe crisis.
See how easy it is to mock a male candidate who makes a less-than-persuasive case for his machismo? It brings out the sadist in us, but of course this schadenfreude is a cover for fear. Of what? At the risk of being p.c., I’d say it’s terror of a world without white male power. If you ask me, the butchest boychick in this pack is Al Sharpton, who can dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee, and do a mean James Brown. But he has to walk a fine, if funky, line between entertainment and self-assertion. Too much of the latter and it’s Birth of a Nation all over again. That says something about who gets to be the man and who must play the clown.
Women are caught in a comparable bind. If they talk tough, they can seem terrifying. Carol Moseley Braun did pretty well at avoiding that trap, but it remains to be seen whether a well-financed female contender such as Hillary Clinton can overcome the male panic she inspires. To good old boys, all she has to do is open her eyes wide and she looks like Dean at his most demento.
People don’t vote on the basis of gender expectations alone, but the butch factor plays a much larger part in our politics than is usually acknowledged. In the age of Rummy, not to mention the Gropinator, there’s no such thing as too much machismo in a pol. So who can blame the Democrats for manning up? For years now, their leaders have been tarred with the wuss brush very effectively by Republicans. If overcoming that liability means channeling the ghost of Evel Knievel, I say bring it on. But why does that seem presidential? Could Franklin Roosevelt compete today with a hunk on a Harley?
Call it a response to 9-11, a reaction to feminism, or show business taking over the world. But the kitsch of masculinity—the studwear, the Clint Eastwood stare, the programmed finger-stabbing dare—has enormous credibility now. We are trusting our very lives to the man who makes the best action figure. That’s a lot scarier than Howard Dean at his screamiest.
Research assistance: Matthew Phillp