Monday, January 12, 2004

Don't Show Us Yours & We Won't Show You Ours

Back in 2002 when Howard Dean began to emerge as a Democratic candidate, we took one look at him on TV and thought, "Finally, a Democrat not afraid of a fight!" That thick neck, that bull-fighting stance, that in-your-face certitude ... it was ... well, it turns out it was all about having balls.

Now someone has written THE essay analyzing what everyone's been thinking but no one has said ... that Howard Dean is (maybe) "butch" enough to go up against the flight-suit wearing, chairsaw wielding, Levi-clad macho of George W. Bush. Check it out: "Butching Up for Victory," by Richard Goldstein, in The Nation.

Goldstein gets pretty explicit (so get the kids out of the room): "A specter is haunting the White House. It is the specter of the young Clint Eastwood. Check him out in those Reagan-era bad-cop films and you'll see the origin of Bush's flinty glare. This President owes his mandate, such as it is, to his projection of macho. There's a reason why he's the first President in history to inspire an action-hero doll. (Decked out in a flight suit, he's ready to enchant 8-year-olds of all ages.) From Bush's taunting response to insurgents in Iraq -- "Bring 'em on" -- to the fighter-pilot drag he donned for that famous aircraft-carrier landing, he rarely misses a chance to wave his whopper, and not just figuratively. That flight suit had a distinctly bulbous crotch. It's no reach to think that Bush's handlers, so concerned about lighting and posing him, would pad his panache. That sort of gesture goes straight to the subconscious, an achievement any hidden persuader can be proud of."

If that paragraph builds up Bush's manly myth, the very next paragraph deconstructs it: "Still, something about the President's swagger lends itself to parody. It looks as forced and fragile as it is. Molly Ivins, an acute student of Bush's persona, says it combines three strands of Texas culture: 'religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo. The machismo is what I think is fake.' If conditions grow grim, the doubts about his masculinity that have haunted Bush throughout his political life will reappear. One reason Dean smells blood in Iraq is that a quagmire there will resonate with what Texans used to say about Dubya: 'All hat and no cattle.' In the macho imagination, nothing is worse than a belligerent claim that can't be supported. This is why the slogan of Bush's warship visitation -- "Mission Accomplished" -- is a potential liability for him and a gift to Dean."

We've forgotten in fact that Bush's very first reaction to 9/11 was to fly nervously around the country, hip-hopping from one temporary haven to another, avoiding D.C. and appearing -- frankly -- craven in the face of attack. But we've forgotten that, choosing to recall instead his frat-boy swagger of a few days later, when he'd gotten his bearings and his handlers had decided what he needed to do. His fearfulness for his personal safety also reemerged in that famous quick run to Baghdad for Thanksgiving. Press reports said he was hovering in the cockpit, ve-r-r-ry interested in what the pilot was doing to minimize the danger from rogue rocket attacks.

In the setting in which he finds himself -- in over his head as president of the United States -- he cannot be a supremely confident man. But he knows he has to project confidence at all times. And frankly, the strain shows, especially when he has to answer questions without the protection of his praetorian guard. He looks scared. (Even though the press is equally scared to ask him hard questions.)

As one of our friends said recently, if things work out for Howard Dean, and if he gets the Democratic nomination, and even if he ends up losing the election, "it'll be fun watching Dean make Bush his bitch next fall." Which, of course, is exactly what Goldstein's article is all about.

It's also about how the Bushies are exploiting anxiety, which makes the appeal of a super-macho leader all the greater. Conservative leaders, Goldstein says, follow the leadership model of "the strict father": "The appeal of this harsh, punitive style is directly related to anxiety. People kept in a state of constant stress will sacrifice their best instincts and even their real interests for the illusion of safety -- and sheer sexiness -- that a bad dad can provide. That's why the Republicans put such energy into arousing anxiety and displacing it onto Democrats. If Dean is to beat the odds, he will have to counter this strategy in every move he makes."

Where does all this phallic politics leave General Wesley Clark? The "general" part of his identity ought to up his "butch" quotient (and we held out for supporting him because we thought how cool it would be to have a military man leading the Democrats, the first since General Andrew Jackson, who was a cog-dragger extraordinare). But Clark comes across as too soft, and recently he's been trying to soften even that! (See an earlier posting to this site: "Gen'l Clark's Gender Gap"). And apparently that very model of a modern man Rush Limbaugh has been lampooning Clark as the Ashley Wilkes of the Democratic field, "braying on about Clark's wimpery" to background music from Gone With the Wind, according to Goldstein. It don't look good.

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