Conservatives are suddenly "cool," or almost. Cool as in confident without showing it, as in knowing without showing off, trendy with the nonchalance of understatement. This is in direct contradiction of the stereotypical Republican images of uptight, upright and a little bit stodgy. Stuffy, even.
Conservative women, for example. Conservative women were once defined by Phyllis Schlafly, a tough, savvy cookie who almost single-handedly defeated the Equal Rights Amendment with the squareness associated with the '50s rather than the '60s. She encouraged her conservative female followers to deliver homemade jams and jellies to state legislators to encourage them to vote against ERA with both brains and potbellies. That would never do today (even though a lot of potbellies are still around).
Conservative women now are often slinky blondes. Think long legs and short skirts. A miniskirted woman on the right side of "Crossfire" doesn't necessarily argue against the coed army but she usually supports a war against Iraq knowing that women with brains - think Condoleezza Rice - are there with the big guys, calling the shots.
Not everyone likes their conservatives cool. Columnist Mark Steyn prefers being called an "uncool conservative." In the London Daily Telegraph, he criticizes the British brand of conservative who goes to great lengths to pass for cool by calling punk rock "an advance guard of Thatcherism." Mr. Steyn prefers Perry Como, which actually demonstrates how cool he really is: "The really dangerous thing is to be safe, like me . and Perry." Danger is cool.
George Bush reflects cowboy cool that comes naturally, compared to, say, the Democratic wannabes who want to fill his boots. Joe Lieberman is smart, but a yarmulke is not a 10-gallon hat. He's definitely not cool. (Jews rarely are.) The pretty boy senators, John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts, look as if they might keep a comb in their back pockets, just to be prepared if they see a camera. Definitely not cool.
Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt lost their cool in the last election campaign and Howard Dean, the governor of Vermont, is too obscure for anybody to notice whether he's cool, although Vermont is definitely cold. The Democratic candidates have to be like Avis, trying harder, but this only makes them hot, not cool.
Ever since George W. shaded Al Gore in the presidential debates he has been described as a rugged man at home in his body. No beard, no couturier earth tones, no hot tubs, at least not on TV. Unlike Bill Clinton, George W. engages women without an eye for the opportunity to shamelessly exploit. He's seductive with the safe aura of a faithful husband. Is there anything cooler than a guy who knows himself and keeps it to himself?
"Mr. Bush doesn't bring his dramas and mess with him," writes Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. "He doesn't bring a sack of dysfunction on his back when he enters a room. He keeps his woes, his emotions, his private life to himself." He keeps his cool, she might have said.
Laura's cool, too. She hasn't changed much since she walked onto the national stage. Her clothes are smarter and she looks better in them, but the difference is one of degree, not of transformation. She knew who she was before she left Austin.
Conservative cool comes with a preference for uncomplicated leaders, plain guys who could play linebacker. Liberals want showoffs with lots of hair, to idolize as quarterbacks even if they throw more interceptions than touchdowns. Conservatives are more likely to go to church; liberals are more likely to worship trees and snail darters in their natural habitat.
Conservatives like leaders who are like themselves. George W. lives in the White House but we know he's also at home on the range, which he visits often. Bill Clinton lived out wild fantasies without a sense of place, not even Hot Springs, which is why he almost never went "home."
The world has become a more dangerous place since 9/11 and we may soon be in a hot war. That requires a cool hand. Cool, of course, changes with shifting cultural and political forces. When Donald Rumsfeld, our 70-year old secretary of Defense, began holding widely watched press briefings on television, the press started treating him like a rock star. American Maturity, the magazine for retired folk, featured him in an article on "Eldercool."
Cool in the modern vernacular began with jazz. Miles Davis, the brilliant trumpeter, is credited with "the birth of cool," a relaxed, smooth style in reaction to the hard bumping, jumping, grinding, flashy, vulgar rhythms of bebop. Cool, like jazz, is easy to recognize but difficult to explain. If you have to ask, as Louis Armstrong said of jazz, you ain't cool.