When George H.W. Bush chose Dan Quayle as his running mate in 1988, one of the persuasive considerations of the Republican strategists was that the senator’s good looks would appeal to the ladies. Dan Quayle was cute.
The vice president himself noted later that the praise was not only faint but dumb and condescending. Dan Quayle’s “good looks” were out of sync with the times and he became the administration’s dumb blonde. The boyish, milk-fed frat guy from the Middle West lacked the masculine gravitas that baby boomers, both men and women, craved.
Masculinity, like femininity, lies at the mercy of cultural fashions. George Washington wore powdered wigs and velvet knee britches and flirted shamelessly with the ladies who wanted a lock of his hair to wear in a pendant.
In our contemporary idiom he was “sexy,” a general who liked good wine, playing cards, racing horses and hunting foxes. The toughness of the battlefield was balanced by elegance in the parlor. Martha was pleased that women envied her good fortune. Abigail Adams described him as “polite with dignity, affable without familiarity, distant without haughtiness, grave without austerity, modest, wise and good.”
By the time Andrew Jackson got to the White House, the fashions demanded a more robust man, and Jackson’s fierce masculinity served him well. He had been an Indian fighter, a commander of soldiers and a brawler and duelist, often to defend the honor of his wife, whose earlier divorce had stained her reputation in that unforgiving time.
Jackson’s friends applauded his forthrightness, fearlessness, decisiveness, generosity of spirit and his championship of the people. His enemies saw him as reckless and wrong-headed.
The muddled fashions of our own day make image more important than ever, when the television camera makes or breaks politicians in a nanosecond (think Mike Dukakis in a tank and Ed Muskie in tears). The perceived masculinity of a president is subject to merciless cultural considerations. The president has to meet a testosterone standard that appeals to women but does not offend men.
George W. Bush succeeds with both and that drives Democrats crazy. They’ve made fools of themselves with their churlish criticism of his landing on the deck of the USS Lincoln, but they can’t let it go. George W. was a hottie in his flight suit. He was the victorious commander, and most of all he looked at home with himself. He glowed with the pride born of authenticity, declaring the war over and thanking all those appreciative sailors on the decks of the Lincoln.
In contrast to a certain predecessor, George W. has the sexiness of a faithful husband. He appreciates women without the leer. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, for a typical media example, grows apoplectic over the allure of the man. He’s the winner and the Democrats are merely whiners: “They don’t know how to combat the Bushies’ visceral belief in action over explanation, juice over justification.”
But actions speak louder than words (you could ask Bill Clinton). George W.’s critics giggle over his broken syntax, but it’s not so easy to satirize him as commander in chief. (“Saturday Night Live” was reduced to portraying him with a sock in his trousers.)
Only Norman Mailer, who lives in a time warp of his own making, could imagine that the president took the nation to war to “boost the white male ego,” to assuage the feelings of white men who no longer excel in the ring, under the hoop, or on the baseball diamond. The pugilist-novelist who has always been obsessed with the relationship of sex to power can’t bear it that George W. Bush is president and Norman Mailer is not. The macho image he always sought so ostentatiously in advertisements for himself has been transferred to a God-fearing, teetotaling, inarticulate Texan.
What Mailer and the Democrats with cataracts can’t come to terms with is that that George W. Bush is not an intellectual lightweight and simply calling him one doesn’t make him one. His critics can’t understand how a man who can’t talk a good game can play one so well. They measure the man by what James Q. Wilson calls “the college definition of intelligence,” rather than the real thing.
Worse, the president’s principles grow out of his Christian faith, and the focus of his intelligence was sharpened when he gave up the booze. He has the ability to listen to others, the concentration to think about what he’s heard and the determination to do what he thinks is right. When that statue of Saddam Hussein was knocked off its pedestal in Baghdad, the president scored a knockout. All his critics had to do was count to 10.
Norman Mailer, eat your heart out.