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When Burly Becomes Surly

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Ah, men. That's no benediction. These are tough times to be a man. It's too Freudian to say they're suffering from an identity crisis, but since macho has been put in mothballs, many men are searching for a new scent. Over-the-hill celebrities remind us of the many roads that leading men have taken past Gender Gap and wound up in No Man's Land. (Men have always had trouble asking for directions.)

Everyman today comes in as many flavors as Baskin Robbins. Grumpy Ralph Nader (remember that presidential candidate?) just awarded a smiling Phil Donahue, the talk show host who once wore a skirt as a new fashion for men, a lifetime achievement award on behalf of the consumer group Public Citizen. Uncle Phil is the guy Oprah sent packing. Audiences wanted a different feminine sensibility.

Hugh Hefner at 84 still makes public appearances in silk pajamas, but they make him look like he wandered away from his nursing home, not a hot tub packed with Playmates. Hef is trying to regain control of his diminished empire, buying back the shares he sold. In his Never Neverland, the centerfolds -- along with the Playmates he wears on each arm -- never grow old but only make Hef look ancient.

Mel Gibson, the superstar of "Lethal Weapon," is a vicious caricature of manhood run amok. The wife he left for the younger woman now rides to his rescue, taking him back to Australia, where he was once an innocent boy with a budding talent. Celebrity status in Tinseltown is fragile indeed, with no tough movie moguls to keep the boys in line. ("Shane! Shane! Come back, Shane.")

"Mad Men," the sitcom set on the Madison Avenue of more than a half-century ago, is back for another season by popular demand. Mad men aren't admirable, but they're recognizable scoundrels who still trump girly men. But the venality of these 1950s villains can't compare with modern Wall Street scoundrels.

Nobody -- nobody who dares speak of it -- is eager to return to the bad old days, certainly not in politics. Think Jerry Brown as the mellow marshmallow in his first turn as governor of California. But in his new incarnation, wild and desperate, he compares his opponent to Joseph Goebbels.

It used to be women who had the problem of image. When Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president in 1984, she was reduced to defending her recipe for blueberry muffins, and it wasn't so long ago that Hillary Clinton thought "first lady" was an elected official with the responsibility to write health care legislation. Who would have thought that was a qualification for secretary of state?

Barack Obama never projected a male image to emulate, even when he was still loved by the hypnotized masses. He was cool, smooth and thought to be post-racial, but passion was always missing. He hasn't found it yet. When a reporter asked if he felt rage over the BP oil spill, he replied that he was looking for someone's "ass to kick," sounding more like a little boy playing grown-up than a president. Can anyone imagine Harry Truman, LBJ or even Bill Clinton finding it difficult to express anger? They were men doin' what comes naturally.

No wonder Democrats worry about the independent male voters -- 'indie men," in the formulation of David Axelrod, men who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Most independent voters are white men, and they're action-oriented rather than ideologues. They want results, which means jobs. They worry about what's in the health care reform, and the early returns tell them that they'll be paying more for less.

Young healthy men of a skeptical bent aren't keen to sign up, either. They, too, smell more taxes coming. Indie men are tired of hearing the president blaming his problems on George W. Indie men aren't affiliated with a party -- they prefer a president, Republican or Democrat, to "show me."

The famous soccer moms who once were thought to determine winners and losers on Election Day have given way now to white men, who the pollsters say will make the difference this year. Ten percent more men than women, according to the Pew Research Center, want to cut swollen government, and feel their rights and freedoms threatened. Most of the lost blue-collar jobs were jobs held by white men, but if we want to be politically correct we're not supposed to say so. "Burly" men are out of fashion and out of jobs. That may mean Democrats will be out of luck in November. Ah, men.

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