As election season slides into its final stretch, some members of the punditocracy, from lack of sleep and abuse of caffeine, start to lose their minds. Or at least that’s the most generous explanation for how Kevin Williamson came to write—and the editors at National Review came to approve—a bizarre love letter to Mitt Romney that falls somewhere between a hagiography and a letter to Penthouse. Williamson’s thesis—and you’re going to have to read his piece to truly understand that I’m not making this up—is that Romney’s wealth and fertility make him the sort of sex symbol that should be able to just waltz into the White House, if he just had the guts to be himself and stop trying to relate to the little people.
While ordinary people might wonder about the decision-making process that led National Review to publish this bit of erotic fan fiction, those who watch the conservative movement closely have no doubts about the rationale. The piece is a smorgasbord of misogyny, contempt for working people, and pointless, pretentious prose. It’s almost as if it came from a computer algorithm designed to piss off liberals. No doubt the magazine’s editors felt like evil geniuses for having concocted the perfect way infuriate the left, but sadly for them and for Williamson, the torrid hyperbole of the entire thing instead made it more of a joke than an outrage. Particularly so because Williamson rooted his entire argument in his sadly mistaken belief that Romney’s sexiness is self-evident enough that it needs simply to be celebrated instead of explicated. Williamson stands in a long line of Beltway pundits who make the same mistake of thinking that it’s generally appropriate to see sexiness in politicians that simply isn’t there.
The delusion that regular Americans look to politicians and see Sexy persists in East Coast media circles, despite its evident ludicrousness and a number of debunkings. It leads me to believe that the problem stems from the bubble mentality that prevents pundits from remembering the world outside theirs, if only for the sake of comparison. In the media circle around D.C. (one that sadly extends to New York), President Obama is “cool,” Paul Ryan is “hip,” and Sarah Palin is scorchingly hot. These myths persist, even though the flag-waving, apple-pie-eating persona that politicians must adopt to survive precludes any realistic hope of being an actual sex symbol like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie.
Recently, in an otherwise excellent piece in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd, demonstrating exactly this sort of bizarro-world thinking, described Paul Ryan as looking “young and hip and new generation, with his iPod full of heavy metal jams and his cute kids.” By “heavy metal jams,” Dowd presumably meant Ryan’s beloved Rage Against the Machine, a band that was relevant two decades ago and only sounds “heavy metal” to people who think all rock music released after 1967 is a wall of undistinguished noise. Ryan wears khaki pants with checkered shirts! He sounds like a 16-year-old virgin imagining what sex must be like when he talks about reproductive rights! You can only consider him hip and sexy if your only point of comparison are the residents of a nursing home. And yet Dowd didn’t come up with this assessment all on her own; she got the strange notion that Ryan is hip from the Beltway discourse, where it’s assumed he’s dreamy because he has blue eyes and works out.
Max Read of Gawker tried to shame pundits out of declaring politicians sexy or cool with his piece detailing what should be obvious: Barack Obama, regardless of his nifty name, is a dork who wears baggy jeans and bicycle helmets. Obama got the votes of genuinely hip people, so it’s easy to see how those living in the political bubble got confused, but seriously, this is a man that makes goofy faces while reading children’s books aloud. Calling him cool brings to mind images of a dorky youth pastor scolding teenagers by saying, “Well I think nothing is cooler than knowing Jesus Christ died for your sins.”
Look, I get it. The Beltway is composed of a bunch of people who joined debate teams in high school and know their way around a 3x5 index card. Their measure of “sexy” and “cool” has been permanently tweaked by our lack of exposure to these qualities in the natural form. If it wasn’t for young dorks thinking they’re cool, the Decemberists wouldn’t have sold a single record. The permanently nerdy fill a niche.
But it’s imperative that pundits understand how little they know of what the real world thinks of as sexy or cool. Otherwise, you run a strong risk of doing what Kevin Williamson did, and writing three pages of turgid prose based on the premise that a devout Mormon who owns a dancing horse is the epitome of sexy. While doing such a thing entertains your audience endlessly, it does so only at the price of your utter humiliation. Instead, take the easy way out and simply abstain from trying to guess at what qualities make a politician sexy. Since you can’t actually tell, I can assure you that the answer is pretty much always going to be “none.”