“Terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength; they are invited by the perception of weakness.”
President George W. Bush has made that statement many times. So has Vice President Dick Cheney. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Multiple principals endlessly repeating themselves -- that's the mark of a premium White House talking point. Or in this case, a kind of gospel -- poll-tested, market-driven, swing-voter–approved, and sanctioned by Kardinal Rove himself.
Like its religious counterpart, political liturgy does not reward literal interpretation. The “weakness” that invites our destruction is not a measurable, structural weakness of nations. It is more insidious than that. It is the weakness of men. Certain men of uncertain will. Unmanly men. Men who lack the grit and determination to command other men to expend their grit and determination in battle. Girly men. Men who snuggle before the domestic hearth of the Mommy Party. Men who fuss and fret over Mother Nature (when what she really needs is a good drilling). Men who wish to restrain the natural urges of natural men, to smother initiative and stifle competition beneath the suffocating pleats and ruffles of the Nanny State. Men who are effete. Men who cut and run. Men without guns or guts or glory. Men whose weakness abases and undermines the rugged individualism and frontier can-do that made the United States Numero Uno.
We have met the enemy. And he adores Judy Garland.
No matter what ideological hue he projects, whether conservatism, corporatism, idealistic imperialism, or his studied tracings of Ronald Reagan's rugged sentimentalism, Bush has made manliness the centerpiece of his persona and his politics. Bush's flight-deck performance aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln -- “Mission Accomplished” -- long ago became Esperanto for “hubris.” But as psychologist Stephen J. Ducat noted in his provocative book on masculine anxiety, The Wimp Factor, the event began as a ballsy celebration, first and foremost, of Bush's manhood. Observing the President's flight suit, which expressly accentuated his crotch, G. Gordon Liddy, the right's uncensored id, noted: “It makes the best of his manly characteristic.”
We are in our sixth year of government by gonads. Through conscious, concerted, disciplined, and relentless effort, Bush and his party have succeeded in cowing critics and defeating Democrats by advancing images of, and insinuations about, manliness in the public sphere. In the Republican political schemata, this is a man's world. Men have made it dangerous. And only men -- real Republican men -- can make it safe again.
The Reagan administration introduced the nation to War Wimps, that bellicose band of conservatives who so relish American wars (provided other Americans fight them). In prevailing against their liberal critics, the WW's learned a valuable lesson: The public is more impressed by a politician's aggressiveness in the present than by any failures to launch in the past. As a result, even the most unlikely tough guys began kicking up sand at the beach. Orrin Hatch, perhaps the Senate's most fastidious prig, with a proclivity for French cuffs and pink ties, declared Democrats “the party of homosexuals.” Senator Trent Lott, who volunteered for cheerleading duty at Ole Miss but cartwheeled away when Vietnam beckoned, proclaimed of Republicans, “I think that we are the party of Mars.”
With the rise of Bush, Cheney, and Rove (WW's all), the bully boy behavior reached new heights. The one resounding message Republicans have deployed -- over and over and over -- since September 11 is that Democrats are weak. And we all know terror attacks are invited by the perception of weakness. What's more, virtually every subsidiary Republican attack -- from gay marriage (Homosexual Party) to taxes (Nanny Party) to abortion (whatever you say, dear) -- has exploited traditional gender stereotypes and reinforced the theme of Democratic wimpery.
For three straight elections, from 2000 through 2004, Republicans have outmanned the Democrats. Al Gore was dismissed as a hectoring schoolmarm, John Kerry as a flaky croissant, a kept man, a tin soldier. In between, Bush made no bones about the price of Democratic pusillanimity: Under its brief Democratic majority, he said, the U.S. Senate was simply “not interested in the security of the American people.” And with another Election Day approaching, and their party depleted of both issues and credibility, the Republicans will no doubt seek to emasculate the opposition once again.
But the testosterone is no longer flowing like $75 crude. Multiple mission failures have exposed Republican talking points as so much bluster. To underscore the farce, the gods of metaphor illustrated the tragic potential of power placed in irresponsible hands; after his beer-and-hunting nightmare in Texas, Vice-President Bottom awoke with an ass's head on his shoulders.
Now, rising out of the broken-back shamble of Republican machismo, is a veritable platoon of Democratic men. They have exceptionally macho profiles and an appetite for power. They are politically diverse but united in their contempt for the bully in the pulpit. They are fed up with schoolyard put-downs. They are disgusted by incompetence and callousness. And they are running for Congress.
The President was right after all: The perception of weakness has indeed invited attack. Democrats are this year making their strongest run at power since 1992. The quality of the candidates is particularly striking. At last count, there were more than 50 war veterans running for Congress as Democrats. In addition, a former pro quarterback, Heath Shuler, is competing as a Democrat for a North Carolina congressional seat the party has coveted for years. A Democratic sheriff is running in Indiana, a district attorney in upstate New York, and a blunt-spoken “cowboy” entrepreneur in Florida.
For a party that has launched unprecedented numbers of women into Congress in recent years, this latest crop of candidates has a remarkably musky bouquet. Perhaps it's the combat boots. Patrick Murphy, running against a freshman Republican in a district outside Philadelphia, is one of an endless stream of ambitious attorneys eager to become pols. But when Murphy, 32, introduces himself to voters in the district, he distinguishes himself by mentioning his tour of duty in Baghdad with the 82nd Airborne.
Joe Sestak, a Naval Academy graduate and retired vice admiral, is threatening Republican incumbent Curt Weldon in another Pennsylvania district. Sestak, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, calls the Iraq War a “tragic misadventure” and, like Murphy, supports a staged withdrawal of U.S. troops.
One of the most intriguing Democratic campaigns this year belongs to James Webb, who is running for Senate in Virginia. Webb is a Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration. Until recently, he had seemed comfortably at home in the Republican Party. If Webb survives his primary, he will run against Republican Senator George Allen, namesake son of the famous NFL football coach and a man who, between cowboy boots, chewing tobacco, and the noose that once hung in his office, has worked overtime grooming a distinctly Republican style of toughness. Webb, however, appears to be spoiling for a fight above all with the commander in chief. An accomplished novelist and essayist, he has blasted Bush in print for dishonoring the service of veterans (John McCain, John Kerry, Jack Murtha, Max Cleland) who disagree with him. But seething between the lines -- and sometimes breaking into the text -- is Webb's palpable contempt for grand strategists who “have never seen the inside of a military uniform.”
Many of these candidates -- including Murphy, Sestak, and possibly even Webb -- have a reasonable shot at victory if the gathering Democratic wave hits shore in November. The 15 seats Democrats need to take over the House of Representatives may be within reach. However, most members of the Democratic “Band of Brothers” will surely fail. Gerrymandered districts, a still-polarized electorate, and the challenger's gauntlet of money and execution will in many cases be sufficient obstacles to victory. Nevertheless, these Democratic men, many of whom launched campaigns without having been recruited by party leaders, may also be signs of a larger cultural stirring.
It wasn't long ago that members of the Dixie Chicks were isolated in their criticism of Bush's war. Now, in the he-man precincts of twang, the boys are making noise, too. Merle Haggard is growling about a nation gone to hell in a handbasket. Cranky old Neil Young is hankering for impeachment. And Tim McGraw says Bush's failure in New Orleans “erases everything that's great about our country.” McGraw has even floated the notion of a future run for office as a Tennessee stud -- and Democrat.
There are limits to the political appeal of macho resumes, of course. In recent years, Democrats have been undone on the issue of national security despite impressive martial credentials. The GOP template for defeating John Kerry was established in the 2002 Senate race in Georgia. Country club Republican and draft avoider Saxby Chambliss defeated Senator Max Cleland by accusing Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, of being weak on national security. Nearly four years later, Democrats are still livid. “Having the [war] credential didn't keep the Republicans from trashing Max Cleland in one of the most egregious, disgusting things they've ever done,” a senior party operative says. “They'll go just as low this year.”
As we begin our election-year descent, perhaps it behooves us to consider the value of challenging, rather than perpetuating, ancient archetypes of manhood and demeaning stereotypes of weakness. If Democratic values mean anything, then surely they mean to make gay bashing, misogyny, and the like the political road less traveled, and human dignity a more common cause. The 21st century may well dictate such a course, even if Democrats fail to chart it. Indicators ranging from education and income to reproductive autonomy suggest the new century will be marked and quite likely defined by an ascendance of feminine power. (The political arithmetic is particularly persuasive: Just two decades ago, there was a lone female in the U.S. Senate. Today, there are 14, complemented by eight women governors.)
Yet for richer and for poorer, manliness remains a cornerstone of the arena. The question right now concerns what kind of manliness evidenced by what kind of men. The administration's manifest impotence in Iraq, New Orleans, and -- increasingly -- Washington has restricted its political options. But it has also damaged its exclusive claims to masculine prowess. Because they loved it too much and exploited it too nakedly in the overwrought hours since 9-11, Bush and the Republicans have discredited their brand of muscle politics. But for five years they deployed it with vindictive and disciplined aggression. They seemed to have fun while it lasted.
Like our own era, the turn of the previous century was a time of feminine assertion and masculine anxiety. Women were creating new roles in public life, even threatening to invade the voting booth. Men, confronted by feminine encroachment on one front, suffered an erosion of autonomy on the other. The American frontier was officially closed in 1890, restricting the free range of land as well as the imagination. At the same time, men were moving by the millions from field to factory and office, surrendering their independence and capacity for self-definition.
In response, a conscious effort was launched to re-masculate the great American indoors. Men's social groups -- Elks, Knights, Masons -- spread across the land, while jingoists trumpeted manly virtues as the basis of progress. It wasn't long before even the Paschal Lamb was pumping iron. “Lord save us,” evangelist Billy Sunday pleaded, “from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-carat Christianity.”
Riding this uneasy masculine tide, William McKinley, in his 1896 campaign literature, assured voters that the 53-year-old Republican was “one of the best examples of courageous, persevering, vigorous manhood that the nation has ever produced.”
After the U.S.S. Maine sank in Havana Harbor in 1898, President McKinley was called upon to prove it. When at first he refrained from retaliation against Spain, McKinley was subjected to the jingoes' feminizing derision. Editorials cited a “great need of a man in the White House” and “manly and resolute” responses to Spain's treachery. Teddy Roosevelt, eager to make manliness the fulcrum of any drama, complained, “McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”
McKinley eventually demonstrated his backbone, bending to the jingoes' demands for war. Though the proximate cause of the conflict resided in Cuba, the American defeat of Spain led McKinley to annex the Philippines. The White House had hoped U.S. troops would be greeted in Manila as liberators. Instead, U.S. forces were soon engulfed in a bloody, extended fight against homegrown insurgents. More than 2,000 U.S. soldiers were killed and hundreds of thousands of Filipinos slaughtered. An occupying army far from home, U.S. troops were frightened and enraged by their inability to tell friend from foe. They soon resorted to unconventional measures. The American public had been encouraged to view the war as a character-building exercise for its virile young men. It was shocked to discover that some U.S. soldiers were systematically torturing the prisoners under their control.
When Karl Rove cited McKinley as his inspiration for Bush's presidency, the Philippine-American War wasn't what he had in mind. Instead, Rove, who focused on McKinley in graduate school, noted that the 25th President had ushered in a Republican reign of 36 years, interrupted only by the two terms of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Rove envisioned Bush at the head of a similar juggernaut. He found a historical parallel that wasn't there. And he overlooked one that was.
In high school in Utah, Rove was a self-described “nerd” who carried a briefcase to class. In the cafeteria, he was not seated at the right hand of the quarterback. Though Rove found no release for his aggression on the athletic field, he managed to channel it into another type of contest. Politics, said one of Rove's college professors, was Karl's “varsity sport.”
The practice of national politics in the age of the 24-hour news cycle is so all-consuming that excellence fairly demands obsession. It blots out other, healthier claims on personal time. Rove has “hundreds” of friends, his wife Darby has said, but “no one he's intimate with.” When relationships are transactional, intimacy is a hindrance; it undermines control. And Rove is very much in control. Consider this first-person vignette by reporter Ron Suskind in the January 2003 issue of Esquire:
Inside, Rove was talking to an aide about some political stratagem in some state that had gone awry and a political operative who had displeased him. I paid it no mind and reviewed a jotted list of questions I hoped to ask. But after a moment, it was like ignoring a tornado flinging parked cars. “We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will fuck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him.”
Anal rape is always an arresting metaphor. For all I know, Rove deploys it hourly for its salutary effect on subordinates, colleagues, and rivals. But on that particular day, he made sure that a well-connected journalist heard every word. Rove was going to fuck somebody, ruin them, fuck them like they'd never been fucked. And he wanted every asshole in Washington to know about it.
Time will tell whether Rove has understood the politics of realignment. But there is no question he has mastered the dark arts of intimidation, emasculation, and other forms of political aggression. And in Bush, Rove found a candidate who combines an instinct for iconic masculine poses with an aggressive streak that complements Rove's own.
When Bush parades to a podium, his arms cantilevered to the side to make room for imaginary mass and muscle, he looks like a freshman swimming upstream against the hormonal currents of a high-school hallway. It's not enough for Bush to impress upon you the fact that he is leader of the world's sole superpower. He also wants you to think he can beat you up.
However, Bush is also a complicated case. Eager to telegraph his masculinity through walk and talk and posture, he nonetheless appears personally unthreatened by women, blacks, and gays, an immunity that distinguishes him from his culturally reactive, ever-anxious political base. He allowed himself to be tutored by a younger black woman -- not in the domestic rigmarole of the welfare state but in the manly crucible of foreign affairs, where presidencies are made or broken. (He then let it be known he had been tutored by her and eventually named her secretary of state.) Of equal note, Bush's forays into homophobia are cynically electoral, not emotionally authentic; as soon as the polls close, the antigay claptrap is put in storage until it's needed to rouse the base next season. The biennial denigration of a few million Americans is nothing personal -- just the price of power.
Much has been made of Bush's Oedipal drama over Iraq. But the father's legacy is evident everywhere -- certainly in W's equation of masculine aggression with political survival. Before he became leader of the free world, Bush Sr. was a sports star, a war hero, a successful wildcatter in the rough and tumble drilling fields of west Texas. Yet he was tarred as a “wimp,” depicted in political cartoons as an old biddy or, in Doonesbury, as so light in his loafers that he constituted no more than an asterisk.
If the father was too wimpy to master the arena, what of the son? Cheerleader, draft evader, oil business failure, he fell short of the father on nearly every masculine measure. For George W. Bush, no amount of aggression or masculine posing could be too much. To prevail in a brutal world of men like Karl Rove, W. was going to have to be one hell of a hard-ass.
The father's demise surely shaped the son's rise. But the raw material was there to be molded. Bush's college yearbook contains a photograph of him playing rugby. His left arm is wrapped around the neck of an opposing player, who is carrying the ball. His right hand is in a fist and appears to be sucker-punching his opponent in the face. The caption reads: “George Bush delivers illegal, but gratifying right hook to opposing ball carrier.” A portrait of the cheap-shot artist as a young man.
The people who set Bush's reflexive right hook in motion are not female, black, or gay. They are men much like Bush -- but with one powerful difference. A USA Today story in the wake of 9-11 reported that Bush had told others in the White House he believed “confronting the enemy” was a chance “for him and his fellow baby boomers” to display the same valor their fathers had shown in World War II. If true, this desire must be powerfully reinforced by his knowledge that, given a previous opportunity to prove his manly bona fides, he had demurred. Meanwhile, the very existence of “fellow baby boomers” who don't share his need for vindication, who rose to the challenge of his generation while he was holed up in Texas and Alabama doing God knows what, is a perpetual affront to Bush. It's hardly a wonder why men with combat medals pinned to broad chests might get under this President's skin.
John McCain, John Kerry, Jack Murtha. Each was the subject of all-out, no holds barred, viciously personal attacks by the Bush camp. Though their politics could not be more different one from another, each of the three had to be assaulted, destroyed, because each in his way is a genuine article that exposes Bush's copy.
Murtha, who's been there, anguishes over the caskets and mangled bodies that Bush can't even bring himself to acknowledge. Kerry spartanly shouldered the noblesse oblige that Bush shirked. McCain proved in Hanoi that beneath a party animal exterior much like young Bush's, he was not only a tough son of a bitch but an honorable one. Today, McCain, like Bush, walks with his arms awkwardly extended from his sides. But he does so not as a self-conscious pose but because his tortured muscles won't permit a more natural resolution.
Voters have frequently voiced appreciation that they “know where Bush stands” even if they don't agree with him. They're right, of course. Except in a few notably catastrophic instances, in which Bush plays the part of a lost man who refuses to ask for directions, he deserves credit for staking out terrain and manfully holding to it. But unlike his opposites, Bush also frequently employs aggression without honor, and his drive for dominance has been too little tempered by leadership.
The attacks of 9-11 remain the defining context of the Bush White House not because the President rose to the challenge of a new threat and a changing era. At best, it seems he will leave office with the national interest strategically impaired. But Bush, Rove, and Cheney understood, as they so often repeat, that 9-11 “changed everything.” Because they recognized fear in the eyes of the people. And they exploited it without compunction. They surely think better of themselves than that. But that's the kind of men they are.
After the two erect, once amusingly phallic, towers collapsed, they left behind a burning, violated hole. We'd been fucked all right, like we'd never been fucked. And due to the déjà-vu-all-over-again phenomenon that is cable television, a technology thankfully absent during Pearl Harbor and Britain's torching of the White House, we were scared like we'd never been scared.
Anyone who has witnessed political focus groups in recent years has had a front-row seat to the primal effects of terrorism on the American psyche. During the 2004 campaign, says a senior Democratic adviser, “married women, regardless of where they lived, were sure their local community was going to be hit.”
That's an exaggeration, of course. But a slight one. Bush's machismo appealed not only to anxious men with a primal urge to strike back at the bad guys, but to women -- especially women with children -- whose new world could never be made safe enough. In the presidential election that succeeded 9-11, Bush won 5.7 million more votes from women than he had in the election that preceded it.
From 9-11 on, Bush ran a protection racket. He would do whatever it took to keep the neighborhood safe. He would stiff the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions. He would strike preemptively. He would lock people up without charge. He would swagger and tell the bad guys, “You can run but you cannot hide,” and swagger and call the Democrats “weak.” He would promise repeatedly to “protect the American people.” And on Tuesdays in November, he would come around to collect.
But the protection racket came undone when Katrina blew the roof off New Orleans and ripped the façade off the White House. Everyone now knows that George W. Bush is incapable of protecting us. We're like the settlers in a frontier town who discover that the strong, silent sheriff in the jailhouse window is a department store mannequin.
Into this void marches the Democrats' “Band of Brothers.” It falls on them to resuscitate a more honorable, less bullying style of masculine politics -- and to make it a winner. To be honest, they don't look much different from Al Gore, Max Cleland, or John Kerry -- three capital losers. They are battle-hardened but essentially decent. Skeptical of the boasts of war, but mindful of the present dangers. Many are political newcomers, sniffing opportunity in the shifting winds, subject equally to the neophyte's fatal mistake and to the beginner's blind luck.
It's not really the men who have changed but the times. 9-11 changed everything. Then Katrina changed the contours of 9-11.
After watching Cleland and Kerry get pummeled, our Democratic war veterans are primed to counterpunch. Patrick Murphy, the son of a Philly cop, is acutely aware of the recent history of Republican attacks. He pays conspicuous tribute to Murtha on his campaign Web site. He hopes to have Cleland into the district to campaign. He says he is prepared for hits below the belt. “If they try to dishonor my military service,” he says, “I'm going to hit right back.”
Go get 'em boys. I hope every one of those guys -- even those in races that are positively unwinnable -- wrestles his Republican opponent to the ground and roars, asserting his Democratic manhood. We need the catharsis.
But after having wallowed in our fear these last five years, maybe what we need next are leaders who will raise us above it. The one man who taught us better than any other to conquer fear was no Governor Terminator. His muscles were unimpressive. He had no physical swagger to him at all. His military experience was a desk job. He wore no cowboy gear. He smoked cigarettes not like a Marlboro Man but filtered through a slender, feminine holder that could have been a prop from the Follies Bergere. He didn't promise to protect us. He made us believe we could protect ourselves -- from the violence of fascism and the vicissitudes of capitalism alike. And he handed us the tools to do the job. We built the better part of the American century on the back of an aristocratic, polio-addled cripple. Now that was a man.
Francis Wilkinson is a communications consultant and speechwriter in Nyack, New York.