Rarely do we see the words “manliness” and “Democrat” joined in a single thought, yet New York Times columnist David Brooks has linked the two, arguing that in a still-saggy economy, Barack Obama is running even with Mitt Romney thanks to “a kind of ESPN manliness” in his leadership style.
Can decades of shots at various Democrats as “feminized” “girlie men” who need to “man up” be on their way out at last? Probably not, but Brooks has given us a nice break from this tired tradition. Even nicer, of course, would be the long-overdue retirement of the idea that to be gay or female is to be weak. But meanwhile, it’s an odd disconnect that even as we march briskly toward same-sex marriage (and can’t get enough of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the erotic bestseller that the president told the ladies on “the View” he’s never heard of) we continue to resort to middle-school-level taunts questioning the sexuality of most male leaders in the party perennially favored by women voters. Why?
The rhetoric goes back at least to the McCarthy-era “lavender scare” of the late ’40s and early ’50s, when homosexuals were fired from the State Department as potential security risks.
Democrats have regularly been tagged as sissies ever since, occasionally by one another. The fourth volume of Robert Caro’s LBJ bio, “The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” shows the Texan deriding his rival JFK as “a scrawny lightweight’’ and “not a man’s man.”
(It’s in Taylor Branch’s work, though, that LBJ notes that Americans will forgive just about anything except weakness. He was right about that, too — tragically so, since it was this belief that shaped his policy on Vietnam.)
The next Democrat to be elected president, Navy veteran Jimmy Carter, so came to personify vulnerability after the Iranian hostage crisis that Mitt Romney said recently that “even Jimmy Carter” would have done what Obama did in sending the Navy SEALs into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. The slam was unfair to both Obama and Carter, who, as James Fallows has written, did take a similar risk as president and lost the gamble. But the perception is real enough.
Also indelible is that unfortunate image of Michael Dukakis in the Army helmet and tank, which not only backfired but became the main thing we remember about his ’88 presidential campaign.
The moment that crystallized his failure as a candidate, though, said something about what we as a culture see as toughness — and what we ask Democrats to do to prove their bona fides as he-men.
That moment — shocking then, and even more so in retrospect — came when he answered a presidential debate question so rude it makes what John King asked Newt Gingrich, about the story that Gingrich had asked his ex-wife to “share him” with his current spouse, seem sympathetic.
“Governor,” CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis, “if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor the death penalty for the killer?” (Unstated, though barely: Or, even then, would you fail to react like a real man?)
“No, I don’t, Bernard,” Dukakis answered. In an interview a few years ago, Mrs. Dukakis told me that her husband was so tired that night, and when he heard that it was a capital punishment question, went right into the answer he’d given so many times before. “And I remember thinking he was going to be burdened by that from then on.’’
Though the guy in the tank blew his one chance to tear a theoretical attacker limb from limb, he has in real life protected his wife all these years, and been “incredibly supportive of me with some issues that have been hard’’ — her depression and alcoholism. But that kind of toughness and courage is not what we reward, is it?
The man who beat him at the polls, George H.W. Bush, who was a Navy pilot in World War II, was the rare Republican to be ritually
sissified, with the famous Newsweek “Wimp Factor” cover.
But it was during Poppy’s presidency, in ’91 that Chris Matthews dubbed the Republicans the “Daddy Party,” and the Ds the “Mommy Party.” (Here’s how things have and have not changed, from the ’91 New Republic piece by Matthews, on what voters get out of the division of labor: “From ‘daddy’ they get a well-endowed defense and a fiscal policy that never asks them to match spending with taxes. From ‘mommy’ they get endless growth in entitlement programs with no cuts in pocket money.’’)
Some combo of humble roots, heroic womanizing and Third Way policy positions (including ending Aid for Dependent Children and refusing to stay the execution of a brain-damaged man the same weekend the Gennifer Flowers scandal broke) kept Bill Clinton from ever being attacked in quite that way.
But his Vietnam veteran vice president, Al Gore, was pilloried for taking fashion advice from Naomi Wolf, and belittled by Maureen Dowd as “so feminized ... he’s practically lactating.”
(And honestly, wasn’t he trying to prove otherwise when he gave his wife Tipper a Hollywood-style smooch onstage at the Democratic National Convention that year?)
Though I was never one of them, a lot of people think part of the reason Obama beat Hillary four years later is that he was not an actual “girlie.” Then, in ’10, we lived through the year of exhortations to “man up,”
about which the less said the better.
Maybe things are getting better on the sissy front; this week, when Newsweek dubbed Obama “the first gay president,” they meant it as a compliment. And when The Post’s Dana Milbank said no no, he’s the first female president, he wasn’t attacking 44’s virility, but mocking the amount of time Obama spends wooing women voters. (Though what you call “pandering,” Dana, I see as the world as God intended.)
There is a lot of truth to what Brooks says about the president as having “defined a version of manliness that is postboomer in policy but preboomer in manners and reticence.” Of course we want someone strong and unsloppy in the job, and hopefully are expanding our idea of what that looks like; after the “ESPN man’’ and Romney’s CNBC man duke it out, I look forward to the contest between Fox woman and MSNBC woman.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors “She the People.” Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.