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Man Overboard

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By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

I have a new theory about what's behind everything that's wrong with the Bush administration: manliness.

"Manliness" is the unapologetic title of a new book by Harvey C. Mansfield, a conservative professor of government at Harvard University, which makes him a species as rare as a dissenting voice in the Bush White House. Mansfield's thesis is that manliness, which he sums up as "confidence in the face of risk," is a misunderstood and unappreciated attribute.

Manliness, he writes, "seeks and welcomes drama and prefers times of war, conflict, and risk." It entails assertiveness, even stubbornness, and craves power and action. It explains why men, naturally inclined to assert that "our policy, our party, our regime is superior," dominate in the political sphere.

Though manliness is "the quality mostly of one sex," Mansfield allows that women can be manly, too, though the sole example he can seem to come up with, and deploys time and again, is Margaret Thatcher. "Is it possible to teach women manliness and thus to become more assertive?" he wonders, but not really. "Or is that like teaching a cat to bark?" Me-ow!

"The problem of manliness is not that it does not exist," Mansfield concludes. "It does exist, but it is unemployed." Well, um, excuse me, but I think -- it's just my opinion, now, maybe you disagree, and I'm sure we could work it out -- Mansfield has it exactly backward. Manliness does exist. The problem is that it's overemployed -- nowhere more than in this administration.

Think about it this way: Is a trait exemplified by reluctance to ask directions -- "for it is out of manliness that men do not like to ask for directions when lost," Mansfield writes -- really what you want in a government deciding whether to take a country to war?

The undisputed manliness of the Bush White House stands in contrast to its predecessors and wannabes. If Republicans are the Daddy Party and Democrats the Mommy Party, the Clinton White House often operated like Mansfield's vision of an estrogen-fueled kaffeeklatsch: indecisive and undisciplined. (Okay, there were some unfortunate, testosterone-filled moments, too.) Bill Clinton's would-be successor, Al Gore, was mocked for enlisting Naomi Wolf to help him emerge as an alpha male; after that, French-speaking John Kerry had to give up windsurfing and don hunting gear to prove he was a real man. And Bush's father, of course, had to battle the Wimp Factor. Mansfield recalls Thatcher's manly admonition to 41 on the eve of the Persian Gulf War: "Don't go wobbly on me, George."

No wimpiness worries now. This is an administration headed by a cowboy boot-wearing brush-clearer, backstopped by a quail-shooting fly fisherman comfortable with long stretches of manly silence -- very "Brokeback Mountain," except this crowd considers itself too manly for such PC Hollywood fare. "I would be glad to talk about ranchin', but I haven't seen the movie," Bush told a questioner.

There are, no doubt, comforting aspects to the manly presidency; think Bush with a bullhorn on top of the smoldering ruins of the twin towers. After a terrorist attack, no one's looking for a sensitive New Age president. Even now, being a strong leader polls at the top of qualities that voters most admire in Bush.

But the manliness of the Bush White House has a darker side that has proved more curse than advantage. The prime example is the war in Iraq: the administration's assertion of the right to engage in preemptive and unilateral war; the resolute avoidance of debate about the "slam-dunk" intelligence on weapons of mass destruction; the determined lack of introspection or self-doubt about the course of the war; and the swaggering dismissal of dissenting views as the carping of those not on the team.

The administration's manliness doesn't stop at the water's edge. Pushing another round of tax cuts in 2003, Vice President Cheney sounded like a warrior claiming tribute after victory in battle: "We won the midterms. This is our due," Cheney reportedly said. After the 2004 election, Bush exuded the blustering self-assurance of a president who had political capital to spend -- or thought he did -- and wasn't going to think twice before plunking down the whole pile on Social Security.

Mansfieldian manliness is present as well in Bush's confident -- overconfident -- response to Hurricane Katrina (insert obligatory "Brownie" quote here). And the administration's claim of almost unfettered executive power is the ultimate in manliness: how manly to conclude that Congress gave the go-ahead to ignore a law without it ever saying so; how even manlier to argue that your inherent authority as commander in chief would permit you to brush aside those bothersome congressional gnats if they tried to stop eavesdropping without a warrant.

Mansfield writes that he wants to "convince skeptical readers -- above all, educated women" -- that "irrational manliness deserves to be endorsed by reason." Sorry, professor: You lose. What this country could use is a little less manliness -- and a little more of what you would describe as womanly qualities: restraint, introspection, a desire for consensus, maybe even a touch of self-doubt.

But that's just my view.

marcusr@washpost.com


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