When a local politician ran for public office where I live recently, he included in his campaign promotional materials, without apparent embarrassment, the fact that he participates in marathons and can bench-press 250 pounds.
Some political scientist has probably already written a doctoral dissertation on the appeal of this sort of machismo in American politics, but the current presidential contest provides some additional interesting insights.
In general, we don’t associate Democrats with rugged machismo. My fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson could ride a horse, but apparently he wasn’t very good at it. Jimmy Carter doesn’t come to mind when we think of testosterone-fueled he-men. And when Democrats try to buff up their manly images, they sometimes look silly, like Michael Dukakis riding in a tank or John Kerry shooting geese.
In fact, the current Democratic ticket trends toward the stereotypes that we associate with the feminine principle, whether accurately or not. The ticket advocates good healthcare and education for everyone and is more interested in fairness than competition in business. Republicans have accused the Democratic ticket of unwillingness to be tough on terrorism and of being unduly concerned about reading terrorists their rights. Senator Barack Obama is even willing to talk to our enemies.
Furthermore, Obama took school seriously, and he’s actually written a couple of books — how manly is that? And while Senator Joe Biden’s story includes his masculine blue-collar origins, he was also a single father who took pains to ride the train home every night to take care of his kids.
Republicans, on the other hand, are much more comfortable with guns and hunting and other manly activities, even if Dick Cheney isn’t the greatest shot. Think Theodore Roosevelt. When President George H.W. Bush’s image slipped a little — the Wimp Factor — he took a spin at the helm of a powerful speedboat. President George W. Bush nurtures his manly image with blue jeans, pickups, and brush cutting. And both he and the current Republican candidate for president, Senator John McCain, were fighter pilots, that most macho of professions.
Ironically, the macho Republicans have a woman on the ticket, but one who’s worked on a commercial fishing boat and who shoots moose and tears through the Alaskan wilderness on a snow mobile. These aren’t activities we normally associate with Democrats.
But the problem is that many Americans have a very favorable visceral reaction to this rugged, conquer-the-wilderness image, even when they know, rationally, that there’s little connection between machismo and good governance. In fact, too much tough-guy machismo only gets us in trouble.
The he-man is more prone toward impulsive action than reflection, and he’s inclined toward bull-headed certainty rather than nuance in a complicated world. What else could have provoked President Bush to goad the terrorists with his ill-advised schoolyard taunt, "Bring ’em on"?
Still, Americans find this persona attractive. But deliberation and caution are called for in the consideration of John McCain — or Sarah Palin — for the presidency based on narratives that include too much bravado.
To clarify: the story of John McCain’s endurance under torture during five years of captivity in Hanoi was told repeatedly at the Republican convention. His behavior wasn’t machismo; it was genuine courage of the sort that bespeaks real character. But even Senator Fred Thompson, speaking at the convention, admitted that being a prisoner of war doesn’t qualify anyone to be president.
And Thompson referred also to the somewhat less savory flip-side of macho: McCain was a rebel at the Naval Academy who racked up more than his share of demerits and made a vocation of rule-breaking. Apparently, beer figured prominently, and there was an episode with an exotic dancer.
Oddly, these tales are meant to enhance our estimation of McCain as a renegade, a "maverick" who’s unwilling to be constrained by the rules that apply to ordinary people. Mostly, I suspect, they represent the harmless exploits of youth, although I wonder what the Republicans would make of an exotic dancer in Obama’s background.
Still, it’s easy to get carried away by the tough-guy hype and the moose hunting. A thoughtful voter ought to see past it all and think about the genuine significant differences between the parties.
On the other hand, the local politician who ran for office touting his ability to bench-press 250 pounds? He won.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu. For more news and information visit www.scrippsnews.com.)