At Last, a New Role Model for American Men

March 15, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. Miss those long afternoons together? Find yourself looking in the personals column for a burly 56-year-old in fatigues with a 170 IQ and a taste for Pavarotti? Desperately seeking a man who is caring but, well, commanding?

If you are among the millions suffering from Schwarzkopf-withdrawal, take heart. The war may be over, the daily briefings may be kaput, but the general is not going to fade away.

Norman Schwarzkopf, the certifiable (four) star of Operation Desert Storm and subject of more profiles than Sting, is now in for a postwar wave of attention. He is being ''mentioned'' by political types who are always hunting for a new kid on the block. And he is listening.

''I have never considered any political aspirations,'' he said the other morning, BUT ''you know somebody once said, 'Never say never' '' Does that somebody hear a name being put into play? Do you hear the faint refrain of ''I Like Ike''?

Before the Schwarzkopf-for-President buttons start appearing, it's worth asking why a 6-foot 3-inch, balding, 240-pound member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians has become the heart-throb of America. How did he become the bright new shining entry into the revised American pantheon of real men?

General Schwarzkopf is not John Wayne, the late, lamented and lampooned role model for an earlier generation. Strong but silent doesn't hack it in the '90s. It gets a guy grief and an anniversary copy of ''You Just Don't Understand.''

Nor is the general another Alan Alda, resident stereotype of the New Sensitive Man of the '70s. The right to cry is fine, but sensitivity without self-confidence these days gets a man labeled a wimp.

As for Rambo, the brawny no-brainer of the '80s? Real men don't do it all alone in the desert.

And finally, this man bears little resemblance to that last military hero, Oliver North. Colonel North is the one who told the congressional hearing that he didn't question the reason for his assignment: ''I saluted smartly and charged up the hill.?

Can you imagine General Schwarzkopf saying that? Here's the general on duty and morality: ''If it ever came to a choice between compromising my moral principles and the performance of my duties, I know I'd go with my moral principles.''

But Norman Schwarzkopf is not just the Thinking Woman's Oliver North. This complicated character seems to synthesize conflicting and changing male images. Introspective but decisive, caring yet competent, one of the guys and a leader? Not stuff that always comes in the same male package.

In many glimpses, we've seen a man who is on speaking terms with his emotions, willing to express his fears, but not paralyzed by them. Someone who isn't afraid of violence, but doesn't like it. An Army man who calls war ''a profane thing.'' It is rare for a general to say: ''I don't want my troops to die. I don't want my troops to be maimed. It's an intensely personal emotional thing for me. . . . I agonize over it.'' It is still more rare that we believe him.

The military was long one of the touchstones of maleness. Vietnam sullied the image of soldier with that of ''baby killer.'' But General Schwarzkopf, who had done much soul-searching about Vietnam, put it behind him. And maybe behind men.

Cast against type, as they say in Hollywood, the head of Desert Storm was also a bit too heavy and plain to look heroic. There is the sense of a man whose authority is hard-won through internal struggles, not just through stripes and stars. In the search for a new model of male leadership, he seems like the real thing.

As Ralph Whitehead of the University of Massachusetts notes with bemusement after some years of tracking changing American men, ''I've had a sense that American men have been looking for a new optimal blend. But if someone had told me two years ago that it would come from a new style of military hero, that would have been the last place that I looked.''

Me too.

To recognize General Schwarzkopf as role model isn't to anoint him as politician, though it would be poetic justice if this general turned out to be a Democrat. But it is intriguing to see a man who is caring emerge out of the fighting.

A good man, as they say, is hard to find. Set one more place at the table for a general of action and introspection. Make some room for men who are still strong but no longer silent.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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