Guy-ness and the presidential campaign

November 09, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

CAMBRIDGE, MASS — CAMBRIDGE, Mass. The evening started off with a chat about clothes. Or was it costumes?

Warren Beatty, actor and activist, arrived at the Kennedy School of Government in an L.A. laid-back sweater and jacket.

"I thought if I put on a white shirt, a blue suit and red tie everyone would be frightened," he told the assembled.

They might even assume Bulworth where are you? that he was running for president. Instead, of course, he's teasing.

Mr. Beatty's subject was money and politics, campaign-finance reform and democracy, but the questions launched by the Harvard crowd, including undergraduates outfitted in smarty pants, were largely about image. I suppose that fit the foliage.

In this fall's incubating time of presidential politics, the buzz has been more about image than reality.

It's been more about the men than the message. And just in case you haven't noticed, it has been even more about maleness.

Remember all the years when women were dissected as too tough or too soft, too warm or too cold for office? Remember when their clothes and hair, their motherhood or lack of it, all seemed grist for the political critics?

In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro had to promise she would push the button. In 1996, Hillary Clinton was hidden away for her uppityness. This year, Elizabeth Dole was dismissed for being too perfect.

Now it appears that men in politics are getting the same treatment. The competitors for No. 1 are held up to uncertain and changing and often conflicting images of manhood. It's as if they are trying out before a convention of casting coaches. Al Gore? Too stiff to be presidential, too formal for prime time. Now, he's being raked back over the media coals for trying to change.

The Wolf doctrine

Never mind the shellacking Naomi Wolf, a savvy Rhodes scholar and writer, took last week for her advice about alpha and beta maleness.

Mr. Gore took the real rap. He was ridiculed for turning in his blue suit for earth tones, embarrassed for trying to upgrade from beta to alpha. In truth, he's being trashed for letting a young woman advise him on how to look and act like a man.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain. In the Wolf's wake his spokesman pronounced, "John McCain is already the ultimate alpha male." But now he's being whacked with a newspaper for his bark. After the Arizona Republic questioned Mr. McCain's temper, the Vietnam hero was interrogated as if he suffered post-Vietnam syndrome.

Rest of the cast

As for the other male roles trying out for president? George the Second? The frat boy whose buddies made him chief executive officer. Pat Buchanan? The real angry man. Bill Bradley? The low-key, diffident, rumpled brainy jock. Donald Trump? The egotist with the comb-over who reminds every woman of the ghastly first date she had after getting divorced.

Too passive? Too aggressive? Too revelatory? Too repressed? Too self-confident? Too diffident? A warrior? An athlete?

At least Mr. Beatty has the advantage of having played every male imaginable on the screen from hairdresser/Lothario to killer, from football player to senator. The only part he turned down, as he reminded the Kennedy school crowd, was playing John Kennedy in "PT 109."

In 30 years, the male role models have swung from John Wayne to Alan Alda to who? Leo DiCaprio? George Clooney? This fall, a library full of books about men who got "Stiffed" and "Real Boys" in trouble has focused on changing ideas of masculinity. But what do we want? A kind of muscular sensitivity, men who are strong but not silent, protective but not patriarchal?

Bad husband

All this gender-talk about husbands and sons translates even more awkwardly into what we want in a president. Last time we went for the good dad and ended up with the rotten husband. What about this time? A take-charge leader who also listens? An alpha without anger?

And does the same guy-ness sell to both sides of the gender gap?

There's a lot of talk this year about wanting a man who is "comfortable in his skin."

Maybe before winter and the campaign set in we'll get comfortable enough in our own skins to stop looking at images and listen to words.

Who was it who said, back in 1996, that the candidate who best understood the fatigue of the American woman would win? Oh yeah, that was Naomi Wolf.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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