Bush shows the dangers of `manliness'

April 17, 2006|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- For those who have ever wondered when a promise of protection becomes a protection racket, this is your moment.

We now have the forced admission that in 2003, George W. Bush approved the leaking of classified intelligence gathered before the Iraq war. He didn't let it all leak out. He authorized a trickle of information buttressing his case that Saddam Hussein had been a nuclear threat - information that had been discredited.

After manipulating this faucet of fear, the president then defended the war in the name of national security, casting himself as the country's father-protector. In short, he sold himself as the person we needed to protect us from the fear he provoked. Welcome to the protection racket.

And lest you forget, his re-election campaign was run by the same racketeers. Mr. Bush was transformed from a conservative who was compassionate to a commander in chief who was unflappable. Sen. John Kerry was accused of the unmanly crime of nuance and caricatured as flip-floppable. We were subjected to an endless strongman debate with Arnold Schwarzenegger leading the attack on "girlie men."

A stock figure of the election cycle was the Soccer Mom transformed into the Security Mom. This was the woman scared right - into the arms of the president. In this favorite storyline, women who mock husbands who don't ask for directions fall for the politician who insists that he knows where he's going.

Consider the success of Harvey C. Mansfield's book, a last-ditch defense of Manliness. Harvard's token conservative has written a plea to common sense replete with enough provocative nonsense to make you wonder if he handled public relations for Lawrence Summers. Women, he asserts manfully, like changing diapers, fear spiders and are cute when they're mad. But the oddball, often-impenetrable mix of Socrates and stereotypes has landed Mr. Mansfield attention even in such estrogen-laden bastions as Oprah Winfrey's magazine.

Mr. Mansfield defines manliness as "confidence in the face of risk." His manly man is something of a drama king who prefers times of conflict and war. He "asserts himself so that he and the justice he demands are not overlooked." And if an occasional woman who overcomes her love of diapers and fear of spiders also asserts herself - see Margaret Thatcher - she is simply declared to be manly.

What makes this a somewhat modest defense is that Mr. Mansfield acknowledges good and bad manliness. The same characteristics can lead a terrorist to fly a plane into a building or a firefighter to race up the stairs to save lives.

So Mr. Mansfield believes we need to bolster the "good" manliness to protect us from the "bad" manliness. "Manliness is the only remedy for the trouble it causes," he writes. But here is where the scam clicks in. He calls on women to accept, jolly, humor and respect manly men as a way of muting their danger. Protection Rackets Inc.

Despite the existence of female terrorists, soldiers and secretaries of state, most wars have been initiated and waged by men. Tribes and countries do continually look to one group of men to defend them against another group of men.

In a Time magazine piece, a retired general chastises the White House for going to war with a "swagger." What happens when the men who fantasized a nuclear threat in Iraq confront the swagger of such a threat in Iran?

In the past weeks, I've heard any number of people ask whether Katie Couric has the gravitas - that's Latin for "baritone" - to be a sole network news anchor. I've taken the pulse of liberals who have a crush on Sen. John McCain for his wartime courage even when his convictions have turned the Straight Talk Express into a Right Wing Local.

There's something to be learned in the Bush debacle. Beware the call of the old manliness. Beware the man who ramps up the danger and offers himself as hero and security blanket. And beware the leader whose unwavering, unflappable, un-nuanced and unjustified confidence in the face of risk becomes our disaster.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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