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The Wimp Factor
A year ago we were in the midst of a presidential campaign most memorable for charges by both sides that the opponent was not hard enough, tough enough, masculine enough. That he was, in fact, a sissy. Both sides also admitted this sort of rhetoric was deplorable. But it’s been going on since the beginning of the Republic.
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
Just before George Bush announced his running mate in 1988, a one-liner going the rounds was that he should choose Jeane Kirkpatrick to add some machismo to the ticket. Until midway through the campaign the embarrassing “fact” about Bush, as revealed in a spate of jokes, cartoons, and anecdotes gleefully reported or generated by the press, was the candidate’s “wimpiness.” A wimp, of course, is effete, ineffectual, somehow unmanly. Real men, the diametrical opposite of wimps, are war heroes and government leaders, especially combat pilots and spy masters. But wait! Didn’t George Bush become a combat pilot at eighteen, fly on fifty-eight missions, and win the Distinguished Flying Cross? And doesn’t everyone know he directed the Central Intelligence Agency?
Clearly, the phenomenon of George Bush, Wimp, has been grounded not upon the rock of objective fact but upon treacherous sands of image and modes of masculinity. Clearly, also, as Ronald Reagan recently and often demonstrated, the successful public man will cling to image, leaving fact to shift for itself. To do so is imperative when one’s masculine image is at stake. And in American politics, at stake it almost always is. Just as in the presidential campaign of 1988 George Bush fought to assert and reassert his masculinity—to avoid effete gestures and calls for “just another splash” of coffee—so aspiring or established politicians routinely must nurture a masculine image for the public, and especially for the press.
Consider Bush’s running mate, the “Veepette” or “Bush Lite,” who had to face charges that his National Guard service was combat dodging by a “war wimp,” a “sissy rich boy” who was Quayle-ing in the face of danger. Quayle is what you get, reported a foreign observer, when you cross a chicken with a hawk. Even the columnist Richard Cohen, a critic of sexual stereotypes, slipped easily into wimp-baiting, saying that in his debate with Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle “looked like a mamma’s boy at a family showdown searching for a sympathetic face.” Another liberal, the Doonesbury creator Carry Trudeau, suggested in his comic strip that George Bush’s late-mushrooming masculinity derived from anabolic steroids.
Gov. Michael Dukakis may have seemed manly enough to the casual observer, but Massachusetts pols ten years ago joked that because he dined at home every evening with his family, he was “Kitty-whipped.” In 1988 “the Duke” (a nickname that invited unflattering comparisons with John Wayne) took up tank driving and played catch on his front lawn with a baseball pro. Nevertheless, commenting retrospectively, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., regretted that “from the beginning Dukakis had ‘wimp on defense’ written all over him.”
Numerous analyses of comparative masculinity scanned and probed the bodies of the candidates, avoiding only their minds. What did they eat, and why? asked one article. It went on: “This is more than mere trivia. Social scientists agree that the food choices of political candidates can say much more than any speech. …” Macho pork rinds were the choice of Bush, who seemed to be baiting his line with them for good-ol’-boy Southern voters. In contrast, Dukakis, the article continued, seemed more “comfortable with his masculinity and sexuality.” He did not hesitate to eat that “not macho” “women’s food” ice cream, and coffee ice cream at that.
So far as I know, social scientists did not reveal Jesse Jackson’s food fetishes, but one analyst of so-called body language intuited easily that Jackson was “the most macho,” whereas Dukakis’s handshake was “kind of wimpy,” and Bush was “more characteristic of women” in multiple movements, especially in “sort of leading with the pelvic region,” since “real machos lead with their chests.” However, the analyst was quoted, “I am not saying that he is feminine in his carriage.” A postelection New Republic commentator was less reticent, saying, “Visually the president-elect, I regret to say, sags—sort of the male version of the debutante slouch.”
Read his body! Read his menu! When did all this probing of a man’s masculinity, all this political wimp-baiting, begin? Conservatives blame Democrats, liberals blame Republicans. William Safire asserts that Ted Kennedy started it with his “Where was George?” cry at the Atlanta convention. But Time notes that while the 1988 Republican convention keynoter, Thomas Kean, accused his party’s opposition of “pastel patriotism,” Jeane Kirkpatrick had in 1984 already labeled them “San Francisco Democrats.” That, recall, was the year of “Mondale Eats Quiche” bumper stickers. In 1988 George Bush continued in the grand tradition by attacking Harvard-tainted Dukakis’s “boutique” foreign policy.