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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
What does all of this mean for politics? First that, as feminists have taught us, the personal is political. But also that the political is personal. Politicians, unsurprisingly, play to their constituents’ gender-image needs and to their own. Now that the ideal masculine man is farther removed from reality than ever, many nostalgic men, and not a few nostalgic women, demand that our public leaders appear more masculine than ever, a demand to which our leaders may personally be drawn. In 1984 a woman from Warren, Michigan, said that she admired President Ronald Reagan because he was like John Wayne. That statement must cause one to ponder the irony of a society in which an actor-turned-politician can be seen as admirable because he is modeled on another actor. And not just any actor, but on John Wayne, surely the all-time leading sexual politician among actors. Ironically, also, in his acting days Ronald Reagan yearned to emulate John Wayne’s success as a tall-walking hero. When asked if he had been nervous after debating President Carter in 1980, Reagan replied, “Not at all. I’ve been on the same stage with John Wayne.” The politics of image and masculinity can hardly be more precisely illustrated.
We can also test the proposition concerning masculinity that the personal is political and the political personal by examining other presidential aspirants and officeholders of the last quarter-century. John Kennedy came to prominence in an era when American manhood, like his own, had recently been validated in battle. Kennedy’s was an era in which the Cold War demanded leaders who were “hard,” an era in which McCarthyites sought to dispose of “fellow travelers” (often smeared as effeminate or homosexual) who were “soft on” Communism. Inevitably, it was the era of the “egghead,” a male whom the novelist Louis Bromfield defined as “over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem”—meaning, of course, Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson, to whom the New York Daily News referred as “Adelaide,” was supported by “Harvard lace-cuff liberals” and “lace-panty diplomats”; he used “teacup words,” which his “fruity” voice “trilled,” a poor contrast with Richard Nixon’s “manly explanation of his financial affairs.”
Given such a climate, one can hardly be surprised that Kennedy, whose father had instilled an almost manic competitive masculinity in his sons, should have sought to assert and reassert his manhood when faced with older men at home and abroad. The story was reported long ago in David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1969), and reaffirmed in Stanley Karnow’s 1983 history of Vietnam, that Kennedy, after meeting Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, told The New York Times ’s James Reston: “I think he thought that anyone who was so young and inexperienced as to get into that mess [the Bay of Pigs] could be taken, and anyone who got into it, and didn’t see it through, had no guts. So he just beat hell out of me. So I’ve got a terrible problem.” Now, Kennedy told Reston, shifting from singular to plural point of view, “we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place.”
If the personal was political and the political personal for Kennedy, it was even more nakedly so for his successor. Surely no President has been more earthily vulgar than Lyndon Johnson, particularly when comparing unfavorably the masculinity of underlings and opponents with his own. Reporters have told of repeated instances in which Johnson asserted dominance over an aide, or Hubert Humphrey, or even Ho Chi Minh by saying that he had emasculated the man. Politics, for Lyndon Johnson, could hardly have been more personal, or more sexual. Such a leader might have appeared comic, except that for a great many Americans and Vietnamese the political was also intimately personal. Bill Moyers has said of Johnson and Vietnam, “It was almost like a frontier test, as if he were saying, ‘By God, I’m not going to let those puny brown people push me around.’” Like Kennedy, Johnson personalized the Vietnam War. He saw it as a game or a wrestling match in which he would make Ho Chi Minh cry “uncle.”
Nixon reported his encounter with Khrushchev in heroic images any moviegoer could recognize.
One might discuss Richard Nixon in much the same terms, given his concern with personal crises and with crushing his enemies in the game of politics. Nixon’s masculine metaphors were, of course, from poker or football or boxing. In Six Crises , his encounter as Vice-President with Khrushchev in Moscow is reported in heroic underdog images that any American viewer of ring movies could recognize: “I had had to counter him like a fighter with one hand tied behind his back. … Khrushchev had started the encounter by knocking me out of the ring. At the end, I had climbed back in to fight again. And the second round was still coming up. … Now we were going at it toe-to-toe.” At the end, “I felt like a fighter wearing sixteen-ounce gloves and bound by Marquis of Queensbury rules, up against a bare-knuckle slugger who had gouged, kneed and kicked.” “It was”—Nixon shifted images—”cold steel between us all afternoon.” In this contest, Nixon wrote, he had had the facts when he had called Khrushchev, for it would not do to bluff too often in the poker game of world politics.