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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
So long as the power to define gender characteristics remains a dominant-male prerogative, politics will remain defined as a masculine prerogative, even if women enter politics in considerably increased numbers. For gender definitions are about power relationships, and the power to define is real. Attacks upon Schroeder or Bush as wimps, an earlier attack on Sen. Henry Jackson as homosexual, and Sen. Orrin Hatch’s 1988 smear of the Democrats as “the party of homosexuals” all serve the purpose of excluding or dominating the opposition. Likewise, attacks upon “long-haired men and short-haired women” reformers, a staple of politics since the nineteenth century, seek to limit the range and depth of challenges to established social policy. For according to the masculine logic of sexual politics, all women and all men are relatively “womanized,” except the hardest, toughest, most powerful, most masculine.
Postelection commentary on George Bush has seemed to reflect among journalists a masculinity-concerns-as-usual attitude. Murray Kempton wrote in The New York Review of Books that “the Quayle selection more than suggested that Bush fears associates too bold for his own peace and comfort; and he proceeded thereafter to submit himself abjectly to the advisers who at once contrived to make him seem tougher but altogether less likeable than previous experience had permitted us to imagine him.” Some commentators nevertheless concluded that in fact or in image Bush was no longer a wimp, Tom Wicker noting that the “suspect candidate” had “established by September a satisfactory identification as Ronald Reagan’s surrogate, who was not a wimp after all.” Humphrey Taylor concurred, reporting in the National Review that at the New Orleans convention Bush had “emerged from the shadow of Ronald Reagan as his own man, a fighter not a wimp.” In a public letter to “Dear George,” Lee Iacocca wrote: “First of all, congratulations! It was a tough campaign, a real street fight toward the end. Nobody will ever call you a wimp again, George. Nice going.” Newsweek commented: “The new George Bush looks rugged, even macho, standing chest-deep in the Florida surf....Something startling has happened to the man who was once mocked as Ronald Reagan’s lap dog....It could be argued, George Bush walked into the polling booth as Clark Kent and emerged as the Beltway equivalent of Superman.”
Gender definitions are about power relationships, and the power to define is real.
Meanwhile, David Beckwith noted left-handedly in Time that the candidate had won “with a toughness that surprised even his friends.” Beckwith believed that Bush, having seen aides take credit for Reagan’s successes, “is determined not to be similarly emasculated....” To the contrary, Fred Barnes predicted flatly in The New Republic that, lacking a mandate, a program, and congressional cooperation, “Bush will be a eunuch on his honeymoon.”
Genital imagery and masculine anxiety appeared among journalists all along the main-line political spectrum. In The New Republic “TRB” summed up the Reagan Presidency as having injected the nation with anabolic steroids, leaving it for the moment “economically and militarily virile. Unfortunately,” “TRB” concluded, “steroids, like sedatives, have side effects, and already our national testicles are starting to shrink...beginning to emasculate the Pentagon....” With mixed images, the National Review’s William F. Buckley, seeking to buck up the President-elect, noted that “to cave in” on the tax issue would “emasculate the Presidency. That would give the Democratic Congress a free hand to scrape every last shred of pork out of the barrel, and roll even bigger logs over the taxpayers.”
As throughout the history of the Republic, so in the 1988 presidential election’s aftermath, concern about the toughness and masculinity of our leaders remained at the center of American politics. Will the media continue to define our leaders, and will leaders and the public continue to allow themselves to be defined, in these narrow terms? Given the persistent masculine tradition in American politics and society, the answer is probably yes. And yet a century or even little more than a generation ago, who would have thought that traditional images of racial superiority and inferiority could be challenged with considerable success, that racist beliefs and practices could be at least diminished?
If we cannot clearly foresee it, we must surely hope for a time when the political leaders of America—and the men of the press who help fashion them—spend less energy defining and defending gendered turf. Should that day come, politicians, the press, and the public will have more energy for more important social issues than the state of American masculinity.