Who’s the Man? They Are

Times Staff Writer

It was once a late-night comedy riff, comparing a pair of Latin he-men. "¿Quien es mas macho, Fernando Lamas o Ricardo Montalban?”

The gag on the preening masculinity of two aging stars had its day, then faded away. But an increasingly ornery presidential election season might resurrect the question. To wit: "¿Quien es mas macho, George Bush o John Kerry?”

If it’s not Kerry tossing a football across an airport tarmac, it’s President Bush stomping around his Texas ranch in denim and cowboy boots. Bush waves the starter’s flag at NASCAR’s Daytona 500. Kerry blasts away at pheasant with a double-barreled shotgun.

In a campaign that has seen candidate Howard Dean infamously appeal to “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” many political scientists, historians and gender experts say that a good portion of the presidential image-making in 2004 will center on masculinity.


Driving the paternal imperative, they say, is the anxiety many Americans feel because of the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorist attacks at home.

“When you have a war going on, usually the macho factor will prevail,” said Joan Hoff, a Montana State University history professor and former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency. “Bush feels it’s to his advantage to keep foreign policy as a major issue. But when that comes up, I think you are going to see a lot of ‘Who is tougher than whom.’ ”

The televised images of machismo may be as overt as Bush powering along the Maine coast in his father’s cigarette boat or Kerry exchanging slap shots and forechecks on the hockey rink. But the manly theme also will be cast in more subtle and euphemistic terms, as pundits talk about the candidates’ “authenticity,” “decisiveness” and “toughness.”

“There is no doubt that one of the things that Bush has going for him, even with some people who otherwise wouldn’t like him, is that he seems decisive and a leader,” said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist and gender expert. “For many people that links to maleness.”

But both the president and the senator from Massachusetts need to be careful that their embrace of traditional masculine roles does not become forced, Schwartz said, lest they become perceived in that most un-macho of roles -- the poseur. Think Michael Dukakis in 1988, clad in an oversized helmet and perched atop a tank.

American politicians have not been above feminizing their opponents dating back to the era of powdered wigs, playing on the stereotypical notion that only the “manly” can lead.

Some critics of the day called Thomas Jefferson “womanish.” In 1840, President Martin Van Buren -- accused of wearing a corset and taking too many baths -- lost to William Henry Harrison. The challenger purportedly took care not to be seen in the tub.

Adlai E. Stevenson found himself belittled as “Adelaide” in two unsuccessful 1950s presidential confrontations with Dwight D. Eisenhower, the retired war hero. And in 1984, onetime movie cowboy Ronald Reagan made swift work of Walter F. Mondale, who was labeled a “quiche eater” by Republican true believers.

Bush and Kerry appear to come by their macho naturally. At Yale University, both won admission to the exclusive, secret society “Skull and Bones,” then open only to men. Bush was the party guy -- drinking hard and later quipping about his relative disdain for academics. Kerry played two sports at Yale and volunteered for the Navy, which sent him to Vietnam.

In adulthood, Bush has taken pride in his fitness, once challenging members of the press corps to try to keep up as he turned 7-minute miles in 100-degree Texas heat.

Kerry, a licensed pilot, took the controls of a helicopter during a campaign swing in Iowa last fall. When blessed with more free time, he’s been spotted rollerblading up Beacon Hill in his native Boston and catching big air while kite surfing off Cape Cod.

Beware the ‘Priss Brush’

Both Bush and Kerry have been witness, up close, to the potential danger of being painted with what one magazine writer called “the priss brush.”

Bush’s father had to go to great lengths to overcome the “wimp” label in his 1988 run for the White House, despite the fact he once captained the Yale baseball team and flew a torpedo bomber in World War II. Al Gore suffered a similar taint in 2000 when it was revealed that feminist author Naomi Wolfe advised him on what colors to wear.

Well aware of the many Democratic presidential contenders destroyed by the notion they were soft, Kerry has said repeatedly he’s “a fighter.” He even co-opted Bush’s challenge to Iraqi insurgents -- “Bring it on!” -- to challenge the president to a debate over national security.

Bush has equally pragmatic political reasons for sending reminders that he’s a traditional man’s man, political analysts say. He’s trying to appeal to his electoral base, white men, who favored him by a whopping 59% to 37% over Gore in 2000. (Four percent voted for Ralph Nader.)

“It’s the Bush campaign, primarily, that’s using the masculinity and macho themes,” said Eric Davis, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. “In his speaking and the way he presents himself, down at the ranch in denim shirt and jeans; the tough talk, this is all designed to appeal to males who ... don’t want to associate with a party or candidate that’s seen as soft.”

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush has found repeated opportunities to display masculine bravado. Just three days after the World Trade Center collapsed, he stood beside the rubble and used a bullhorn to shout encouragement to hardhat-wearing rescue workers.

Most famously, Bush zipped himself into an olive green flight suit last May for a television-ready visit to an aircraft carrier, where he declared an end to major combat in the Iraqi war.

The landing on the Lincoln had some pundits gushing about the president’s victorious glow. Newspaper commentator Lisa Schiffren searched for the word to describe the president’s look and finally settled on “hot.”

“Also presidential, of course,” added Schiffren, writing in the Wall Street Journal. “Not to mention credible as commander in chief. But mostly ‘hot’ as in virile, sexy and powerful.”

Democrats viewed the president’s shipboard performance with an opposite measure of vitriol. His challengers soon noted that more U.S. service members had died after Bush’s declaration than before it. But their most biting words were aimed directly at the president’s macho persona.

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark accused Bush of “prancing” in the flight suit. The president, Kerry said, had been “playing dress-up.”

The image of a costumed commander in chief became the most biting challenge of Kerry’s stump speech.

“I know something about aircraft carriers for real,” Kerry, the Navy veteran, liked to say. “And if George Bush wants to make foreign policy and national security the central issue of this campaign, I have three words for him that I know he understands: ‘Bring it on!’ ”

Supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire began shouting the tough-guy payoff along with Kerry, so much did they enjoy throwing Bush’s machismo back in his face.

Indeed, a central Kerry point during the early primary season was that he could go mano a mano against Bush, unlike other Democrats, because of his experience as a decorated Vietnam veteran. Hardly a stop in the early primary states passed without Kerry’s old boat-mates, and other veterans, attesting to his bravery and leadership.

Bush, in contrast, found his military record in the Air National Guard called into question. Left-leaning filmmaker Michael Moore got the discussion started in January, when he endorsed Clark for president and called the president a “deserter.”

The White House responded by releasing the president’s service records, including an honorable discharge. Kerry didn’t find fault with Bush’s service, but he didn’t dismiss the issue either. “I think it’s up to the president and the military,” he said, “to answer those questions.”

Other gender judgments creep into the campaign in more subtle forms, said Michael Messner, a USC sociologist.

Messner said he has heard television commentators repeatedly describe Kerry as too verbose and intellectual to connect with average voters, in contrast to the plainspoken Bush.

“It’s a particularly American definition of masculinity that, somehow, if you are intellectual and have a lot of book learning and talk in ways that make that clear, then you are feminized,” said Messner, who researches gender stereotypes. “You are seen as someone who could waffle when it comes time to make a big decision. All of that is code for not being masculine enough.”

Far less oblique were the Internet rumors that Kerry used Botox to remove facial wrinkles (he denied it) and the Republican Party press releases that routinely jab Kerry as the “International Man of Mystery,” after the foppish title character of the Austin Powers movies.

Don’t Scare the Women

But political handlers say there is a danger in striking the manly man pose too blatantly, and it can be summed up in one word: women. They will cast more votes than men in November. And although some female voters may crave a paternal figure they feel can protect the country, polls indicate more women remain preoccupied with so-called “soft” issues such as jobs, education and healthcare. In recent surveys, women tend to be more critical of Bush.

Political pros say it’s no accident then, that, after Bush started the month with a NASCAR event and a rodeo, he shifted quickly to campaign stops focused on women. First, Bush posed in front of female entrepreneurs in Cleveland to talk about his job-creation plans. Then he held a White House event to say he was helping improve the rights of women around the world.

Voters, though, have almost certainly not seen the last of Bush chopping wood on his Crawford ranch, or Kerry jumping on motorcycles, as he did for the “Tonight Show” and again the other day at the airport in San Antonio.

“In general, leadership is one of the key factors that voters are looking for,” said Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. “A lot of people define that as strength, decisiveness and the ability to make decisions. It’s tough, tough, tough.”

The day may not be too far off, however, when gender politics are turned on their head.

With women like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, looming as potential presidential candidates, the nation may have to find new ways to think and talk about qualities traditionally attributed to men.

“When you think about it, Hillary is viewed in all those leadership ways,” McManus said. “So the discussion may not just include men anymore.”



Measure of the Man?

Many voters say macho doesn’t matter. But experts say that stereotypically masculine behavior can imbue political figures with leadership qualities such as toughness and decisiveness.

*--* Bush Kerry Height 5' 11 3/4" 6' 4" Weight 194 185 Current job Commander in chief U.S. senator Past jobs Governor, oil Assistant district attorney, executive, part owner lieutenant governor of the Texas Rangers baseball team Recreation Fishing, swimming, Windsurfing, flying, ice chopping wood hockey School sports Cheerleading, Soccer, ice hockey** stickball* Military Lieutenant in the Air Navy lieutenant and recipient National Guard of the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart Footwear Cowboy boots L.L. Bean duck boots Speaking style Texas terse Brahmin baroque


Source: Times staff research

*Bush was yell leader at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He also founded an intramural stickball league at the academy. Broomsticks and tennis balls were used in a prep school version of the old street baseball game.

**Kerry played soccer and ice hockey at the intercollegiate level at Yale University.

Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.