Monday, June 23, 2008

Karl Rove and the Politics of Weenie Macho

One of the interesting cultural dimensions of the 2008 election is the two strands of dominant masculinity represented by John McCain's hot-tempered fighter jock and Barack Obama's androgynous, intellectual cool.

They might seem like opposites, but that isn't quite the case.

A tough-guy who likes to remind everybody how tough he is, John McCain's always bristled against, defied, and ignored the rules and expectations that were set for him. But McCain also had the savvy needed to realize his ambitions despite not toeing the line. McCain not only broke the rules at the Naval Academy, he in fact graduated. McCain might be cynical about his public image, but he's also worked hard enough to promote far-reaching proposals on areas as diverse as campaign finance reform, immigration legislation, and military affairs. In U. S. Senate terms, McCain's both a "work horse" and a "show horse," and he's been effective at both.

Barack Obama hasn't played by the rules either. Not that he had much choice. Being bi-racial, Obama had to feel his way gradually toward an African-American racial identity. Then, Obama was the "first black this" and "the first black that," but had the brains, flexibility, and equanimity needed to succeed in both the African-American world of people like Jeremiah Wright and the white worlds of Harvard Law School, Illinois politics, and the U. S. Senate. Where John McCain refused to play by the usual rules and won, Barack Obama couldn't play by the usual rules and still won.

Cue Karl Rove.

According to ABC's Christiane Klein, Karl Rove talked fairly extensively about Barack Obama's character at a Republican fund-raising breakfast.

"Even if you never met him, you know this guy . . . He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by."
Outside the "beautiful date" idea, the image is ridiculous. Judging by Michelle Obama, it's easy to see Obama as dating attractive women. But after that, it's all distortion. The Obamas of the world--the class presidents, big men on campus, the Harvard Law School editors, the stalwarts of the local mega-church-are well-liked by most people, and chat amiably with "everyone who passes by." Comfortable in their own skins, they're comfortable with other people and don't have the resentment level needed for constant snideness.

In his own way, the same is the case with John McCain.

Talking Points Memo thinks that Rove's image is portraying Obama as an "uppity," overly-ambitious black person. There's something to this. Like other conservative activists, Rove's been searching for a formula for casting aspersions on Obama's blackness while maintaining a "plausible deniability" about racism. Here Rove characterizes Obama as having a "cool arrogance" which I take as meaning that Obama has the "arrogant" presumption to think that he can socialize in "our" white clubs, date "our" white women," and still makes snide comments about "us" white people. Michelle Obama gets lots of criticism for her lack of "gratitude" for all her opportunities. Here, Rove is saying the same thing about Barack.

But Rove's has another layer of mendacity about Democratic politicians like Barack Obama.

Cue Jake Tapper.

In his column on Rove, Tapper asks where Karl Rove would be and poses possibilities such as "the brainy guy with all the sports scores" before getting to his cheeky bottom line that Rove would "be the guy who vandalizes your car and blames it on the kitchen staff."

But it seems more likely that Karl Rove would just be standing against another wall, wishing that he were dating a woman like Obama was dating, or dating any woman at all. Karl Rove's a dough-faced, homely kind of guy who's not comfortable with women (he barked "don't touch me" at Sheryl Crowe once when she touched his arm). Whether it's height, looks, maturity, having the easy confidence that impresses people, or being comfortable with themselves, there's a lot of guys who have a hard time getting ahead in high school, college, business, or the country club. They don't do well with people in general and don't interact comfortably with women in particular. In fact, these kinds of guys do their best at obsessive type things like video games, following professional wrestling, memorizing "all the sports scores," handling their guns . . . or politics.

In this sense, Karl Rove wouldn't just resent Barack Obama as a black guy, he's resent Obama as a guy who is too well-liked, overly comfortable with himself, and comes by his success with such apparent ease. Given that success didn't come nearly as easily for Rove, it ticks him off to think that Obama can just walk into the "club" and take it over.

Rove didn't like McCain either and did his best to destroy McCain's war hero reputation with an orchestrated campaign of innuendo during the 2000 South Carolina primary.

The right-wing and the Bush administration are filled with Rove-type guys--"weenies" for lack of a better word. George W. Bush didn't having the size, coordination, or self-discipline to be an athlete himself and embarrassed his father well into his father's presidency. Rush Limbaugh's idea of a good time with women is sex tourism in the Dominican Republic. And the list goes on. Tom DeLay and Scooter Libby are tiny little guys. So is Alberto Gonzales and Gonzales has a high, reedy voice to boot. Bradley Schlozman of fired prosecutor fame has such a high voice he sounded like he had been sucking helium before his Congressional testimony last year. In fact, one of the interesting dimensions of the fired prosecutor's scandal is that fired prosecutors like Bud Cummins and David Iglesias were conventional "big man on campus" types while the political appointees doing the firing looked like guys who didn't get dates.

How does the weeniness of someone like Karl Rove become a kind of macho politics? Rick Pearlstein claims in Nixonland that one of Richard Nixon's innovations in politics was his way of appealing to the men and women who were outside the magic circles of conventional ideals. The same is the case with Karl Rove and the contemporary right. During the late nineties and the early years of the Bush administration that the right invented a new politics of outsized macho gestures. Lining themselves up with the gestures of old westerns, professional wrestling, violent video games, trash-talking sports heroes, and action or horror movies, the Bush administration started bumping chests, relishing their opportunities to exchange threats with enemies like Kim Il-Sung and Mohammed Ahmadinejad, and calling out America's enemies with lines like "Wanted Dead or Alive" and "Bring it On."

For awhile, the politics of weenie macho succeeded as the right succeeded in making its fantasies of out-sized masculinity into the dominant image of political manhood in the United States. This is what killed Al Gore and John Kerry. Both Gore and Kerry were embodiments of conventional "big man on campus" masculinity. They were popular, relatively secure guys who were ambitious, served in the military, and worked their way up the ladder. With the cooperation of the media, however, the conservative weenies were able to trump the conventional masculinity of Gore and Kerry and make the "natural," "assumed" manliness of the Democrats look artificial, contrived, and effeminate.

But the relentless failure of the Bush administration has delegitimized the politics of weenie macho just as much as it's delegitimized the Republican Party and conservatism. Power is about to shift back to the guys like Obama and McCain who make it look too easy and part of the election is going to be about which form of the dominant masculinity people want to see in the White House.

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