September 23, 2003
George W. Kowalski? Bush’s Macho Facade Goes Limp
by Maureen Farrell
In February, 2002, President Bush and his national security team posed for celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, for the cover of Vanity Fair. The accompanying article, "War and Destiny," depicted George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Andrew Card, George Tenet and Colin Powell as capable and courageous leaders who would navigate the tumultuous waters of terrorism and deliver us from evil.
Never mind, of course, that promises to catch Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" had already proven hollow, there was still an aura of certainty about these folks, and an insecure nation hungered to believe. "When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have someone who is strong and wrong, than someone who is weak and right," Bill Clinton once said.
The clarity with which most Americans saw George W. Bush before Sept. 11, 2001 perished in the rubble and suddenly, intelligent men and women mistook arrogance for masculinity and hubris for assured sexuality. Before long, it was like attending a wedding where you knew the groom was a boisterous galoot, while, much to your bewilderment, everyone else found his swagger reassuring. While Bush’s machismo might have initially made a wobbly nation feel safer, beyond the illusion, America became little more than a frightened former beauty queen, enduring the outbursts of a deceitful, ill-mannered and intellectually-challenged caricature. Despite Newsweek’s Howard Fineman’s depiction of Bush as the reluctant sheriff in High Noon, the rest of the world, wary of Bush’s bullying, found him to be more Stanley Kowalski than Gary Cooper.
And so, by the time President Kowalski dressed in that flight suit, the country was jettisoned into a wider realm of forced bravado and bad taste, as, horror upon horrors, the presidential package became the center of attention. "Bush's outfit gave him a very vivid basket," the Village Voice asserted, adding, "This was the first a time a president literally showed his balls." Saying that the "manly exhibition was no accident," the Voice surmised that the bulge was part of a PR stunt. "I can't prove they gave him a sock job," Richard Goldstein wrote, "but clearly they thought long and hard about the crotch shot." Goldstein went on to argue that Bush’s fly boy garb framed his groin to make his "bulge seem natural," which played upon the imaginations of men and women alike. [LINK]
However contrived, it worked. And so, America endured an embarrassing onslaught of commentary from the coalition of the clueless. "The president has to meet a testosterone standard that appeals to women but does not offend men," Susan Fields wrote in the Washington Times. "George W. Bush succeeds with both and that drives Democrats crazy. They’ve made fools of themselves with their churlish criticism of his landing on the deck of the USS Lincoln, but they can’t let it go. George W. was a hottie in his flight suit. He was the victorious commander, and most of all he looked at home with himself. He glowed with the pride born of authenticity, declaring the war over and thanking all those appreciative sailors on the decks of the Lincoln."
"I turned on the news," Lisa Schiffren wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "And there was the president, landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, stepping out of a fighter jet in that amazing uniform, looking--how to put it?--really hot. Also presidential, of course. Not to mention credible as commander in chief. But mostly "hot," as in virile, sexy and powerful." Schiffren also praised Bush for using "overwhelming military force to vanquish a truly evil foe," and for "facing down balking former 'allies,'" and implied that it was ridiculous that "he is not taken seriously as a foreign-policy president."
Else Fields, Schiffren and other American Muffies have yet to catch on, the "churlish criticism" of Bush’s aircraft carrier landing did not stem from partisan politics, but from a deep and abiding sense of decency. To recap, yet again: Because Bush went AWOL when he was called to serve and because he sent men and women to their deaths amidst a catalogue of lies, his Mission Accomplished photo-op was repulsive in a way that went well beyond the usual "there's no accounting for taste." Now that it's been proven that the "pride born of authenticity" in "declaring the war over" was a case of shameless hubris, the vapid ninnies applauding the president's showboating are the ones who've been made to look foolish.
The October 2003 issue of Vanity Fair (which has returned to earth since featuring the Bush administration as stalwart mannequins) includes James Wolcott’s hilarious commentary on the hubbub over Bush’s basket. Saying that MSNBC’s Chris Matthews "gets as gaga as Andrew Sullivan and frequent guest Peggy Noonan over that hickory-smoked hunk of masculinity, George W. Bush," Wolcott wrote:
"To borrow a line from the late critic Marvin Mudrick, the two of them should take a cold shower, preferably not together."
Of course, the media’s role in manufacturing Bush's macho mystique began well before that aircraft carrier landing -- and extended to Donald Rumsfeld, as well. The National Review featured the cover story, "The Stud: Donald Rumsfeld, America's New Pinup," CNN described him as a "virtual rock star" and Fox News' deemed Rummy "a babe magnet for the 70-year old set."
When the war in Afghanistan was well underway, Claudia Rosett of the Wall Street Journal dubbed Rumsfeld a sex symbol for women of all ages, while New York Times fashion reporter Ginia Belafonte argued that "the post-Sept. 11 world has caused a certain kind of woman to re-evaluate what she is looking for in a man . . . She has seen the valiant efforts of rescue workers and remarked to herself that men like Donald Rumsfeld make big, impactive decisions in the time it would take any of her exes to order lunch."
The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz wrote that "The secretary of defense is hotter than the exhaust fumes on a B-52. Everyone's genuflecting before the Pentagon powerhouse," while the National Review’s Andrew Stuttaford reported that "with every appearance, some say, [Rumsfeld] is making additional conquests, not of Herat this time, but of hearts, the hearts of women all over America, each beating a little harder at the thought of a man who, these ladies like to believe, doesn't need the help of a B-52 to make the earth move."
These musing weren’t restricted to Bush and Rumsfeld, however. One got the feeling that the manly man image extended to right wingers in general, or at least the kind of males who existed before feminists ruined everything. Shortly after 911, Peggy Noonan wrote, "A certain style of manliness is once again being honored and celebrated in our country since Sept. 11. You might say it suddenly emerged from the rubble of the past quarter century, and emerged when a certain kind of man came forth to get our great country out of the fix it was in."
Noonan didn’t stop there, though. She suggested that John Wayne himself had emerged from the ruins. "I missed John Wayne," she mused "But now I think . . . he's back. I think he returned on Sept. 11. I think he ran up the stairs, threw the kid over his back like a sack of potatoes, came back down and shoveled rubble. I think he's in Afghanistan now, saying, with his slow swagger and simmering silence, "Yer in a whole lotta trouble now, Osama-boy."
Is Peggy Noonan insane? Does she really believe the stuff she writes? Or did she not know that even as she was concocting her fantasies, our erstwhile John Wayne was zigzagging across America in an attempt to save his own hide? "I mean, I was just trying to get out of harm’s way," Bush said.
Finally, in May, 2003, a Time magazine article entitled "Goodbye Soccer Mom, Hello Security Mom," reported that choosy mothers choose macho. "She's worried, she wants answers and she likes toughness in a President," the article reported. Back then, there was the insinuation that we could only find such firm resolve in men like George W. Bush, whose "bring 'em on" bravado, like Kowalski's "Stellllllllla!" has since been unmasked as mere bluster.
Now that the war in Iraq has become more quagmire than cakewalk, people have finally stopped swooning over our fearless, feckless leader. Even Bush bootlicker Andrew Sullivan recently wrote, "Can we all now agree that [Bush’s aircraft carrier landing] was the dumbest political gesture of the last two years?"
Moreover, there's a growing impression that the Bush gang is not only incompetent, but impotent. Given Bush's limp economic strategy and sagging post-Iraq poll numbers, the grand mythos of a testosterone-driven powerhouse is sliding into the propaganda swamp from whence it was hatched. And a recent Washington Post article entitled "Iraq Takes a Toll on Rumsfeld," shows him to be tragically pigheaded, not admirably capable. "Robert McNamara for four years of Vietnam going down the toilet was absolutely convinced with a religious zeal that what he was doing was the right thing," former Army secretary Thomas E. White said. "It wasn't until 30 years later that it dawned on him that he was dead wrong. And I think you have the same thing with Don Rumsfeld." [LINK]
But even so, the illusion of masculinity and capability was powerful -- and even political veteran David Gergen was fooled. "This will set the standard for advance men for years to come," he said of Bush’s flight suit prance. But anyone outside the missionary position set knows that the Bush cartel was never really a manly bunch -- they were just loutish and rude and dangerous.
"If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation but strong, they'll welcome us," candidate Bush said, many moons ago. But President Kowalski was waiting in the wings. "I’m the commander, see?" he told Bob Woodward. "I do not need to explain why I say things." A few months later, in January, 2003, he told a reporter, "You say we're headed for war in Iraq. I don't know why you say that. I'm the person who gets to decide, not you."
Haven’t we had enough of delusional ideologues, cocksure attitudes and puffed chests? We need to ditch the ridiculous he-man mythology and start facing reality. We’re at a breaking point -- as George Orwell warned -- wherein "a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield." Iraq, of course, is that battlefield, with the false belief in Bush’s macho image (and in U.S. invincibility) taking a major hit. As Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey explained, "Every day we look weaker. And the worst news of all it that it’s not because of what was done to us by our enemies but because of what we’ve done to ourselves."
And so, little by little, Bush’s macho façade is crumbling as more Americans awaken to the truth. ("I just wake up in the morning and tell myself, 'There's been a military coup'. And then it all makes sense," a State Department official said). We need our leaders to possess integrity, intelligence and competence -- not glossed over guile and bullheaded arrogance. Decisiveness is important, but decisions should be based on real information -- not cooked intelligence and pre-planned agendas.
In other words, America needs real men, not he-men. And as a neutered Bush returns to the "irrelevant" UN, counting on the kindness of strangers, let’s pray that he and his media cheerleaders understand what they have wrought. And let’s pray, in the end, that America won’t pay too dear a price for our arranged unholy marriage to George W. Kowalski.
Maureen Farrell is a writer and media consultant who specializes in helping other writers get television and radio exposure.
© Copyright 2003, Maureen Farrell
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