By the time the magazine you hold in your hands is retired from newsstands, we will know to a reasonable degree of certainty the identity of the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees. Even after the “Super Duper Tuesday” primaries on February 5th, though, what will remain to be seen is whether this election will see the candidate from the right, having secured his party’s nomination, hang a louie in the general election. For the entirety of most of our voting lives, it’s been the other way around: Since Nixon’s successful “southern strategy” of ’68, the only two Dems to win a presidential election have been a born-again Navy vet from Georgia, and a triangulating bubba from Hope, Arkansas. Recently, we’ve seen Al Gore fail to carry the good ol’ boy vote, and John Kerry flip and flop limply before our current president’s strong, firm, straight… leadership.
Not that he didn’t go down without a fight. In fact, despite a senatorial record lauded by gun control advocates, Kerry donned flannels and blazed a campaign trail across the heartland, plugging clay pigeons and telling reporters about the 16-pointer that got away. Still, looking over the senator’s action shots, the ironically named sportsmenforkerry.org was unimpressed: “Notice Kerry’s thumb wrapped firmly over the barrel blocking the sights. There were no reports of Kerry burning his hand so he must not have fired.” Bush, meanwhile, showed his guns to an impressed Field & Stream correspondent: “My favorite gun is the first gun that my dad gave me, which is a Winchester .22 pump Model 61. Another gun that’s one of my favorites is a Weatherby custom-made gun presented to me by the CEO of the company, Mr. Weatherby. I’ve probably got six or seven guns in a safe in my office there: two shotguns, two .22s, a couple of deer rifles and a varmint rifle.”
This all comes from The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, by the feminist commentator Susan Faludi, in which she assesses how, in response to the decade’s defining event, we ended up “willing ourselves back onto a frontier where pigtailed damsels clutched rag dolls and prayed for a male avenger to return them to the home.” Faludi’s comprehensively footnoted survey takes the measure of political rhetoric, punditry and trend pieces. She finds that, for instance, “a Vanity Fair cover-story photo essay featur[ing] Bush as a flinty cowboy-in-chief” echoes the Cold War-era Western — art for a nation circling the wagons around the domestic sphere, while competing with the Soviets to see who had the more powerful missiles. And she traces the mythologizing of the homestead back to its pioneer days, when America was field-tested through its resistance to the virile wildmen gallivanting beyond the settlement walls, and “Indian captivity narratives” frothed over the violation of women-and-children and the masculine virtues of their rescuers.
The word “narratives” is key: The Terror Dream is less interested in what’s happened to us over the past six years than in what we’re saying (or are told) has happened. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, someone once said; well, how did we live after we were hit on our own home turf? To reconstruct the stories, Faludi gets easy quotes from the usual gang of idiots, conservative talking heads and in-house right-wingers at mainstream publications — you can picture her coming to the end of an iffily sourced paragraph and Googling “Peggy Noonan Torture” or “Peggy Noonan Housewives” or “Peggy Noonan John Wayne” for backup. But if she’s cherry-picking, then contemporary American culture is a cherry orchard, from the bipartisan lionization of the jocks of United 93 to anecdote-built New York cover stories on the sped-up biological clocks of shaken single girls in the city. Once absorbed, her arguments crop up everywhere, pointing out additional evidence of a nation salving its wounds with testosterone. It’s this tendency that informs the narratives of the current crop of White House hopefuls.
The last several elections have been won by the candidates who successfully tailored their narrative to fit the role of protector. In 2004, a shocked and awed electorate found Kerry too “French looking” — read: effeminate — despite his pledge to “hunt down, capture or kill the terrorists.” More recently, the G.O.P.’s forfeiture of its Congressional majority was less a rejection of the premise of American preeminence than a disavowal of methods which eroded our appearance of invulnerability.
Still, the ’06 midterms presaged a seeming shift in the general mood. “Change” is the narrative this campaign; “hope” isn’t far behind. Faludi herself, guesting on the blog of The Nation Institute fellow Tom Engelhardt, noted a blessed absence of “security-scare — and by extension, gender-scare — campaign[ing]” from Barack Obama and John Edwards; in other words, they’re not turning their candidacies into “a morality play in which men are the rescuers and women the victims in need of rescuing.” “We can end the era of cowboy diplomacy,” Hillary Clinton says in one of her ads, and it’s a rare moment when a woman running for public office can say a thing like that.
But it’s still the desire for strength — the same kind of globe-bestriding strength that Bush was previously thought to embody, and is now thought to have debased — to which the candidates appeal. Given a platform in consecutive issues of Foreign Affairs last fall and winter, Obama, Edwards and Clinton, respectively, spoke of great leaders who “used our strengths to show people everywhere America at its best,” of the need to “convince [the world], once again, that the United States is a force to be admired,” of America “as a powerful nation, a purposeful nation.”
The fallow economy, especially in regards to domestic manufacturing industries, has provided the Dems another chance to play to an electorate angered by its own sense of impotence. In ads, Obama vows to “protect the middle class,” Edwards to “save” it, Clinton to “rebuild” it. (Politicians of all stripes love the “middle class.” The rich are suspect, greedy until proven philanthropic, and the poor are lazy. “Middle class” people, however, are generally members of a nuclear family, with mortgages, car payments, college tuition, healthcare… but surely if a red-blooded American family man can’t meet these obligations on his own, it’s for lack of a “fighting chance.”) Sensing a niche not filled by his opponents from above the Mason-Dixon line, Edwards has aggressively courted the downsized, outsourced worker. His father toiled in a mill, in case you hadn’t heard him mention it, and he understands “the dignity of a job” (per the ad “America’s Jobs and America’s Workers”). The “Bishop” TV spot features a testimonial from laid-off Maytag man Doug Bishop, who recounts Edwards’s vow, to Bishop’s seven-year-old son, that “I’m going to fight for your daddy’s job.” Did the kid’s mommy have a job? We’re never told; it would interfere with the man-to-man reaffirmation promised to an emasculated blue-collar workforce.
But it’s the war on terror that separates the men from the boys. At the January 5th debate, all three assured the audience that they would strike back with vigor in the event of an attack on our soil — “we would obviously have to retaliate,” said Obama, though it’s far from obvious what an after-the-fact retaliation would accomplish except as an assurance that our muscles still flex. Clinton spoke of strength as instructive: “Part of our message has to be there is no safe haven.” “It is the responsibility of the president, in times like this, to be a force for strength, principled strength, but also calmness,” said Edwards, channeling the stoic authority of a High Noon-vintage Gary Cooper. Indeed, High Noon, in which principled sheriff Cooper takes a solitary stand against a gang of bandits, was a first-term favorite of Bush supporters (as Faludi discusses), and continues to resonate on both sides of the aisle: “Let me make this clear,” declared Obama this summer. “There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al-Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”
It’s that pose of “steely resolve” on which Rudy Giuliani has based his entire candidacy. There was, of course, the terrorist attack that made his political (and personal) fortune, but he’s also running on the downturn in crime (which was, not incidentally, in line with national trends, and coinciding with national economic improvement) during his time as mayor of “America’s most liberal city” — as though it took a stern daddy to shape up all those modern artists and welfare bums.
Indeed, alpha-dogging has been the dominant characteristic of the Republican primary. At a debate last May, the candidates were presented with the “ticking time bomb scenario,” a dramatic contrivance that’s become a life-raft for the pro-waterboarding crowd: in extreme measures, Giuliani said, he wouldn’t condone “torture,” but interrogators should have access to “every method they can think of” (truly, an exquisite straddle); Mitt Romney piped up that “we ought to double Guantanamo.” It was, naturally, Tom “Rocky Mountain Oyster” Tancredo who made explicit the link between the hypothetical situation— we have someone in custody who knows where the next bomb will go off! — and its real source, Fox’s 24.
In real life, of course, Jack Bauer is a Democrat, but the G.O.P. candidates have no shortage of macho Real American Heroes. The John McCain ad “Backbone of Steel” is a testimonial from baseball hero Curt Schilling; then there’s McCain himself, the Navy pilot. The ten-minute spot “Courage” opens with McCain as a Vietnam P.O.W., weakened but defiantly gripping a cigarette. “What defines a great leader?” asks the narrator. “Faith in God. Faith in your fathers. Faith in your friends, and band of brothers.” (Here the image is a black and white photo of McCain’s squadron.) “What it is it that readies a man to lead this nation?” (“I love America. I love her enough to make some people angry,” McCain declares in another ad; if “America” is an apparently passive entity that a man loves and fights for and sacrifices for, well, ain’t it just like a woman.)
For his part, Mike Huckabee made a brief splash with the help of heartland martial artist and frat totem Chuck Norris. (Obama, meanwhile, has had to settle for Scarlett Johansson, and an internet-phenomenon schoolgirl crush.) In a pinch, though, any gray-haired man in a worn-in jacket and ball cap will do, whether he’s walking through a work site with Huckabee as superimposed text labels him an “Authentic Conservative,” or shaking hands with Romney as his voice-over approves an anti-Huckabee ad. The women in such ads, on the other hand, demonstrate the gentleness of the calloused hand: in Huckabee’s “A Better America,” his commitment to healthcare is represented by a mother and child on a front porch; to education by a mother pushing her child in a swing.
But no issue is more sexualized, or brings out more of the Western-movie sheriff, than immigration: out on the lawless frontier, those illegals are insidiously penetrating our borders. Do we want to build a fence, or a chastity belt? At the Republican debate of November 28th, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney sparred over “sanctuary cities” — “the two formerly moderate Northeasterners… taunted each other about who was tougher on illegal immigrants,” per the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. Indeed, this jostling is largely an effort to establish their conservative bona fides in the eyes of the starboard half of the American electorate, despite significant liabilities — namely, that Giuliani is twice divorced, pro-choice and has worn women’s clothing in public; while Romney is essentially a hologram.
McCain, meanwhile, anchors his comparatively understanding stance on immigration with an anecdote about a Mexican woman, here illegally, with a son fighting in the military (it’s hard to contest the honor of a Blue Star mother); Huckabee’s line is that “we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did,” the pastor setting a tone of patriarchal understanding.
The split between amiable McCain and Huckabee, and protectionists Giuliani and Romney, is a microcosm of the Republicans’ problem this year: the same conflict between centrism and base-playing that’s plagued the Democrats for decades. Absurd parsings like Giuliani’s answer to the torture question reflect a conservative movement more unsure of its viability within the contemporary climate than at any other time in recent memory.
At first glance, the disputed tears of Hillary Clinton, which she may or may not have shed in the stressful days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, and which may or may not have carried her to victory in said primary, would seem to reflect a more liberal mood, an enlightened understanding that the appropriate response to vulnerability is something other than overcompensation. Slate.com’s Timothy Noah declared the resoundingly positive response to Clinton’s tears to be the “final step in the evolution [toward acceptance] of crying on the presidential campaign trail,” in contrast to the accusations of unfitness that dogged previous displays of emotion from Ed Muskie, in ’72, and the early female candidate Pat Schroeder, in ’87. Noah added: “Indeed, in Clinton’s case, it’s proving not merely acceptable, but a positive good, because it’s being taken as evidence of a previously unrevealed humanity.”
Ay, there’s the rub. If Clinton’s tears were a crack in a previously unsympathetic façade, maybe we’re just relieved that this Ivy League-educated lawyer, one of the most accomplished women of her generation, finally started acting like a mother and (long-suffering) wife, and showed a little feminine weakness. One wonders: are we more accepting of a female candidate for president if she doesn’t upend our understanding of women’s role in American history? Showing sensitivity, in damningly short supply in American presidential politics thus far this century, probably helped her appropriate some of the “candidate of change” narrative, which was previously the exclusive province of the supremely sympathetic Obama. And so one also wonders: would we be seriously considering a woman for president if we weren’t so frustrated with the man we have now?
One element of The Terror Dream worth applying here is the depth of Faludi’s historical reach — all the way back to the religious attitudes of the first white settlers and the violent birth pangs of the American society. We’ve been associating national vitality with male strength and female dependence for centuries before Laura Bush ever packed her husband a lunch to take on his hunting trip. So the permanence of this election’s sea change, if it can even be called that, remains to be seen. It may last only until the general election: if the Republican candidate emerges from his field less divisively than the Democratic candidate does from his or hers, the former will have the advantage of a more definite narrative. Then there’s the threat of a resurgent al-Qaeda, nuclear Pakistan, the impossibility of dominating a global economy and so on. Knowing who the candidates are will be less important than discovering the poses they strike.