HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

June 4, 2007
From Liberty Street

Persistence

John Turner


We have to give the media credit. Once they seize on a cliché they ride it for all it's worth.

The biggest cliché in politics now is that Republican candidates are strong, tough, and, most of all, manly. On the other hand, Democrats are weak, soft, and  somehow inauthentic. And this remains true regardless of what the candidates actually do, or say.

The most authentic candidate on the turnpike right now is Fred Thompson. He holds a cigar in his hand when he talks. He reputedly knows how to get through to NASCAR fans from Michigan. When he ran for the Senate in Tennessee, he campaigned from a red pickup truck. It doesn't mater that he didn't own the truck, but rented it, and didn't drive it himself but had himself driven in it to campaign events by an aide. When Fred himself drives, he's often behind the wheel of a sleek, silver, expensive sedan. His red pickup truck was simply a campaign prop. Still, he's real, tough, folksy. As Jamison Foser noted recently, "The illusion of authenticity is all that matters to the pundit class."

The media never quite get around to telling us that nobody who's credible as a presidential candidate has to worry about the price of gas or how to pay his mortgage next month. Success in America means you're beyond all that sort of thing.

All the candidates spend money in ways that are outside most people's experience. But when John Edwards has a stylist come to him to cut his hair and pays four hundred dollars for it, it creates a furor. That's because he's a Democrat. If Rudy Giuliani had done the same thing, the media would have painted it as the flamboyant assertion of a self-confident man, a guy who knows what he wants and goes after it no matter what anybody else thinks.

All the blather about the Democrats being the mommy party and the Republicans being the daddy is coming from people who aren't, themselves, changing any diapers or driving to the 7 Eleven late at night to pick up a jug of milk.

It would be interesting to chronicle the evolution of the "regular" guy in journalistic portrayal, or even more interesting to figure out how the desire to be seen as a regular guy came to dominate American politics. Let's face it. Nobody in the running for the presidency is a regular guy. But all the candidates want to pretend they are. Why?

You would think that if a person has the judgment to qualify as the president of the United States, he or she would also need at least a tiny slice of self-knowledge. A long time ago, for example, I realized that I enjoyed reading books and that shoved me forever out of the ranks of the regular guys. I've never had a hankering to be one since. Why doesn't the desire to be president teach the same lesson? Maybe it does and all the talk about regular guydom is pure hypocrisy.

What's even more curious than the idolization of regularity is it's association with toughness. By definition, to be regular is not to be very tough. But the media keep pushing the notion that Republicans are tough because they are regular and can communicate with the mythical NASCAR fan who of late has become the font of down-to-earth folksy wisdom.

The burgeoning talk of toughness leads one to suspect that both the leading media figures and many prominent politicians are doubtful about their own character. If they weren't, why would they talk about toughness so much? And why, especially, are Republicans obsessed with it?

Toughness, after all, is simply the ability to do what's necessary under stressful conditions. It doesn't require being talked about incessantly. Most of the people I've known who spoke regularly of their own toughness turned out eventually not to be very tough at all.

In any case, the fantasy of Republican toughness rolls forward, tucked neatly between TV commercials for cosmetics and pills to enhance sexual performance. It's likely the whole business rises from the same anxiety. We want salvation and guys who can deliver it. And as long as we do we'll have rich guys in red trucks showing up to sell it to us.


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