FOR months, our political punditry foresaw one, and only one, prospective gender contest looming in the general election: between the first serious female presidential candidate and the Republican male “warrior.” But those who were dreading a plebiscite on sexual politics shouldn’t celebrate just yet. Hillary Clinton may be out of the race, but a Barack Obama versus John McCain match-up still has the makings of an epic American gender showdown.
The reason is a gender ethic that has guided American politics since the age of Andrew Jackson. The sentiment was succinctly expressed in a massive marble statue that stood on the steps of the United States Capitol from 1853 to 1958. Named “The Rescue,” but more commonly known as “Daniel Boone Protects His Family,” the monument featured a gigantic white pioneer in a buckskin coat holding a nearly naked Indian in a death’s grip, while off to the side a frail white woman crouched over her infant.
The question asked by this American Sphinx to all who dared enter the halls of leadership was, “Are you man enough?” This year, Senator Obama has notably refused to give the traditional answer.
The particulars of that masculine myth were established early in American politics. While the war hero-turned-statesman is a trope common to many countries in many eras, it has a particular quality and urgency here, based on our earliest history, when two centuries of Indian wars brought repeated raids on frontier settlements and humiliating failures on the part of the young nation’s “protectors” to fend off those attacks or rescue captives. The architects of American culture papered over this shaming history by concocting what would become our prevailing national security fantasy — personified by the ever-vigilant white frontiersman who, by triumphing over the rapacious “savage” and rescuing the American maiden from his clutches, redeemed American manhood.
Aspirants to the White House have long known they must audition for the Boone role in the “Rescue” tableau. Those who have pulled off a persuasive performance, from Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy, have proved victorious at the ballot box. Even candidates lacking in martial bona fides have understood the need to try to fake it with the appropriate accessories — riding high in the saddle (Ronald Reagan), commanding tanks (Michael Dukakis), wielding shotguns (John Kerry) or brandishing chainsaws and donning flight suits (you know who).
Senator McCain may fit the model better than anyone. After all, he actually starred in a real-life captivity narrative, having withstood five and a half years of imprisonment by non-white tormentors, declining special treatment and coming home a hero. “I have seen men’s hopes tested in hard and cruel ways that few will ever experience,” he declared from the hustings. A 12-minute video on his Web site dwells on how his faith in the “fathers” and his will “to fight to survive” got the young Navy pilot through Vietcong bayonetings, bone smashings and bondage.
The story’s appeal is evident in the flood of news media adulation. The worshipful tone of the last Newsweek cover article on Mr. McCain is typical. The subtitle: “He’s Endured the Unendurable and Survived.” As the liberal television watchdog group Media Matters for America has noted, the press is most reverent about the candidate’s humble refusal to trumpet his captivity — even as his campaign advertises it freely.
Although Senator McCain didn’t rescue any helpless maidens, he outdid even Daniel Boone in averting emasculating domination. Boone was a captive for only a few months, and was widely suspected by his contemporaries of having enjoyed his time with the Shawnees rather too much (he was adopted by the Shawnee chief and evidently passed up several opportunities for escape).
Senator Obama, for his part, will not be cast as the avenging hero in “The Rescue” any time soon — and not because of the color of his skin or his lack of military experience. He doesn’t seem to want the role. You don’t see him crouching in a duck blind or posing in camouflage duds or engaging in anything more gladiatorial than a game of pick-up basketball. If Mr. Obama’s candidacy seeks to move beyond race, it also moves beyond gender. A 20-minute campaign Web documentary showcased a President Obama who would exude “a real sensitivity” and “empathy” and provide a world safe for the American mother’s son. Mr. Obama is surrounded in the video by pacifist — not security — moms.
If Mr. Obama’s campaign has fashioned any master narrative, it’s that of the young man in the bower of a matriarchy — raised by a “strong” mother, bolstered by a “strong” sister, married to a “strong” wife and proud of his “strong” daughters. (Bill Clinton had a similar story, although his handlers highlighted his efforts to save his mother from domestic violence.)
“In many ways, he really will be the first woman president,” Megan Beyer of Virginia, a charter member of Women for Obama, told reporters. An op-ed essay in The New York Post headlined “Bam: Our 1st Woman Prez?” came to a similar conclusion, if a tad more snidely: “Those shots of Barack and Michelle sitting with Oprah on stools had the feel of a smart, all-women talk panel.”
Hillary Clinton’s candidacy showed that a woman, too, can play the tough-guy protector. But Mr. Obama takes the iconoclasm a step further — by suggesting that martial swagger isn’t what America needs anymore.
In the campaign ahead, expect a fierce Republican effort to reinstate the nation’s guardian myth — by demonstrating how the other party’s candidate fails to fit the formula. Had Mrs. Clinton been the candidate, she would no doubt have faced more attacks for being too mannishly abrasive or, conversely, too emotional to play the manly role. But Mr. Obama should expect similar damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t gender assaults. He will be cast either as the epicene metrosexual who can’t protect the country or else as the modern heathen with a suspicious middle name.
The attacks are already under way, as is evident if one enters the words “Obama” and “effeminate” into a search engine. The effeminacy canard lurks in Mike Huckabee’s imaginings of Mr. Obama tripping off a chair and diving for the floor when confronted by a gunman, and in the words of Tucker Bounds, Mr. McCain’s campaign spokesman, who depicted Mr. Obama as “hysterical.”
News media blatherers and bloggers are taking up the theme. On MSNBC, Tucker Carlson called Mr. Obama “kind of a wuss”; Joe Scarborough, the morning TV talk show host, dubbed Mr. Obama’s bowling style “prissy” and declared, “Americans want their president, if it’s a man, to be a real man”; and Don Imus, the radio host, never one to be outdone in the sexual slur department, dubbed Mr. Obama a “sissy boy.”
Will such attacks succeed? The wild card in the campaign drama to come is 9/11, which for a while kicked us into Daniel Boone overdrive. But in recent years, the dangers and costs of that prolonged delusion have become painfully apparent. In the primaries, a substantial portion of Democratic voters turned away from the dictates of “The Rescue.” In choosing between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain in the general election, Americans will pass a referendum on 200 years of bedrock gender mythology.