THERE IS something underneath Arizona Sen. John McCain's surge in popularity that is both exhilarating -- and unnerving. Exhilarating because it's fun to see anyone kick the front-runner, in this case the all-but-anointed and richly coffered George W. Bush, off his pedestal. No matter one's party affiliation or politics, this dethronement feels positive for the democratic process. At last there's a race. At last the candidates will have to say something.
But that said, McCain's sudden surge is unnerving because, buried in it, is some retro-male bias that is going largely unexamined. He has "character," people say. He is "authentic." Those are the words now routinely and reflexively used to describe him. But underlying all this talk of character is the old-fashioned longing for a man's man, a war hero, a man other men can be proud of, envy, admire, a man -- we're told -- who takes no guff from other men, be they captors or colleagues. He's aggressive manliness redux after all the lip-biting mea culpas from the current president, who -- the conventional wisdom goes -- slips and slides and compromises his way in and out of everything, including, of course, the Vietnam War.
McCain is the square-jawed, straight-talking Vietnam vet, a man of character come to redeem ours after our long, media-abetted wallow in the seamy details of the peccadilloes of the current president -- and, indeed, after our long conscience-wrestle over Vietnam itself. He is one of the first men from that war to redeem it in a big, public way, to provide some manly heroic healing about it and people seem to feel grateful for that. With his brave endurance -- plainly visible in the recent documentary about POWs, "Return With Honor" -- he elevates the Vietnam vet to the status of the now much lionized World War II vet, no matter the differences between the two wars and the continuing divisiveness occasioned by Vietnam.
McCain rides right over that -- or above it. He wears his heroism lightly but proudly. He doesn't engage much about the war, whether it was right or wrong, winnable or not (he says he thinks it was, but not in a combative way). But it is all over him and in him and people are responding just as they've been responding big time to all the recent World War II paeans, from Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" to Tom Brokaw's best-seller "The Greatest Generation."
No question, manliness is in the air. And the way to sneak it back into the national political dialogue, in our postfeminist, politically correct times, is under cover of heroism. Who can disrespect McCain? He's a charismatic, pugnacious prisoner of war who takes no prisoners. A lot of men apparently like that. It is they who turned out in force in New Hampshire to give him his big victory, saying to pollsters, "Personality was more important than ideology." But that's a reactionary notion, reactionary in that it's a reaction to Bill Clinton. Since when is personality or character more important than ideology or even separate from it? Isn't one's ideology at the heart of one's character? Not in today's environment.
In today's environment, personality -- image is perhaps the more accurate word -- is all. Even McCain's infamous temper is working for him, being seen as another sign of character, of manliness. Clearly, he's offering a restoration of self-image to men who want to be like him, be his larger-than-life stuff in lives that -- as Susan Faludi pointed out in her book "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man" -- don't offer that chance.
No question it is a palpable longing in the culture. The worst of it carries a decidedly insecure, anti-female sting. You can hear it any day, on any number of the sports-radio talk shows, see it in the idolatry of male athletes. Certainly, McCain is not of that swaggering ilk, though there is a bit of swagger in his authentic-guy routine. And it certainly is no accident that he is a pro-life, pro-gun conservative -- if we can be so bold as to actually talk about his positions -- and no accident that he's getting a big ride now with this manliness redux in the air.
It's a kinder, gentler backlash than in the '80s, but it's there, and McCain is the beneficiary and personification of it. He's the millennial Ronald Reagan, come to restore the country's self-image and the self-image of the American male, which somehow always comes with some threat, real or perceived, to the rights of the American female. Not that a number of them aren't also in his corner. They are. Even ones who don't like his stands; even some feminists, who have been expressing some respectfully hip titillation about McCain. Heroes are cool.
True, there does seem to be some indication that McCain, like Ronald Reagan before him, is not a die-hard anti-choice person who will go to the mat over it, above all else. But his position is nonetheless alerting, along with his pro-gun, pro-states'-rights, pro-prayer in the schools, conservative orthodoxies. He has a different temperament from Reagan, a temperament with temper in it, a need not just to win but to vanquish. Such is the testimony of some of his wounded colleagues. His abrasiveness is cloaked -- at least in public, and at least, now, while he's on a roll -- in a winning accessibility. Come on, hop on the bus, let's talk. We can be reasonable. Ask me anything.
This is certainly working with the media. Long denied direct access to candidates except in minor, manicured minutes, long manhandled by spin doctors and image makers, they're tickled to death by McCain's availability. He's defusing them with access, disarming them with candor, pre-empting their questions with his forthrightness. Even his waffling, say about flying the Confederate battle flag over the South Carolina Capitol, reads manly -- a candidate's honest struggle with the issue of states' rights (let them fly it) vs. national racial healing. But shouldn't anyone of presidential timber, real presidential timber, be flat out on the side of the latter?
We just don't know with McCain where he'll go -- he's vague on domestic-policy specifics -- and where he won't. Will he compromise and when and over what and isn't this -- after all the vilification of Clinton for doing just that -- part and parcel of leadership, of character? And aren't we finally defining character too narrowly, too conservatively, too malely?
McCain has further embroidered on the male myth, casting himself as the chief campaign-finance reformer, the lonesome cowboy willing to turn on his own to clean up the town. That's provocative stuff, and it's clearly working. Never mind that he's the ultimate, if abrasive, insider, who has taken money from the lobbyists he decries. Right now, his anti-image image is working for him overtime: The hero come to save us from ourselves.
This is not to question McCain's character or authenticity or his heroism. It is to suggest that, ultimately, in a president, politics and ideology are more important than character -- indeed, are character -- and those are the things we should be examining
Taylor Fleming is an essayist on "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."
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