Idiocy of the week

A gay liberal columnist ponders the president's ... uh, manhood.

Published May 23, 2003 10:18PM (EDT)

I should start by saying I had my own reservations about President Bush's first campaign appearance on the USS Lincoln. It was a spectacular photo op, and the speech was an excellent attempt to thread together the administration's string of successes in the war on terror. But it struck me that there was a little too much swagger to the event. It wasn't damaging in itself, as the popular response demonstrated (most people seem to have loved it). But it portended for me at least a worrying level of postwar hubris, a condition that I'm glad to say seems to have subsequently evaporated from the administration's and the president's public appearances.

But the real story was the Democratic Party's response. A sardonic comment from some authoritative Democrat would have sufficed to deflate the president's ego. But no. There is, it seems, no such living creature as an authoritative Democrat. Instead, the Democrats actually thought they could use this spectacular public relations coup as a political weapon against the president. They went through at least a couple of news cycles, hoping some sort of slur would stick. After a while, you realized they were serious. They actually believed that Middle America, after a brilliantly successful military campaign, was just itching to have an opportunity to express its pent-up anger and resentment at the commander in chief. Yep, they couldn't wait to tear into him for thanking the sailors on the aircraft carrier for their service in a dangerous, distant war.

But the liberal cocoon gets even more hermetic when you make your way into downtown Manhattan. There we find our old friend, the out-and-loud "proud sissy," Richard Goldstein. Still writing for the Village Voice after 75 years, he sure has his finger on the pulse of popular culture in America. He knows just how Washington operates, and he has deep inside knowledge of the world of spin control and Deaverism. And when he watched the president get off that helicopter, he saw one thing and one thing only: a big, hard, looming package of manhood.

I swear I'm not making this up. Here's the money quote:

"This manly exhibition was no accident. The media team that timed Bush's appearance to catch just the right tone of sunlight must have chosen that uniform and had him try it on. I can't prove they gave him a sock job, but clearly they thought long and hard about the crotch shot. As students of the cinematic, they would know that the trick is to make the bulge seem natural, so it registers without raising an issue. Tight jeans (a staple of Bush's dress-down attire) can achieve this look, but nothing works like fighter-pilot drag, with its straps that frame and shape the groin. Most people presume this effect is merely functional. That frees the imagination to work, and work it does, in men and women alike."

Now I have to protest that I'm second to none in respecting certain aspects of the male anatomy. But I must say, the notion that senior members of the Republican Party had actually contemplated shoving a sock down the commander in chief's tightie-whities just didn't occur to me. What naiveté on my part. Observing the photograph designed to illustrate Goldstein's devastating insight, I confess all I see is a guy in an airplane suit. But, hey, what's an "attack-queer" supposed to see? Blinded by my own internalized homophobia, I clearly missed a vital political-cultural event.

But Goldstein has more:

"Say what you will about the male body being objectified. We may expect a dude to display himself like an Abercrombie & Fitch model -- but the president? Clearly Bush's handlers want to leave the impression that he's not just courageous and competent but hung."

Yes, clearly. Why didn't anyone else think of that? In fact, of course, the essence of Bush's presidential masculinity is its undemonstrative nature. Think back to that campaign. It was Gore who swaggered and chest-thumped his way through the first debate; it was Gore who stuck his tongue down his wife's throat; it was Gore who had a cover photo in Rolling Stone that really did seem to emphasize his crotch. Bush is a milder, stronger sort of guy. Which is why he comes across as so eminently likable -- to both men and women. And sometimes, Mr. Goldstein, a jumpsuit is just a jumpsuit. With straps on.

By Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own Web site.

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