Michael Wolff on sex and the Dems

Hillary and her backers are "post-sexual." Obama has a hot wife who'll "whip his ass." "Middle-aged white men" face "revulsion." Who's on top in 2008? Nobody.

By Joan Walsh
May 6, 2008 5:50PM (UTC)
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Confounded by the eternal Democratic primary race? Michael Wolff explains it all for you this month in Vanity Fair. It's simple: Your feelings about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have a lot to do with your feelings about their sex lives, even if you're not thinking about their sex lives, and you think you're thinking about their gas tax proposals. Oh, come on, admit it, you have to be thinking about sex and Barack and Hillary. Wolff is, and he's paid handsomely to think about all this stuff. You're just in denial.

Digby thought about all of this first, and I'm grateful to her. I tried not to write about it, to say, "Digby did that, so I can do something else," but reading Digby, I lost my balance, clicked on Wolff and fell in a deep hole. And not a good one. If you want to stop and click on the Digby link, read a great writer, and then go about your day, I'd understand. But Wolff, a writer I sometimes like, pulled me in. For he has decided that despite "the conventional wisdom that the big issues in this campaign are race and gender," in fact "the more fundamental issue is a revulsion toward middle-aged white men." And I had to figure that out.


Truth upfront: I didn't, but I tried.

Wolff opens his piece asserting, "Politics is about sex," and insisting "we vote for or against sex lives." He goes on to talk about what he sees when he looks at the leading presidential candidates, and it's so predictable and familiar, I'm thinking Wolff should hook up with Maureen Dowd (except it sounds like she's too old for him). In fact Wolff's analysis has a lot in common with so many narratives about the Democrats we've heard before: There's just something wrong with them. When it comes to sex, the "consensus view" according to Wolff is that Hillary ain't getting any, which is why she's the candidate of "post-sexual women." Now, Barack is getting plenty, from his "oomphy" wife, Michelle. (Salon letter writers: This one's for you. Please have a field day with oomphy, because I don't know where to start.) Men, Wolff tells us, really like that about Barack. But they also know that if he acts up, "Michelle will whip his skinny ass." Ouch! Not surprisingly, in Wolff's as in Dowd's view, there isn't really a man's man -- read white, middle-aged alpha male -- in the Democratic race.

On the GOP side, after the randy skirt-chasers Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson were hounded to the sidelines, we have the elderly John McCain, who's nonetheless "still vital," Wolff assures us. We know that because he has a younger blond wife, plus the New York Times did him the favor of revealing his maybe-probably affair with an even younger blond lobbyist. And everybody thinks the Times is a liberal paper!


Wolff's story, of course, tells us more about his own sexual issues than anything about Clinton, Obama and McCain. It jumps off from the Eliot Spitzer scandal, in which the former New York governor disgraced himself and devastated his wife and daughters by failing to hide the time he spent with prostitutes. Wolff's point seems to be that late-middle-aged men are now afraid their desire to have sex with younger women who aren't their wives is coming in for new scrutiny and disapproval. It might even make it impossible for them to be president, unless they're Bill Clinton. And nothing about the race between "post-sexual" Hillary and lucky Barack with the oomphy wife who'll whup his ass if he gets out of line is terribly reassuring to them. Wolff decries "a consensus on sexual politics that is driven by women, striking in its asperity and lack of generosity." (Asperity: That sounds kind of dry and rough and sandpapery and unforgiving.) He goes on: "The corollary to the conventional wisdom that the big issues in this campaign are race and gender is that the more fundamental issue is a revulsion toward middle-aged white men."

Poor, poor Michael Wolff. That's a remarkable psychological projection, given the lack of generosity, even "revulsion," with which Wolff describes the shortcomings of middle-aged women, particularly Hillary Clinton, who's defined not by her sexual misdeeds but by her lack of them -- and by her husband's. And we're supposed to feel sorry for the middle-aged white men (not) in this picture? They're displaced not only by Clinton but by Obama, the black guy (in case you forgot), who Wolff keeps calling "young," as opposed to middle-aged, even though he's 46 and solidly middle-aged. Obama's doing just fine, for now, at least until his wife whups his sorry ass. And "vital" McCain's fantastic! So here's the score: The black guy? The old white guy? They're fine. Even the post-sexual middle-aged white lady is fine, propped up by her legions of post-sexual female supporters. Middle-aged white guys? Feel the revulsion!

Ick. According to Wolff, the plight of a white man in his 40s and 50s and 60s is all about deciding whether, when and how to be with a younger woman, and then how to cover it up, and meanwhile to figure out how badly it will hurt his marriage and career if/when it comes out. For his female counterpart, it's all about how to go gently into that post-sexual good night, and how bitter to be if you get a wake-up call like Silda Wall Spitzer did. (But maybe later, after you heal, you can run for president, and be embraced by other post-sexual women!) That women in Wolff's demographic are finding younger lovers in unprecedented numbers never seems to enter his thinking. (Does he know that? Do we want to tell him, or would that make him even more miserable?) That some men in his demographic might find ways to fight temptation because of obligations to family or career or themselves doesn't intrude, either.


I'm someone who has stated often that I'm happy with the eternal Democratic primary, let the best person win, it's building a 50-state Democratic organization and so on. Reading Wolff's piece, and its creepy objectification of both Clinton and Obama (he nominally favored the black guy over the woman, but he's a little concerned because he's held in check by that oomphy black chick), I felt my first real longing to be out of silly season, to have a nominee, to be able to stop these invidious comparisons between blacks and women, and to be able to help Michael Wolff see he's still got a great life, whatever his sexual choices.

It might be hard for him to run for president, though, because his article makes him sound a little bit ... bitter.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2008 Elections