He's strong. He's resolute. He looks evildoers in the eye and doesn't blink. He's our national Daddy, standing in the doorway with a righteous six-gun and a steely gaze, striking fear in the hearts of all who would do us harm. By God, George W. Bush is a real man.
Or is he? We certainly know that Bush wants us to believe he's a real man -- in fact, there are few things he works harder at. Sometimes it seems as if the entire might of the United States government is being wielded for the purpose of creating photo ops where Bush can look manly. We saw plenty of examples at the Republican convention. The video introducing Bush, narrated with the profound vocal stylings of actor/politician Fred Thompson, began this way: "How do you tell the story of a presidency? How do you tell the story so far? The story is, in part, but inescapably, the story of a man."
Despite being billed as a "biography," the video was mostly about Bush's September 11th-related moments of theater. We saw Bush vowing revenge through a bullhorn at Ground Zero, then Bush being photographed visiting soldiers in the hospital. In his convention speech, Bush reemphasized his masculinity. "Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger," he said, "which in Texas is called walking." There's certainly a swagger in Bush's walk, but what is most notable about it is how affected it is. It's not about being strong, it's about looking strong.
Democrats are understandably frustrated that Bush has been so successful at painting John Kerry as the one possessed of insufficient testosterone, down to calling his Vietnam service into question. After all, when their country called them to go into harm's way, Kerry said, "Where do I sign?" while Bush said, "How do I get out of this?"
Vietnam was hardly the last time Bush would show himself to be something of a sissy-boy. In fact, when you begin to think about his history, an unmistakable picture emerges: George W. Bush is a coward. Let's look at some other cases:
• When Bush was told that America was under attack by terrorists, he froze like a deer in the headlights, sitting there listening to children read My Pet Goat for seven interminable minutes before someone came and told him it was okay for him to get up and start doing something presidential. A real man would have stood up, said, "It's been wonderful to meet you children, but I have to go," and gone to check on the status of the country he was supposed to be leading.
• When the 9/11 Commission wanted to question the president, he first said he wouldn't testify. Then he said he'd talk, but not under oath, and only for an hour. Finally he agreed, but only so long as no one recorded the session, and Dick Cheney came along. These were the actions of a man afraid to answer for what he did and didn't do.
• No undecided voters -- let alone Democrats -- are allowed into Bush campaign appearances, lest the farcical "Ask the President" events include a question that is not accompanied by fulsome praise of Bush's greatness. A real man would have the guts to encounter voters who don't already love him.
• Bush's representatives are now pushing to eliminate from the schedule of presidential debates the "town hall" scheduled to take place in St. Louis. They are concerned that, though the audience is supposed to consist of undecided voters, a Kerry supporter might sneak in and get to ask a question. What kind of a wimp is scared of answering a question from someone who supports his opponent?
There's no doubt that Bush knows how to appear strong. Put him in a flight suit or a cowboy outfit and he's in seventh heaven. The frontier-justice catchphrases will tumble from his lips. But when it comes time to actually demonstrate strength, Bush withers and fades. •
Paul Waldman is the author of Fraud: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies and Why the Media Didn't Tell You.