February 24, 2011
Rubio and ReassuranceBy Chet Arthur
If there is one word that answers Sigmund Freud's old question, What do women want?, it is this: Reassurance. That's Reassurance with a capital R. This is especially the case when we speak about modern American politics.
And even not-so-modern American politics. The late Professor William Abbott of University of Virginia spoke about the first beneficiary of the "gender gap" in our history: George Washington.
This formidable scholar had been studying George Washington with the greatest care for thirty years. But, women couldn't even vote then is the obvious rejoinder. Mr. Abbott would point out that was not entirely so. Some women, admittedly a few, and mostly elderly, propertied widows and spinsters did vote in New Jersey and Connecticut.
That wasn't his point. He noted that in all his research as editor of the George Washington Papers at UVA, and in decades of reading letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, and poems about George Washington, he had never found a criticism of that Indispensable Man penned by an American woman.
If Washington were running today for the Presidency, Mr. Abbott said, he would doubtless win 70% of the men's votes. That's a higher percentage of the popular vote than any candidate has won in 220 years of elections.
Still, Washington did have opponents -- Patrick Henry, George Mason, maybe Samuel Adams, surely Andrew Jackson. By contrast, Washington would have won 100% of the women's vote -- if the documentary evidence is any indication, Abbott said.
Why was that? Washington was as physically brave as any American of his age. He rode into the mouths of British cannon at Princeton. He faced death on the Pennsylvania frontier -- and kept his calm courage. Painter Gilbert Stuart said of him, if he had been born in the savage realm he would have been the fiercest chieftain in the forest.
Washington brought none of this ferocity into his dealings with the ladies. With them, he danced, and danced well. You can never find a bloody phrase in Washington's writings or public statements. He was all about Reassurance.
Look at contemporary political figures. Conservative Pat Buchanan delighted in warlike imagery. He compared his uphill primary challenge of President George H.W. Bush to a rebellion, calling his followers "Buchanan Brigades," and comparing them to "peasants with pitchforks." He was buried among women voters. They did not find him Reassuring.
Jesse Jackson did not speak in martial terms, but his fervid, sweating stump style provoked his hearers to either ecstasy or apoplexy. He seemed extreme even when he wasn't. Not Reassuring. Women voters did not support him.
Reassurance, then, is not a matter of ideology, but of personal demeanor. John McCain suspended his campaign, then didn't. He canceled, then un-canceled, his first debate with Barack Obama. He was not reassuring when he asked Americans to stand up for their country and fight -- but then counseled a concerned fighter at a Wisconsin rally that he should not be worried about Barack Obama. "Senator Obama is a very nice man." Stand with me and fight? Then for what? Against whom? If he had only been this evasive and unpredictable in the skies over Hanoi, he might never have been shot down. But he was assuredly not Reassuring.
Barack Obama was most Reassuring in 2008. He reminded many in the media of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the depths of the Great Depression. FDR may not have had all the answers, or even half of the correct answers, but he had a marvelous way of reassuring his hearers.
Especially, Roosevelt reassured women voters. Of FDR it was said by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that he was "a second rate intellect, but a first-rate temperament."
Barack Obama is formidable because he's a first rate intellect and a first-rate temperament. His ability to Reassure -- even when he know he's speaking nonsense -- will be his greatest asset in his re-election bid.
One of our GOP candidates egged on a conservative audience last winter by saying we should do to Big Government what Elin Woods had done to Tiger's Escalade -- take a nine iron and smash out the windows. Violent imagery. Lawless action.
Definitely not Reassuring.
Sen. Marco Rubio is able to dominate a stage, to stir powerful and positive responses without ever provoking dangerous passion. He is Reassuring with a capital "R." Just as JFK was, just as Ronald Reagan was. And as Eisenhower surely was.
Jeb Bush says Sen. Rubio is the only politician in America who can make grown men cry. That's not exactly so, Governor. President Obama makes grown men cry every day. But we take your point.
Sen. Marco Rubio never uses violent or warlike imagery. He commits no sin against the media's sacred virtue of civility. It's greatest asset. Because he is so strongly committed to foundational principle, he has no need for verbal excess. And to women and men alike, that is most Reassuring.
"Chet Arthur" is a nom de cyber for a former Reagan administration official.