Some time ago, I had the honor of meeting a newly commissioned Marine Corps officer who was about to ship out to Afghanistan to take command of a unit there. It turned out that this young man had recently graduated from an Ivy League school and turned down several lucrative job offers in order to take his place in the Marines. When I ask why he had made this decision, he told me that, throughout his life, he had been blessed with so many opportunities that he felt it was important that he give something back.
I probed further: "Give back to whom?" And that's where his answer got interesting.
Although he knew when he obtained his commission that he would almost certainly be sent either to Afghanistan or Iraq, he was not thinking about his role in creating and expanding a democracy for the people in these countries. Instead, he was thinking about the men in his unit who would be under his command: "I've been trained in leadership through my education. I want to there for these men. I want to be responsible for them and make theirs the best and safest experience it can be."
Think about it: here was a 24 year old (for that's how old he was) who was desperately chomping at the bit, not to avoid responsibility and achieve the perpetual adolescence available to the average American male, but to be in charge, to have a purpose in life beyond the next beer and hook-up. I've thought about him a lot, both in terms of American pop culture and in terms of the American political scene. I'll take on pop culture first, because it's always easiest to start there, and because it shines such a spotlight on trends in American life.
Any analysis of American pop culture has to start in Hollywood. If we enter the Wayback Machine, we can see that, before and during World War II, Hollywood's male stars were grown-ups (at least on the screen). There was nothing immature or adolescent in the screen presence of such great stars as Clark Gable, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Joseph Cotten, Joel McCrea, or Walter Pidgeon, to name but a few. These were men's men, with strong faces and deep voices. When the war started, the most boyish of Hollywood's hot stars, Jimmy Stewart, ditched Hollywood entirely to serve in the war himself, which he did with extraordinary distinction. Mickey Rooney, another boyish actor, also did his bit. Nor were these two alone in abandoning the world of pretend war on the silver screen in order actually to participate in the real war. Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, William Holden, Gene Autry, Robert Montgomery, David Niven, and a host of others enlisted. (Ronald Reagan did too, a hearing problem, combined with the military's pressing need for morale boosting films, kept him on the home front, something that dogged him politically in later years.)
Today's Hollywood stars, even when they take on testosterone packed action roles, never seem to rise above boyishness. Go ahead - take a look at modern such screen luminaries as Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Orlando Bloom, or Ben Affleck. All of them are distinguished by their chipmunk cheeks and teen heartthrob attractiveness. The same holds true for the older, post-adolescent actors. Whether you're watching an increasingly wrinkled, although still quite charming, Hugh Grant; Tom Cruise with his shark-like grin; or a goofy Adam Sandler, they all get by playing men who, for the bulk of any given movie, can barely seem to grow up. Even George Clooney, who boasts old-fashioned silver hair and a gravely voice, shies away from emotionally adult roles, both on and off the screen. With this type of competition, it's small surprise that Daniel Craig has proven to be such a popular James Bond. While his physical attractions elude me, there's no doubt that he's the first craggy-cheeked man to play James Bond since Sean Connery made the role.
As I'm sure you've noticed, the preceding paragraph focuses entirely on the physical attributes of today's leading men. Unlike Hollywood's lead players of yore, there's no question but that these men won't be showing up at their local recruitment center any time soon. Unlike the Marine officer I had the honor to meet, these men, comfortably ensconced in Hollywood, feel no obligation to stop acting like pretend adults, and start being real men.
At this precise moment in this essay, I can imagine readers having a "duh" moment as in, "Well, duh! Of course there's going to be a spectrum of American men, ranging from the less testosterone enhanced to the more testosterone enhanced, and of course the latter are going to gravitate to the military." If you're thinking that, you're absolutely right. I didn't miss that obvious point at all, but needed to contrast the effeminate men celebrated in elite pop culture with the manly men of the military, because I'm taking a wild leap from that comparison and traveling into the world of romance novels. (A moment of true confessions here: when I'm not churning out aggressive legal briefs, reading in-depth political blogs, writing on my own political blog, or studying remarkably erudite books about world history and politics, I like to indulge myself in romance novels.) Did you know that romance novels are the single most popular genre in American publishing? They are:
Romance is the most popular genre in modern literature. In 2004, romantic fiction generated $1.2 billion in sales, with 2,285 romance novels published. Almost 55% of all paperback books sold in 2004 were romance novels, and this genre made up 39% of all fiction sold that year. Over 64 million people claimed to have read at least one romance novel in 2004, according to a Romance Writers of America study, a 26% increase over their 2001 study. Twenty-two percent of romance readers identified themselves as male, and the romance readers were split evenly between people who were married and those who were single. People of all ages read romance novels, with one percent of readers younger than 13, and forty-two percent of them have at least a bachelor's degree.
In Britain, thanks to the Bridget Jones phenomenon, romance novels tend to revolve around a hapless, dysfunctional, unattractive, alcoholic, cigarette-smoking woman, who for reasons unclear to everyone, including the woman herself, becomes the obsession of the richest, most attractive man in town, or in all of England, or quite possibly all of Europe. These are rescue fantasy books where the rescue almost always revolves around the man's economic status: he's sufficiently well to do to ensure that the inept heroine need never work again. In the immortal words of Ghostbusters' Dr. Peter Venkman, after reading one of these books, I always feel as if I've been "slimed."
American romance novels are a different kettle of fish altogether. American writers and readers seem to agree on the fact that their heroines should be strong, either physically or emotionally, or both. Competence, wholesomeness, intelligence and charm are prerequisites, even more so then beauty. While the heroines may be misunderstood (they're often charmingly eccentric) or hampered by family, work complications or death threats, they're usually people whose company you'd enjoy.
Invariably, in these American romance books, the hero is a manly man who cherishes the heroine. He invariably arrives in her life when she's facing a challenge and needs a partner, whether in business or (if it's a thriller) to help with the job of saving her own life or someone else's. These women don't want a girlfriend in men's clothes. They do want someone who is truly a man, with a man's ability and worldview.
Given the requirements for an American romance novel, certain literary conventions have arisen that quickly identify the hero as a hero. Physical attributes come first: square jaw, broad shoulders, and long legs. It's a little more difficult to get across the fact that these men aren't merely lovely to look at, but are competent as all get out. The shorthand for that convention is to have them be military or ex-military, or law enforcement or ex-law enforcement. These responsibility-laden careers quickly tell you, the reader, that these heroes aren't just good-looking, but are real men, who will be useful in a crunch. Excellent examples of this are Linda Howard's Cover of Night, or Susan Anderson's Marine series. Bestselling author Jennifer Crusie has even gone so far as to write romantic thrillers with West Point grad and former Green Beret Bob Mayer (who is himself a bestselling author). You've now got my set-up: the modern cultural divide between faux men, as embraced by Hollywood, and real men, as embraced by the majority of reading Americans. From that, we can glide gracefully into the world of politics where, for the first time in 80 years, this is a free for all election, with way too many candidates lined up on both sides of the doctrinal aisle. There are huge policy differences between the two parties and, for voters with diehard commitments to one policy viewpoint or another, nothing will see them switching political sides. For example, no matter how much Hillary turns on that famous charm (I'm being sarcastic here), someone who is committed to a pro-War, pro-Choice, free market agenda is not going to pull the lever in her favor.
There are, however, significant numbers of voters in the middle, people who kind of support the War, except that they wish we weren't there; who believe in abortion, except that they'd never actually have one themselves; and who think the government ought to help the poor, but hate high taxes and recognize that government programs have not, in fact, been very helpful. They can go either way and, I think, in keeping with American romance heroines and their readers, in times of war they'll hew to the more powerful candidate. And that gets me right back to the idea that started this whole post: namely, people who, in an old-fashioned, manly way, crave responsibility for something larger than their own pleasure, self-aggrandizement or entertainment.
If you look at the leading Republican candidates, you'll see that all of them have held positions of real responsibility at one time or another in their lives. Rudy Giuliani was a federal prosecutor who took on the truly dangerous job of bringing down some of New York's most powerful crime families; although a Republican he was one of the most successful mayors in Democratic New York's history (and New York has a larger population than Howard Dean's Vermont); and he handled the 9/11 crisis with almost unparalleled grace and strength.
Mitt Romney has been successful at everything he's touched: he was a top Harvard Business School graduate; he went on to be an unusually successful investment banker, who managed to prevent Bain & Company from going into economic freefall; continuing his knack for business turnarounds, he also kept the beleaguered Salt Lake City Olympics from turning into an economic and ethical disaster; and he was a singularly successful conservative governor in that bluest of blue states, Massachusetts.
The coy Fred Thompson, whom the media likes to identify as a TV actor, was in fact a major player in Watergate, when he was co-chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee that was investigating the scandal. He was also a Senator, which I hold against him, but more about that later.
John McCain, while carrying around that same Senatorial taint, also proved himself early in life. In keeping with his family's Naval tradition, he was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and became a Navy flier. Although he's remembered most for the five and a half brutal years he spent as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, many people ignore the fact that he flew twenty-three missions in Vietnam before he was finally shot down and captured.
In other words, all four of these men, the men I believe are going to hold front runner status throughout the Republican primaries, have at all times in their lives embraced responsibility in one form or another. These men are not behind the scenes players. They are, and always have been, grown-ups who are willing to step up to the plate and act. Truman-esque, each could have on his desk a plaque stating, "The buck stops here."
I don't think one can say the same for leading Democratic contenders. The most testosterone rich contender, Hillary Clinton, positioned herself firmly behind her man for most of her career and sniped from there. When she tried to carry out a project on her own, as she did with 1994's Hillarycare, the result was a debacle. She swiftly slunk back into the shadows. Only after her husband's career peaked, did she decide to take an active role in politics, and that role she selected was that of Senator.
As you may recall, when I spoke of McCain and Thompson, I held against them their Senatorial careers. There's nothing wrong with being a Senator - they're very useful -- but it's not a role of primary responsibility. It's a pack role. Whether you're for or against something, you move with the pack. Also, as Kerry memorably discovered with his voting for a bill before he voted against it, the nature of Legislative packages means that it's impossible for the voters, and often for the Senators themselves, to have any notion of what they stand for. Being a Senator means never having to take responsibility. Indeed, I think the American people have always intuitively grasped this point, which is why only two Senators have gone directly from the Senate to the White House.
Barack Obama, of course, is a Senator squared. This is a man who has never taken on solo responsibility (although I'll agree that he had a charmingly eclectic childhood). After a short career as a junior associate at a law firm (a position singularly devoid of primary responsibility), he went on to become a lecturer (an important job, but not a particularly brave or patriarchal one), then an Illinois State Senator and for the past two and half years, he's been a United States Senator. This is a Peter Pan career, one in which Obama has managed to garner a lot of face time without ever actually assuming responsibility for anything or anybody.
John Edwards is another perpetual Peter Pan, channeling babies' voices, fomenting junk science, paying a lot of attention to personal grooming, and assiduously avoiding a situation in which he has primary responsibility for anything meaningful. In this regard, his Senatorial career also stands as an indictment of his perpetual immaturity. The same immaturity - an immaturity that is the polar opposite of responsible manliness -- can be seen in the staggering divide between Edward's stated principles (he's the defender of the dispossessed in the "two Americas") and his actual lifestyle (which is one few can imagine and even fewer can experience). I see that same type of reality disconnect on a daily basis when my elementary school age son and his friends gaze down the lengths of their skinny little boy bodies and are firmly convinced that they could be mistaken for G.I. Joe.
None of these Democratic candidates, including Hillary herself, would make it as heroes in a good ol' American romance novel. More significantly, can you imagine any of these Democratic candidates doing what my young Marine Corps officer did? That is, can you imagine any one of them putting himself (or herself, of course) in a position of real physical danger specifically because he (or she) craves the opportunity to exercise responsibility over the well-being of other people? I know that I can't.
I also know that the leading Republican candidates, whatever their failings (and they do have failings, many of them), have been men who have not shied away, but have embraced, responsibility throughout all or most of their careers. And this statement is true whether the responsibility they embraced involved personally placing themselves at physical risk (a la McCain or Giuliani) or "merely" taking responsibility for the fiscal well-being and physical safety of others (as did Giuliani, Romney and Thompson).
With all that in mind, whether I'm wearing my voter hat, or my reader of romance novels hat, I know what I'm going to do in November 2008: In this time of war and uncertainty, I'm going to vote for the grown-up, Republican candidate.Bookworm is a crypto-conservative living in deep blue America. She is the proprietor of Bookworm Room.