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Presidents Fret Over Acquiring Label of 'Wimp' : Politics: The accusation has been around since the time of Thomas Jefferson, but recent Presidents seem to have gone to an extreme of 'compulsive masculinity.'

November 12, 1989|MIKE FEINSILBER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Wimp-baiting has been a factor in American politics since early in the republic's history, and the result has been a "compulsive masculinity" among recent Presidents, says a professor who has studied the wimp factor in history.

The wimp theme has persisted since Thomas Jefferson, who was called "womanish," through Martin Van Buren, who was accused of wearing corsets and taking too many baths, and George Bush, who had to battle what Newsweek magazine called "The Wimp Factor" in a 1988 cover story that asked if he could overcome it.

Adlai E. Stevenson III, the Democrats' candidate against war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, was called "Adelade," and Walter F. Mondale, who ran against Ronald Reagan in 1984, had to confront bumper stickers that said "Mondale Eats Quiche." Quiche is considered wimp food, unsuitable for manly presidential palates. Ask Bush, who made a campaign point of eating manly pork rinds, their cholesterol count be damned.

Bruce Curtis, who teaches American thought and language at Michigan State University, says in an age that is less muscular than the past, Presidents have felt obliged to reveal themselves as tough and their opponents as sissies.

"Now that the ideal masculine man is further removed from reality than ever, many nostalgic men, and not a few nostalgic women, demand that our public leaders appear more masculine than ever," he says in an article in the November issue of American Heritage.

The result, he says, is for politicians to assert their virility.

Thus, he says, no President has been more "earthily vulgar" than Lyndon B. Johnson, who ridiculed opponents of his Vietnam policies as "nervous Nellies."

Richard M. Nixon reached for a pugilistic metaphor to describe his "kitchen debate" with Nikita S. Khrushchev, saying he felt he had been "up against a bare-knuckle slugger who had gouged, kneed and kicked."

"Even Jimmy Carter, among recent Presidents seemingly the least driven by machismo, revealed during the 1988 campaign his susceptibility to its public demands by remarking that Bush seemed rather 'effeminate,' " Curtis noted.

In his day, Carter, too, was accused of acting like a wimp. In a famous mistake, the Boston Globe went to press in 1980 with an editorial bearing a prankish headline that had not been intended to see the light of day: "More Mush from the Wimp."

To offset perceived wimpishness, candidates often talk tough.

Bush bragged, the day after his 1984 vice presidential debate with Geraldine A. Ferraro, that he had "kicked a little ass."

Teddy Roosevelt, outraged that Woodrow Wilson initially shied away from plunging America into World War I, said what Wilson had done was "to emasculate American manhood." Ronald Reagan, threatening to veto a bill if Congress sent it to him, borrowed a line from movie strongman Clint Eastwood: "Go ahead, make my day."

In the 19th Century, reformers were ridiculed as "namby-pamby, goody-goody gentlemen" who "sip cold tea." Andrew Jackson, the war hero and Indian fighter, described another politician as "Miss Nancy." Jefferson was called "womanish" because he "took counsel of his feelings and imagination."

Stevenson was "Adelade" to the New York Daily News, which also said he "used teacup words" and had the support of "Harvard lace-liberals" and "lace-panty diplomats."

The need to prove himself tough sent Michael S. Dukakis, the Democrats' presidential candidate last year, into a tank turret for the filming of a campaign commercial that backfired; Dukakis didn't look like he belonged there.

Bush fought to overcome "the wimp factor" although there was an occasional lapse. Once he was overheard saying he'd have "just another splash" of coffee.

Women in politics, like Ferraro or Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who shed tears when she withdrew as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, "are condemned no matter what they do," Curtis wrote.

"If gentle, they are womanish; if tough, they are not womanly. By tradition a female cannot be a courageous, charismatic, wise, effective leader as a woman."

"The point," concludes Curtis, "is not that the 'manly' characteristics of the myth--courage, assertiveness in the face of aggression, righteous defense of the weak--are undesirable or dangerous in themselves. The cinematic myth is dangerous because it is labeled 'for men only' and because it may be distorted and debased by actors on the public scene."

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