Man-Crush vs. Pretty Boy: John Edwards, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson's Leathery Scent

The American Prospect has a terrific piece up by J. Goodrich called "The Man-Crush Primary," ruminating on the images of so-called strappingly presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson versus the more effeminate pretty-boy characterization of John Edwards and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama, by the media. The article is worth a read alone for the damning portrait it paints of MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who comes across like a tween girl gushing over Justin Timberlake in his assessments of Thompson ("Can you smell the English leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of mature man's shaving cream, or whatever, you know, after he shaved?"), Romney ("perfect chin and hair"*), and Rudy Giuliani (apparently, he reminds him of "Daddy"). Meanwhile, the memes about John Edwards being a Breck Girl pretty boy who primps for the telly and bills his campaign for $400 haircuts are probably not helped by being on the cover of Men's Vogue — despite being posed like he smells like English leather and aqua velva, despite his "perfect chin and hair." Romney is presidential; Edwards is a pretty boy. Thompson is presidential; yet Edwards has spent a fraction of the time he's logged in hair and makeup.

This is an issue that will rear its head over and over and over again as the nomination approaches, because as Goodrich points out, it's not a new one at all:

If all the candidates received about equal amount of praise I might assume that the pundits are simply satisfying their audience's perceived need for some fluff commentary, in between the more serious (and perhaps boring) bits about platforms and policy proposals. But that theory fails when it becomes apparent that the Republican candidates appear to get a disproportionate share of praise... [M]aybe what we're observing here is yet another battle in the so-called "war of the sexes" -- another attempt to define the Republicans as the "Daddy Party" (strong and protective), as compared to the "weak" "Mommy Party" of the Democrats. Glenn Greenwald certainly thinks so, writing, "Republicans have long tried to exploit masculinity images and depict Democrats and liberals as effeminate and therefore weak. This is not new."

Not new at all, particularly against a backdrp of national security: Goodrich cites Jonah Goldberg's feminization of Bill "I Feel Your Pain" Clinton here and bluntly lays out the Republican national security equation ("[Clinton] talked of security not in the sense of blowing up terrorists but of leaving no children behind... It took 9/11 to remind George W. Bush why Republicans are called the Daddy Party"). It's that kind of equation that was used to turn John Kerry from war hero into an effete, Merlot-sipping windsurfer, and made George Bush look like a tough guy even though he served his time during Vietnam on home soil, far from actual combat.

HuffPo's Drew Weston and John Neffinger both note that being "presidential" means projecting "strength and warmth" — the "Mommy party" meme undercuts the strength part from the getgo, and the focus on Edwards' hair and Barack Obama's pop-idol status goes further to undermine it. Paradoxically, Romney's "perfect chin" is held up as a proxy for strength; Matthews compares it to a Mountie, i.e. a strong, square-jawed policeman. Meanwhile, Goodrich notes that Hillary Clinton is being undercut not on strength but on warmth, that it's her feminine qualities that are being called into question. So paradoxically, the absence or presence of feminine qualities is used to work against Democrats either way.

Goodrich rightly points out how susceptible Matthews is to these memes, and he's not alone: It's a pan-media thing, based on the entrenched nature of characterizations of Republicans and Democrats, both in terms of verbal and non-verbal associations (see here, where HuffPo's John Neffinger reminds us that, once upon a time, George Allen was a top Republican contender). It's in the emphasis on "authenticity" — an area that has dogged all of the Democratic frontrunners — Hillary Clinton (cold; calculating), John Edwards ("used car salesman," courtesy of wordsmith Frank Luntz), and Barack Obama (like a law professor; unemotional and unengaged; not "black enough"). Contrast that with Fred Thompson, who has an ad for his strength and authenticity running at all hours of every day in "Law & Order" reruns, each which show him weighing in decisively on every case, the top dog making the tough decisions, often looking weary (because he works so hard and cares so much!), but never waffly. It's easy to look decisive in a 90-second scene scripted by pithy writers; it's easier still when that image is reinforced again and again via the magic of reruns.

Goodrich (and Westen and Neffinger and everyone else) are smart to recognize this as it is, so we can use it in framing our assessment of how the media frames the candidates and where the double-standards are lurking (on both sides of the dial/aisle). As the campaign unfolds and the messages get spawned and spread not only from campaigns (and counter-campaigns) but from diffuse grassroots sources via YouTube and everything else, it will be instructive to remember that these memes are out there, too, affecting how candidates are perceived — and reported on.

The Man-Crush Primary [American Prospect]
Without Irony, 'Rural' Working Man John Edwards On Cover of Trendy, Upscale 'Men's Vogue'[NewsBusters]

Drew Weston: Winning Hearts & Minds [HuffPo]
John Neffinger: Democrats vs. Science

Sorta Jaw-Dropping:
Chris Matthews Gushing About Fred Thompson on Hardball [Crooks & Liars]

*Though apparently Matthews equates "presidential" with "looking like a Canadian."