WASHINGTON -- John Kerry is going to announce his candidacy for the presidency next week (who knew?) standing in front of an aircraft carrier.
That's a relief. If he had used the usual town square or high school gym backdrop, what would we have thought about his manliness?
Dropping his heroic military service into almost every speech has not been enough, nor has mounting his Harley in a bomber jacket whenever a TV camera's near.
Three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star in Vietnam should trump one lackadaisical Texas National Guard record, but we live in an age when "reality" is defined by ratings. So the issue is illusion: can Senator Kerry match President Bush's ability to appropriate an aircraft carrier as a political prop?
Mr. Kerry, a Boston Democrat, had thought about announcing in front of a warship, wrote The Boston Globe's Glen Johnson, but felt the need for something bigger, to stage a more chesty confrontation with Mr. Bush.
Even though his "Mission Accomplished" backdrop turned out to be woefully premature, W.'s "Top Gun" moment is immortalized with an action figure in a flight suit and the leg-hugging harness that made Republican women's hearts go boom-boom.
In presidential races, voters look for the fatherly protector. In the 90's, contenders showed softer sides, crying, wearing earth tones, confessing to family therapy.
But 9/11 and the wars that followed have made pols reluctant to reveal feminine sides. Howard Dean struts and attacks like a bantam, and wonky Bob Graham paid half a mil to plaster his name on a Nascar truck.
Out-he-manning the cowboy-in-chief, Arnold Schwarzenegger strides into the arena in a cloud of cordite, cigar smoke, Hummer fumes and heavier bicep reps.
Spike TV, the first men's channel, offers "Baywatch," a Pamela Anderson cartoon called "Stripperella," "The A-Team," "American Gladiators," "Car and Driver" and "Trucks!"
Conservatives want to co-opt all this free-floating testosterone and copyright the bravery shown on 9/11. They disparage liberals as people who scorn "traditional" male traits and sanction gay romance.
The cover of the American Enterprise Institute's magazine bellows: "Real Men: They're Back."
A round-table discussion by conservative women produced the usual slavering over W. in his flight suit and Rummy in his gray suit.
"In George W. Bush, people see a contained, channeled virility," said Erica Walter, identified as "an at-home mom and Catholic writer." "They see a man who does what he says, whose every speech and act is not calculated."
Yeah. Nothing calculated about a president's delaying the troops from getting home and renting stadium lights so he can play dress up and make a movie-star landing on an aircraft carrier gussied up by his image wizards, at a cost of a mil.
Kate O'Beirne of The National Review gushes: "When I heard that he grew up jumping rope with the girls in his neighborhood, I knew everything I needed to know about Bill Clinton. . . . Bill Clinton couldn't credibly wear jogging shorts, and look at George Bush in that flight suit."
On the men's round-table, David Gutmann, a professor emeritus of psychology at Northwestern, notes that Mr. Bush "bears important masculine stigmata: he is a Texan, he is not afraid of war, and he sticks to his guns in the face of a worldwide storm of criticism."
Stigmata, schtigmata. Shouldn't real men be able to control their puppets? The Bush team could not even get Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraq Governing Council to condemn the U.N. bombing or feign putting an Iraqi face on the occupation. The puppets refused because they didn't want to be seen as puppets.
Shouldn't real men be able to admit they made a mistake and need help? Rummy & Co. bullied the U.N. and treated the allies like doormats before the war, thinking they could do everything themselves, thanks to the phony optimistic intelligence fed to them by the puppet Chalabi. No wonder they're meeting with a cold response as they slink back.
Shouldn't real men be reducing the number of Middle East terrorists rather than increasing them faster than dragon's teeth?
Could the real men please find some real men?
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company