By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Just for today, shall we get real about Presidents and what they are like down deep inside?
Not their complexes nor their childhood myths, but a close look at some to see if he was "a man's man" or "a woman's man." The case of President Obama I'll leave for last. This is something historians often overlook in their biographies--with the notable exception of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Robert's father captured in motion John F. Kennedy's rather ruthless elegance and brilliant irony, accompanied by a charm that worked all the time, round the clock, on men and women.
But was JFK a man's man or a woman's man? All his alleged conquests suggest a Byronic hero irresistible to women. All right, that he was. But doubtless, he was a quintessential "man's man." Simply put, Kennedy admired a handful of women, but reserved most of his respect and gamesmanship for dazzling other men--be they military or members of the press or other politicians. He spent his life in male institutions for the governing class--from prep school onward to Harvard and the Navy, where he was an officer and war hero. Congress was a gentleman's club in his day. His competitive zeal was stoked by his closest family relationships: with his father, his older brother Joseph Jr. and his younger brother Robert. In fact, JFK's manic, seductive ways with women were really aimed at impressing other men. Most were not great affairs of the heart, safe to say.
Let's take another one for Presidents Day--George Washington is elementary, a case study of a man's man. A surveyor, a planter, a head of state, a benevolent slave owner compared to other early presidents, George Washington beautifully played the role of the general on horseback, up to the powdered hair and down to the boot polish. Yet he was light on his feet on a dance floor. His formal poise and manners were pleasing, again, to men and women alike as Americans struggled to forge a republic. Given that Washington spent virtually all his life in the company of other boys and men--with a mother he had little use for, a sweet wife who completely deferred to him and no daughter to ever open a window into the female viewpoint--his exceedingly masculine world made him once and always a "man's man," the original strong silent type.
Pick a president, any president, actually. The answer will almost always be that he was a man's man. Theodore Roosevelt, rather frail as a child, compensated by becoming a big game hunter, an explorer, a warrior and, as president, a great booster of building up the nation's navy. He too went to Harvard, an all-male elite domain. His exuberance and love for his fellow man extended to his wives (two), daughters and Roosevelt relatives--one a shy girl named Eleanor. You have to love Teddy, a rugged man's man in the White House in every way, some two centuries after George Washington died in 1799.
The run of former Civil War generals who became president would not fill a room full of women with gladness. The logic couldn't be clearer: the President has to be the strongest male member of the tribe. In the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson was a man's man, who refused to unbend on woman suffrage even as women stormed the White House gates and held vigils there. He thought they weren't being ladylike, a virtue he approved of in his (two) wives and three daughters. Harry S Truman, a self-educated man from Missouri, was more complex than he looked. But he spent his spare time with men, playing poker or reading Roman history. In his private life, much like Wilson's, Truman adored his wife and daughter as the only female characters in his life--along with a small-town schoolteacher when he was young. Eisenhower we don't even have to discuss.
Then there's the fascinating enigma of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had deep ties to his mother. He appointed the eminently capable Frances Perkins to his Cabinet during the Depression--as Secretary of Labor. This was no ordinary time, and that was no token appointment. He also married an extraordinary woman, Eleanor, and had two documented love affairs outside of his marriage. Of all our presidents, he comes closes to duality--he was one, yet the other. The ebullient Franklin relished the company of both men and women, from Winston Churchill to the widowed nurse in Wisconsin who was raising four children. Both men and women felt he understood and appreciated them. And he did.
Now we come to the outstanding example of a "woman's man" - one of the only - the master of emoting, William Jefferson Clinton. This president was born to a widowed mother who became a nurse, married an extraordinary woman and is exceptionally close to his one child, daughter Chelsea. He also made meaningful appointments, like FDR's: Donna Shalala to the Cabinet as Health and Human Services Secretary and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. The first bill Bill Clinton signed into law was the Family and Medical Leave Act, which benefited my whole generation of women who took maternity leave off from work. If you wonder why he survived the impeachment inquisition, consider the groundswell of American woman who stood by him because we felt he gave a damn about us. Disappointed and upset, still we were not going to let mass hysteria run him out of town.
Let's contrast Clinton with Barack Obama--both raised largely by exceptional mothers. Michelle Obama is no shrinking violet, and the president obviously delights in his wife and their two spirited girls. Yet the first lady is not expanding her traditional role, though; she is playing by the old rules. Obama also seeks the counsel of Valerie Jarrett, a friend almost like family. Yet at the end of the day he's a guy's guy. This is something one just feels from reading his books, analyzing his closest circle of advisers, noticing that basketball and beer are two symbolic signatures so far of an administration preoccupied by Wall Street and prosecuting war in Afghanistan. Obama cherishes the memory of his mother and grandmother "Toot," a practical Kansas woman. He wrote nuanced portraits of each in "Dreams from My Father." Yet there's little heartfelt empathy for women n his public words. He keeps his this part of himself to himself, hidden in a compartment. He likes being the smartest guy in the tribe, in the Oval Office, on Air Force One--all vehemently male bastions. He's closer to FDR's middle ground than most presidents, with effortless charm that plays both ways. But he validates (at least after a year) as a man's man.
To be sure, Obama is a cooler customer than Clinton--and a lot of people approve of that character trait. But I miss Clinton's warm-blooded temperament after eight dark years of a brutal caricature of manhood in the White House. Hey, the best American president in my lifetime (since JFK) was the only "woman's man" in the line-up. Could that be sheer coincidence? I think not.