Remember when he would hold press conferences and the reporters would giggle like schoolgirls at his every utterance? Pentagon briefings were so much fun in those days.
"Everyone is genuflecting before the Pentagon powerhouse," noted Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz (12/13/01). Since the war in Afghanistan started, Kurtz observed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was "getting better press than Rudy Giuliani." Rumsfeld, Kurtz wrote, was "America's new rock star."
Why do so many journalists revere Rumsfeld? His "rough-hewn charm and no-nonsense demeanor" are part of it, says Kurtz. And dozens of other journalists concur, often citing his "candor" and describing him as "plain-spoken" and a "straight-shooter." Journalists' comments about Rumsfeld range from the flattering to the obsequious to the downright bizarre.
"Sixty-nine years old, and you're America's stud," Tim Russert told Rumsfeld when he interviewed him on NBC's Meet the Press (1/20/02); Larry King informed him that "you now have this new image called sex symbol" (CNN's Larry King Live, 12/06/01). Fox News' Jim Angle (12/11/01) called him "a babe magnet for the 70-year-old set."
"I love you, Donald," Margaret Carlson announced on CNN's Capital Gang (12/23/01), where the Time magazine columnist appears regularly in the role of left-of-center pundit. Carlson's Time magazine colleague, veteran defense correspondent Mark Thompson, told the Chicago Tribune (10/22/01), "Although he has not told us very much, he has been like a father figure."
While the father-figure angle might be better left to a psychoanalyst, Thompson is on to something when he says that the "straight-shooter" doesn't actually tell reporters very much--and what he does say is often contradictory. Invoking the "fog of war" to explain why he could provide no information about Afghan civilian casualties, Rumsfeld told a Pentagon press briefing in early December (Washington Post, 12/5/01), "With the disorder that reigns in Afghanistan, it is next to impossible to get factual information about civilian casualties."
Men are likely to say they admire the way he knows his mind and talks tough or straight, or the way he managed so deftly to keep the press in its place, or, in the more general terms, what he has done and is doing for the country. Women, on the other hand tend to express their feelings about him less specifically, saying that they find him to be a particularly attractive combination of good-looking and smart and sexy. Both descriptions, however, can basically be summed up in a word that has for a considerable period of time been deprived of public legitimacy.
The word is manliness.
... [B]y the time he departed the White House there were few women and even fewer men who would with any sincerity have awarded Clinton the status of sex-hero, let alone --- O happy invention! --- "studmuffin." That designation would have to await the arrival of a high-achieving, clear-headed, earnest, no-nonsense, Midwestern family man nearly seventy years old. The times, in other words, they were a-changin'.
ROLLINS: What is your definition of virility? Does it have a role in political leadership?
WALTER: It’s a nebulous quality for a political leader. Bill Clinton was virile—in a very sleazy way. There’s also the sex appeal of someone like Don Rumsfeld. President Bush possesses this intangible something—you really saw it on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Testosterone and camaraderie—many people responded to it. In George W. Bush, people see a contained, channeled virility. They see a man who does what he says, whose every speech and act is not calculated. Bill Clinton showed a lot of outward empathy and he was very articulate but I don’t think many of us would have trusted him with our daughters.
GAVORA: If virility equates with strength, then there is no question that Bill Clinton lacked it completely. Bush has shown that he has it. His willingness to go after terrorism root and branch despite the widespread opposition among our European allies and even some at home, and to withstand that pressure, is strength. Bill Clinton made surface gestures. He refused to go against the media, popular opinion, the pinstriped boys at the State Department, because he lacked that strength.
HAYS: The most masculine man I ever knew was my grandfather, who supported seven children and never failed to stand when a woman came into the room. Bill Clinton is virile, but he’s not masculine or mature. He never became a grown man.
O’BEIRNE: 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. There’s no contest between Clinton and Bush on masculinity. Bill Clinton couldn’t credibly wear jogging shorts, and look at George Bush in that flight suit.
ROLLINS: But why do so many American women love Bill Clinton?
SCHAEFER: You can learn a lot jumping rope with girls. It won’t make you sexually attractive, but it will make you a more effective, patient listener.
O’BEIRNE: Bill Clinton did understand, from the matriarchy he grew up in, how to appeal to women in that modern way.
HAYS: Clinton could feel your pain like one of your girlfriends. But he could never make a decision like Bush has had to make. He would still be trying to negotiate with the terrorists. The use of force, which until recently was passé, has come back. Clinton couldn’t use force except in a motel room.