President’s Day: Commemorating America’s “Leading Men”

Obama Shoots Skeet at Camp David

White House photo: President Obama shoots skeet at Camp David

President’s Day seems like as good a day as any to reflect on the office of the presidency, and one of the most insightful reflections around is Jackson Katz’s new book about presidential masculinity. Katz is a longtime collaborator of ours here at MEF (Tough GuiseWrestling with ManhoodSpin the Bottle). And in Leading Men: Presidential Campaigns and the Politics of Manhood he takes a fascinating look at how “presidential campaigns have evolved into nothing less than a quadrennial referendum on competing versions of American manhood.”

Check out this piece about Leading Men produced by the BBC.


Here’s a sample from the Katz’s book about how the masculine theatrics of presidential politics extend to the actual bodies of presidential contenders:

If since the founding the president was supposed to embody qualities expected of successful men, the act of choosing a president is part of a cultural process whereby voters help to define those qualities. Think of politicians running for president as analogous to actors auditioning for a part.  The voters have the role of casting director.  They’re looking for a particular set of qualities, and they ultimately select the leading (man) they think is right for the part.  How they decide who is “right” for the part is the core subject of this book – especially how cultural definitions of manhood shape voters’ choices.

Of course one unavoidable reality in a culture where the presidency is a media spectacle is that presidential candidates’ physical characteristics such as height, weight, and presence or absence of hair are all factors that are central to their electability. It is not simply that “the tallest guy wins,” as many armchair pundits like to point out.  It is that our culture’s definition of manhood is inevitably shaped by surface impressions. Taller, conventional-looking, more athletically fit men are closer to the masculine ideal than other types of men. This fundamentally impacts our politics because it explicitly excludes women, who literally can’t “measure up” to cultural definitions of strength that equate it with masculine physical characteristics.  It also confers an unfair advantage to men with certain body-types, while discriminating against other types of men.  This process has been exacerbated due to the disproportionate impact media have on transmitting political information – and images.  Neil Postman argued over a quarter-century ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business that television has fundamentally altered how we assess presidential potential. Because television is a “conversation in images,” he wrote, “it is implausible to imagine that anyone like our twenty-seventh president, the multi-chinned, three-hundred pound William Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate in today’s world.”[i]

There are obvious 21st century analogs.  The issue of his obesity has dogged New Jersey Governor Chris Christie from the moment his Republican supporters started talking about him as presidential material.  Fat jokes are hardly passé in contemporary political discourse; HBO’s Bill Maher repeatedly makes fun of Christie’s weight, and has compared Christie’s lack of discipline around food to disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner’s inability to control his appetite for sexual exhibitionism on the internet.  And just as Christie’s girth might present a serious political obstacle on the national stage, it is similarly unlikely that a very short man could be elected president.  In 2011, before Indiana Republican Governor Mitch Daniels took himself out of the running for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, numerous commentators sheepishly mentioned his height as a political liability.  One political expert on the radio said euphemistically that one strike against Daniels was that he was “not tall” – something that was so self-evidently detrimental that the expert saw no reason to explain why it would be a political liability.

If, as the saying goes, Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, the analogy between politicians and movie stars extends further to how a president – like a movie star — channels the hopes, dreams and dark and light projections of millions of people. They are a vessel through which critical cultural narratives and tensions play out, including those around gender.  As modern feminism has shaken the old order and catalyzed dramatic changes in what is expected of both women and men, the office of the president has become either a source of stability and continuity with the old patriarchal ideal (for the right), or the vehicle for a new, more egalitarian and less authoritarian manhood (for the left).  One reason the country is so divided politically is that it is still playing out these larger cultural struggles sparked by feminism, gay liberation and other transformative social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the reaction to them in subsequent decades.”