I remember the birth of charisma. One friend’s father, a Republican, got a blue Mustang with J.F.K. plates because they were his initials, too. A friend of my mother’s said she wouldn’t mind leaving her shoes under Kennedy’s bed, a comment that mystified me. Another friend’s dad rushed to the front door naked from the shower when he heard Kennedy was there.
The Presidential candidates this year are doing their best to kill that tradition. They’re repressed and proud of it. Al Gore tells us he’s a grandfather who asks himself what Jesus would do in a given situation. His famous makeover seems to involve rouge. Bill Bradley says that as a basketball player he never cried in victory or defeat, as if to say, Don’t worry, I have no passion . John McCain might have been sexy, but he calls himself a “geezer.” George W. Bush seems to be living at home. His father reminded women of their first husband, but George W. reminds them of the guy who date-raped them sophomore year.
All these men want you to know that they come from unbroken homes. They all seem happily resigned to the sexlessness of middle age, a defeat no one actually wants to accept.
Bill Clinton’s own family drama was desperate-he never met his father, wasn’t sure who his father was, was afraid of his drunken stepfather-and he had some awareness of this experience. Yes, Bill Clinton almost surely raped a woman, Juanita Broaddrick, but he is in touch with his emotional life, he understands the mess of family life.
The men who want to succeed him don’t like human mess. They wear Good Housekeeping seals of approval on their psychic life. “I’m not going to get into a debate with my father or voices who represent my father,” Governor Bush said when asked whether abortion-tolerant David Souter was a good appointment to the Supreme Court. It’s a question he ought to answer, and the response shows that he has little separation from his family.
The psychosexual rules of the campaign were laid down by the man whose background is closest to Mr. Clinton’s: Gary Bauer, son of an alcoholic janitor. In a New Hampshire debate, the religious Mr. Bauer said that what Monica Lewinsky did to Mr. Clinton that time he was on the phone to a member of Congress was a “disgusting act.”
What a country we live in, when politicians feel called upon to come out against blowjobs. For who in their heart is really against blowjobs? No one. (Think of it as a putty-colored hose, I heard my wife saying to a friend, trying to get her past some anxiety.) In Elvis’ wake, all the candidates are unsexy. I want to restore America to its moral roots by bringing back self-control, Alan Keyes says, wearing a black leather jacket but speaking a catechistic language that doesn’t belong in politics.
When they’re not talking about abortion, the Republicans all talk about abortion, which seems to be a stand-in for wild sex, dangerous sex. Mr. Keyes speaks in tongues on the subject: that the creator fashioned us in the secret places of the earth in the instant before the two cells joined. Sort of takes us animals out of the picture.
The only Republican who resists the antisex talk is Mr. McCain, the wisest of the bunch. Senator McCain knows that sex is fun and dangerous. You can see that in his face. He’s the only candidate who’s been divorced. But his sexuality seems latent. His memoir, Faith of My Fathers , never tells you about sex (When did he have it again-after five years of imprisonment? Everyone wants to know), and the book is so suffused with patriarchal piety that he doesn’t ever deal with the fact that his father seems to have forgotten about him when he was in prison.
When the journalists tried to drag Senator McCain down into a discussion of “Who would make the decision if your daughter was raped and got pregnant?” he was noble in resisting. It’s a hateful and invasive question, misogynist, perverse. Oh, of course it’s completely logical, too, but to ask it tramples the privacy of a child.
The idiotic question comes out of the same emotionally dead mindset that holds that a 6-year-old boy who has just watched his mother die will be happiest growing up with people he doesn’t know but who take him to McDonald’s and Seaworld all the time. Again, this is Mr. Clinton’s finest hour. He’s never shown so much sanity and leadership as he has in the Elián González case. He understands the mess of families. Let the boy find his father, let him have the stink of his father to grow up next to and push off from. Let him hate and love his father.
Governor Bush hasn’t got a clue about such things. He’s charming and stupid. The high points of his autobiography, A Charge to Keep , are that he wore what looked like a diaper to one costume party and that he cleaned up his life, at 40, after a visit to his father’s compound, where his father’s friend Billy Graham took him for a walk at a fatherly setting, Walker’s Point, and inseminated him. Planted “a seed” in him, the seed of faith in Jesus that allowed him later that year to put his demons behind him and stop drinking.
Being buggered by a father figure is a twisted dream. No wonder Governor Bush seems to seethe with anger. He says he doesn’t want an Oprah Winfrey, I-feel-your-pain kind of campaign. That sounds repressed and hostile, even racist.
The most serious candidate in the race, Steve Forbes, seems to have a real understanding of patricidal feelings. Mr. Forbes got written off by his dad. Malcolm made the ungainly boy stay home running the boring magazine while he went around the world in black leather Harley togs with Vuitton luggage over the back wheel. Malcolm brought all his children along except Steve, and dedicated the book he wrote about those travels, Around the World on Hot Air & Two Wheels, to his sons Bob and Tim. Steve goes unmentioned. Now the son has published his own book, New Birth of Freedom , that goes on and on about his grandfather but scratches Dad completely out of the picture. His father’s name isn’t mentioned, while Steve reminisces fondly about going on vacations out West with his mother. “My mom would pack up us kids in our family station wagon.”
Mr. Forbes has the emotional makeup of a true outsider. How else could a Princeton graduate say kind words about creationism? The other Princeton graduate doesn’t have that level of anger. It wasn’t till the last days in New Hampshire that you saw any passion in Mr. Bradley. At Phillips Exeter Academy on Sunday, Jan. 30, he gave a magnificent speech about the need for leaders to respect the people. He was funny, he made an emotional connection.
It was probably too late, and people will always wonder about his passivity. Alas, Bill won his Oedipal battle early on. He had to tie his disabled father’s shoes for him and never saw him drive or throw a ball. Did Mr. Bradley ever fight on the basketball court? Well, he held John Havlicek a few times. “Elbows were thrown,” he went on, passive voice. In his writings about basketball, Mr. Bradley all but stated that he so poured himself into basketball he didn’t masturbate from age 14 to 21. “I was immune to the normal profusion of interests that accompany adolescence,” he wrote. “I pressed my physical and emotional life into basketball alone, and it made for a very intense feeling.”
We know the President masturbates. Monica Lewinsky told Ken Starr, and Ken Starr was disturbed by that. Al Gore seems disturbed by it, too. He speaks of the Administration’s troubles as coming out of Mr. Clinton’s “personal mistake.” As if it were just the blowjob. During the last debate a questioner from WMUR-TV of Manchester, N.H., Tom Griffith, asked Vice President Gore whether he had any regrets over the Administration’s legacy of spinning the truth. Mr. Gore said, “Yes, people are tired about arguing over Bill Clinton’s personal mistake.”
Mr. Bradley should have killed him right then, should’ve said, “You’re spinning again, Al,” and put his finger on the reason he’s challenging the Vice President: because this Administration has shown complete contempt for the idea of accountability. But Mr. Bradley’s afraid to strike, afraid of Mr. Clinton. Mr. Gore won’t do it, either. He just plays at being alpha male. His makeover looks camp, like he stuffed socks in his underwear. He seems to have gotten his religion about masculinity from Naomi Wolf and the Bergdorf’s men’s store. It has to come from inside.
That leaves Donald Trump, who likes to screw and doesn’t mind telling you so. But he’s never imbibed alcohol, drugs or coffee, never, he says, and he washes his hands a lot and hates to shake anyone else’s. He can’t be very good in bed.
No, none of them seems the least bit dangerous. And when the danger goes, so does the charisma.