Oh yes, ideas, positions, theories and bedfellows do matter. But I’m not sure how many of us cast our vote on those hard matters. In today’s celebrity-minded, image-conscious, photo-everywhere world of who-needs-political-when-we-have-personal, our votes divide on whom we like, whose face we trust, whose smile warms the heart, who would we elect president of the senior class and who would we really wish to take to senior prom. Except for an incurable, no-need-to-poll-them hard core of issue-oriented, earnest wonks, most of us judge our candidates on how much we would or would not trust our bank accounts to the care of the person on the TV screen presenting us with his or her scrubbed children or his anecdotes of bravery in the armed forces. We are the ultimate judges in an up-from-hardship sweepstakes, or the my-kid-was-run-over-and-I-found-God contest for the most sincere smile. In other words, elections are about whom you like and whom you don’t.
I’ve been wondering why I don’t like Liddy Dole. A feminist of passionate sorts who longed as a girl for strong women to emulate, who sorrowed at the few of us in power, a believer in woman’s executive and mental excellence, why am I queasy over Mrs. Dole when at least I should applaud her gutsy entry onto the field where the big dollars and the big boys frolic? There she is, along with the handsome, well-connected men gulping down the elixir of unlimited dreams and spinning opinions into webs in which to catch ever-more-indifferent voters. In my heart of hearts, do I find leadership more palatable in a male or is it something else? Am I for a woman only if they run for vice president or vice chairperson?
This I also know. Mrs. Dole reminds me of the first woman who really scared the hell out of me: the Wicked Witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs . Disney’s animated version of Margaret Hamilton sent me right under my chair at the local Trans Lux and I refused to resurface until the final moment when the prince kissed the poisoned girl and all was well. I admit this is superficial. If she were blonde and spoke with a lisp, I wouldn’t have this most unfortunate association, but there it is.
There is another more amorphous reason why even stalwart Republicans, died-in-the-wool Dole lovers, cut-the-taxes, suffer-the-poor-to-suffer types are not jumping on the Dole bandwagon. Mrs. Dole is hard as nails, and something in her eyes remains cold as stone. Would I trust the future of my country to a woman I wouldn’t leave my grandchild with for an hour? If I were interviewing her for the job, let’s say of head of my former all-girls school, I wouldn’t let her reach the short list because something in her manner tells me she doesn’t like little girls or big ones or anyone very much. Something in her executive capacities, which are undoubtedly superior, tells me she doesn’t know what it’s like to wait for a phone call from someone you love or to wake in the dark and wonder if your nightmare was a sign of indigestion or a sign from God that your days are numbered. Mrs. Dole seems to lack a nuanced inner life, a cold fish, a hard-boiled operator, a woman who has warmed her hands by the fires of power but kept her heart in the refrigerator. Or so it seems, and seems is everything in politics.
Now I adore Bob Dole’s dourness. I don’t much like his political loyalties or his philosophy, but I look into his crooked smile and I know he knows that a game is being played. I know irony and rue, pain, regret and fierce ambition storm through his mind. I could love a man like Mr. Dole even though he’s a manipulator, a schemer, a dominator, a political con artist capable of spouting the most awful clichés when he’s called upon to do so. A kind of distance, intelligence and bitter humor graces his bent spirit.
His wife, on the other hand, is like a wax fruit. She is the reflection of the soulless America we may really be, but she won’t get the woman’s vote because the bell has tolled for knee-jerk feminism. You have to be more than gender female to win. And women in America don’t like a woman who is color-coordinated in her sleep.
Despite the progress made, there is still a major problem for all women in American politics. If they are tough, they are not likable. Remember Bella Abzug who came on like Al Capone and wouldn’t have made it through a primary if not for a peculiar brief hour of New York perversity. Did everyone ever complain about her! But if a woman is soft and inept, she wouldn’t be in politics. If she is too nice, she is dead at the gate. If she has borrowed power through marriage, no one respects her. Listen to the rant against Hillary. If she has power on her own, other women who don’t have power either distrust her or feel they must put her down in order to defend themselves. If she is really nurturing, she doesn’t come across as a potential Commander in Chief. If she seems like a Commander in Chief, she doesn’t seem likable and is therefore unelectable. If she is too sexual, she is threatening. If she is not sexual at all, she seems weird unless she is old enough to be everyone’s mother. But who wants a mother who isn’t at home waiting for us? We haven’t got this straight yet, and I admit that my responses to women candidates are just as confused as anybody else’s. If Hillary bakes cookies, I think she’s faking it. If she can’t bake cookies, I think she might not be a good person, or something like that. This quandary will endure until feminism has truly transformed us or until the second coming of Eleanor Roosevelt.
The politics of personality disfavors women and men with intelligence. Actors, charlatans, con men and simpletons have an advantage when it comes to popularity. They, like Forrest Gump, do fool most of the people most of the time.
Of course we shouldn’t be picking a candidate for his particular character. We should be picking him for his ideas. But we won’t. We’ll pick the person with the smile that convinces, the best rant on family values, the cleanest rap sheet, the best-looking children. We will avoid career women with agendas and men with wandering eyes, but what we’ll get once again is mediocrity, mendacity, cultural melanoma from all this hunting for the Sun King to take us back to Versailles, where the parties were really grand and the dazzle first-rate.