National Post

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Thursday, November 04, 1999

What does a feminist want in a man?
Al Gore sheds his 'new man' image to become alpha male
Mark Steyn
National Post



An illustration of a man having his face done over by a woman.

'A key element of our adherence to the treaty," said Edward M. Kennedy during the U.S. Senate's debate on the nuclear test ban, "is the Stockpile Stewardess Program."

Wow. Ted's got a Stockpile Stewardess Program? He's taking this Y2K thing seriously. At first, I assumed I'd misheard. But the longtime senator from Massachusetts mentioned the "Stockpile Stewardess Program" a second time, before concluding with yet a third plug: "With the Stockpile Stewardess Program, we will still be able to maintain a powerful nuclear deterrent."

Clearly, there'd been some arms control developments that had slipped my notice. Unlike Ted, I wasn't on top of the Stewardess Stockpile. Aside from the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), was there also an ICBCTWTT (InterContinental Ballistic CockTail Waitress Testing Treaty) to prevent Russia and the West lobbing Syndi and DeeDee at each other in a strategy of MAD (Mutually Assured Distraction)? Was Moscow demanding verifiable bilateral reductions in the two-drink minimum?

But at this point Ted's staffers got to work. The three references to "Stockpile Stewardess Program" were expunged from the official congressional record and replaced with the program he was supposed to be commending: the Stockpile Stewardship Program. No doubt his aides were quietly relieved the senator hadn't spoken out on behalf of the Comprehensive Breast Tan Treaty. Still, we all know where Ted stands on the issue: He's in favour of arms control and, as a guy whose arms could use controlling, he knows whereof he speaks.

I thought of Senator Kennedy and his stewardesses again when it emerged that Al Gore has been diagnosed as "a 'beta male' who needs to take on the 'alpha male' in the Oval Office before the public will see him as the top dog" -- or so feminist writer Naomi Wolf advised the poor chap. An "alpha male" is a dominant man, a take-charge guy, the Leader Of The Pack, as the Shangri-Las sagely observed in their 1963 Billboard No. One hit platter.

Al Gore said: You're right, baby, I need to be a take-charge guy. So he hired Naomi to take charge of him and turn him into an alpha male, in return for which he'd pay her $180,000 (US) year. Al's salary is $175,000 (US) a year. One could argue that the first sign of a top dog is that he doesn't pay some broad more than he's getting himself to tell him how to be a man. On the other hand, what kind of a feminist takes money from a wimpy sensitive new man to turn him into a domineering male?

The first fruits of Naomi's macho makeover were in evidence at the Gore/Bradley debate at Dartmouth College. The vice-president had swapped his navy suit and white shirt for a tan/olive combo. This seems odd advice coming from a gal who made her name with a book decrying the way women prostrated themselves before the ludicrous strictures of an oppressive fashion industry (The Beauty Myth). But, according to Naomi, "earth tones" say natural, vigorous, raw, untamed. I asked one of my neighbours -- a natural, vigorous, raw, untamed logger -- what the new-look Gore said to him. "He looks like a fag," he said.

Speaking of fags, it was Cole Porter who neatly articulated the differing approaches to manhood:

"Find Me A Primitive Man

Someone with vigour and vim

I don't mean the kind that belongs to a club

But the kind that has a club that belongs to him."

Although he was very much the kind that belongs to a club, Porter's own taste in men tended toward the latter half of the couplet and many's the night you could find him trawling the docks for rough trade. For their part, though, feminists have taken a disapproving view of such specimens: Instead, they've trumpeted the virtues of the "new man" and no politician has done his best to project himself as their living embodiment than Al Gore. He cares about the environment and global warming and all the other wussy issues. Like feminists, he believes "the personal is political" and is forever touting as the basis for public policy some hapless stricken relative -- his son, injured in a car accident; his chainsmoking sister, dead from lung cancer; his blind aunt. He supports a woman's right to choose. Unfortunately, most women have chosen not to support him. Hey, that's what you get from listening to these dames in the first place.

You have to feel sorry for the gals: It's all very well saying how much you want a "new man" when he's a strictly theoretical concept. But, when he turns out to be Al Gore, you can't blame them for back-pedalling. Look at the standard plot of today's chick flicks: Having been abandoned by a smug self-absorbed professional suit -- lawyer, investment banker, etc -- the leading lady can only be revived by a rough-hewn horny-handed son of toil. Well, not too rough-hewn, but certainly horny. Think Harry Connick Jr. opposite Sandra Bullock in Hope Floats. Harry played a guy called Justin Matisse and, if that sounds an unlikely name for a small-town carpenter, well, that's just movie shorthand for: Jus' 'cause he drives a truck doesn't mean he isn't sensitive.

"You smell good, Jus," says the heroine's matchmaking mom. "You wearin' cologne?"

"No," he says. "That's paint thinner mixed in with a little sweat." The point about men who work with their hands is that they have an instinctive sense of the rhythms of life. "Feel this," he tells Sandra Bullock, showing her the house he's building just out of town. "It's tongue-and-groove."

As the film critic of Contractors' Monthly would be the first to point out, you'd be ill-advised to trust the construction of your home to a guy who installs the wainscotting before he's put the roof on, as Harry Connick does. But what do women care about such things? Show 'em a man who knows how to split pine and they pine to split with him. Of course, in the movies, underneath the plaid, the guys turn out to know a little poetry and how to whip up something in the kitchen involving a curly endive. It's a combination deal: an old man with a new man veneer, or vice versa. This is what Al Gore's aiming for in his makeover: a Bill Clinton alpha male in Naomi Wolf's olive wardrobe; a wolf in Wolf's clothing.

The trouble is it's hard to translate sexual politics into real politics: Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and we all know which planet's best. So, in the '96 election, Bill Clinton cunningly set up his opponent -- the stiff, taciturn World War II veteran Bob Dole. A fat lot of good getting blown up in Italy did the poor schmuck. In 1996, Dole was from Mars, Clinton was from Venus: Clinton felt your pain, Dole had too much pain of his own to feel. Unfortunately, having imposed the Martian-Venusian model on U.S. politics, President Clinton forgot that his own uptight policy-wonk running-mate didn't fit either category: Dole is from Mars, Clinton is from Venus, Gore is from Uranus.

As we know, Bill Clinton wasn't quite as Venusian as he appeared. He turned out to have his dark Martian side -- he feels your pain and he feels your breasts; he believes in nuclear disarmament but he likes to stockpile a few stewardesses on the side; he's not only the kind that belongs to a club (the National Organization of Women), he's also the kind that has a club that belongs to him ("you might want to put some ice on that"). And the feminists love it! If the new alpha male were Harry Connick Jr., terrific. But, if he's Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy, that'll do nicely. After all, Ted, whose well-exercised droit de seigneur has had famously catastrophic consequences, is still a widely admired progressive on women's issues. In this respect feminists seem to have reached the same accommodation with the new man's old weaknesses as those Victorian ladies who turned a blind eye to their husbands' whoring: They'll overlook their private failings as long as the chaps maintain a public facade -- say all the right things about abortion, back anti-stalking laws, and so on. Ted's the all-time great new alpha male. Stockpiling stewardesses? Just ask that trolly dolly who had to be rescued from the washroom by fellow passengers from the senator's attempt to conscript her into the mile-high club. As the slogan on the Chappaquiddick tow truck put it: "You wreck 'em! We fetch 'em!"

Can Al Gore be turned into a feminist pin-up like Bill and Ted? Doubtful. He's a good father, loyal husband, devoted family man. Maybe Ms. Wolf can pull it off, but I doubt it. On the evidence of his awkward Naomi makeover, the vice-president still hasn't got the hang of it: This time round, Bush is from Pluto, Gore is from Goofy.

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