Rob Okun

(WOMENSENEWS)–In the waning days of the presidential campaign, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are the leads in a gripping national drama about masculinity.

McCain has replaced George Bush as the standard bearer for conventional manhood: stubborn, controlling, shoot-from-the-hip, inflexible. John Wayne would be proud of his performance, from his sneering, angry attacks on Obama’s character (labeling him either a Marxist or a socialist who is the enemy of every Joe the Plumber in the country) to his Marlboro Man response over the perilous financial calamity (blustering that he was single-handedly “suspending” his campaign to rush back to Washington to handle the economic crisis).

But while his handlers spin this behavior as a sign of decisive, manly leadership his following has fractured to the point where former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a loyal Republican and retired general who has become increasingly disenchanted with the Bush administration, crossed party lines to endorse Obama.

Despite McCain throwing the kitchen sink–and the “toilet”–at Obama, the Arizona senator’s attempts to tear his opponent down rather than build up his own candidacy have to my mind failed to gain traction. Apparently none of the pollsters has asked about McCain’s bullying tactics, but I suspect that could explain his weaker polling data since presidential races are notoriously decided by voters’ gut feelings about a particular candidate more than anything else.

While certainly no cross dresser–and with a $150,000 GOP-financed power wardrobe to prove it–Gov. Sarah Palin, meanwhile, is behaving in a way that would make that symbol of unalloyed masculinity, the late Charlton Heston, proud. The man who played Moses in “The Ten Commandments” and one-time president of the National Rifle Association would no doubt have appreciated Palin–a lifetime member of the NRA–as a take-no-prisoners new-generation Republican pit bull for slamming Obama’s “palling around” with “domestic terrorist Bill Ayres” and with Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia University professor sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians.

A New Male Paradigm

Obama offers quite a contrast. In scores of newspaper endorsements, editors have described him as sensitive, thoughtful, composed and collaborative. All this reflects a new brand of masculinity. Obama’s gains in the polls as the economic situation worsens suggest voters prefer his “let’s stay calm” approach to the financial crisis than the McCain-Palin fear-mongering attempts to frighten voters with charges the Illinois senator is a closet socialist who wants “to spread the wealth around.”

While “It’s the masculinity, stupid” never became a campaign slogan, manhood is a campaign subtext.

Consider how a less strident brand of American masculinity as practiced by an Obama-Biden administration might polish our tarnished reputation internationally. Remember the reception Obama received to his stirring speech in Berlin in August when he sounded themes of collaboration and reconciliation internationally?

Obama has resisted supporters’ calls to find his “killer instinct” and “go for the jugular.” They miss the point. The way I read him, Obama really does want to do things differently. He seems to understand that old-school manhood–marked by suspicion and isolation–translates into old-style politics and visa versa. Trust and collaboration, by contrast, seem the hallmarks of the Obama style.

Family Man Image

Hillary Clinton may not be part of the Democratic ticket but as the role of gender as a force in the campaign has unfolded, she and her legions of female supporters may have helped make the political culture more receptive to “kinder, gentler” expressions of masculinity. Rather than emphasize the tough-talking aspects of their leadership style, both Obama and Sen. Joe Biden have let voters see them as fathers and family men in ways that to me, as a father and family man, ring true.

Palin, by contrast, the only woman in the race, has been offering a snarly, aggressive style that doesn’t seem to be winning too many admirers. Even the Anchorage Daily News, her state’s largest newspaper, endorsed the Obama-Biden ticket over McCain-Palin.

Those who seem to get the biggest kick out of her candidacy are comedian Tina Fey and her writers at “Saturday Night Live,” who have described her as Dick Cheney in a dress.

Like Obama, Biden offers quite a contrast to old-style masculinity. In an exchange I had with him in September, he told me the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 is the accomplishment of which he’s most proud. Yes, he can be fiery and talk tough. But remember that emotional moment at his debate against Palin? In case you’ve forgotten, the Delaware senator choked up while recalling his life as a single father 35 years ago in the aftermath of an automobile accident that killed his wife and baby daughter and also seriously injured his two young sons.

Tears No Longer a Weakness

There was a time–think about the teary Sen. Edmund Muskie in New Hampshire 40 years ago–when a display of such feeling from a man was seen as a game-changing moment of weakness. Biden’s moment only made him seem more human and, when commented on at all, elicited positive responses, a phenomenon cited by cable news television commentators. Clearly, ideas about manhood are changing.

It’s about time.

All of the vital issues facing the nation–from civil liberties to global warming, from finding a way out of the financial morass to ending two wars–have been directly impacted these past eight years by the old-style masculinity practiced by George W. Bush and many of the senior members of his administration. We have to be willing to admit our mistakes and our weaknesses–not a stance most men are willing to take easily–if we are really going to do something about the threat of terrorism, a biosphere threatened by the burning of fossil fuels, and housing and health-care crises so far ignored these last eight years.

The now laughable image of George “Mission Accomplished” W. triumphantly striding in his flight suit across the aircraft carrier deck may be one McCain longs to reprise, but it is the polar opposite of the brand of manhood Obama and Biden are symbolizing.

Women have long asked the question: “Is it possible for more men to grow and change?” For them, and for all voters, this campaign season offers a simple, clear answer: “Yes, we can.”

Rob Okun is editor of Voice Male magazine. For more than 20 years his commentaries and op-eds on the social transformation of masculinity have been printed in a variety of newspapers and magazines, broadcast on public radio and appeared in online publications. His essay, “Confessions of Premature Profeminist” appears in “Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power” (Routledge, 2008). He lives in Amherst, Mass., where he maintains a private counseling practice. He can be reached at

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