October 10, 1992
THE 1992 CAMPAIGN: Political Memo

Of Knights and Presidents: Race of Mythic Proportions

Bill Clinton goes for a morning jog on the Mall in Washington, in this May 21, 1993 photo.
(AP Photo/Doug Mills)
By MAUREEN DOWD, Special to The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Oct. 9 - The candidates are rehearsing talking points on everything from Arkansas fowl to the spotted owl. But it is an edgy time for the men who will meet in St. Louis on Sunday night, because they know that they cannot fully prepare for the most important, least tangible dimension of Presidential debates.

On the surface, Presidential campaigns are a din of competing issues and a display of contrasting styles. But there is also a subliminal battle, played out in rituals like debates and photo opportunities, in which the candidates strive to show that they are superior in the knightly virtues of temperance, loyalty and courage.

"There is an unconscious aspect in politics, where we are looking for a hero who will turn out to be a father figure for the country," said Alan Dundes, a folklorist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Robin Lakeoff, a professor of linguistics at Berkeley, said that while Americans like to think of themselves as logical beings who make decisions on a rational basis, it is not that simple.

"We act modern, cool and sophisticated," Dr. Lakeoff said. "But underneath, we want a daddy, a king, a god, a hero. We'll take the heel if we can get Achilles, a champion who will carry that lance and that sword into the field and fight for us. We're not as rational as we think. It's sort of scary."

Western culture is rooted in millennia of hero legends, from Prometheus stealing fire from the gods for mankind's benefit, to Jason getting past the dragon to bring back the Golden Fleece, to young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone to be King. On top of ancient myths, American culture has overlaid legends of frontier life, cowboy justice and cops and robbers. Hollywood has been spinning heroic sagas for decades, from the westerns of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to the "Star Wars" trilogy to "Robin Hood" and the latest fall movies, "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Hero."

Elections, like myths, are about seasons of renewal and how a culture expresses itself through its choice of leaders. Mr. Dundes observed that America began in the manner of a classic hero legend: A young hero (George Washington) led a rebellion against the cruel old king and parent (England) and became the father of the country himself.

The arc of a political campaign traces the standard pattern of mythological adventure, as described by Joseph Campbell, in "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" (Princeton University Press, 1949): "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

Candidates and Their Dragons

One important campaign ritual comes when the candidate assures the voters that he has completed the "hero-task," as it is called by myth experts, that he has slain the dragon or the giant.

President Bush offers a traditional conquest: He fought the enemy as a pilot in World War II. Ross Perot left the Navy in persnickety disgust, but he can promote his "On Wings of Eagles" exploit arranging the rescue of employees from prison in Iran.

A new generation of leaders who did not go to war, men like Bill Clinton and Dan Quayle, have had to conjure up other slain Gorgons or Hydras from their past. The Arkansas Governor has dramatized his account of the moment when, as a teen-ager, he stood up to an alcoholic stepfather, telling him not to hit his mother again. The Vice President has said that his character was tested when he survived the wild beast of politics -- the traveling press corps -- in the 1988 campaign.

Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton feel vulnerable on the critical issue of valor, and perhaps this is why, even more than usual, the air has been filled with macho taunts. Mr. Clinton has suggested that Mr. Bush lacks moral courage and Mr. Bush has contended that Mr. Clinton maneuvered his way out of serving in Vietnam and was an anti-war activist around the world while "poor kids, drafted out of the ghettos, were dying in a far-away land."

Mr. Clinton challenged Mr. Bush to face him "man to man" in debates and sent supporters dressed as chickens to mock the President. Mr. Bush asked each fowl if it was "the draft-record chicken." When the Bush campaign suggested that Hillary Clinton was too strong, a classic ploy to suggest that Mr. Clinton is weak, Mr. Clinton riposted by painting Mr. Bush as feminine, asking whether he was running for President or First Lady.

The diminutive Ross Perot talks more like Goliath than David, accusing female reporters of trying to prove their manhood by asking tough questions and summing up his campaign this way in his half-hour television advertisement this week: "Y'all understand sports? You got to be the best."

It is so important for the President to prove himself the more valorous that the Bush campaign is willing to keep tearing at the painfully reopened scars of the Vietnam war -- after polls have indicated that the American public wants to move away from the issue. Folklorists note that the stress on this generational division enhances the epic imagery of a battle between a son and a father in a land scarred by blight: the young man, raised by a foster parent, who arrives from the outlands and challenges the old king, who insists his time has not passed.

Tests of manliness are an extremely sensitive matter with Mr. Bush, who was coached in 1988 by his media adviser, Roger Ailes, on less flitting hand gestures. His short list of enemies is topped by critics who have made cracks about his manhood to convey disdain for his lack of political spine: the cartoonist Garry Trudeau and the columnist George Will.

Verbal Jousting

Debates offer a modern echo of single combat, once waged with slingshots and swords in jousting and wrestling matches. "They are the ultimate test of manhood," said Sheila Tate, a Washington public relations executive who was a campaign aide to George Bush in 1988. The tension in debates comes not from palavering on positions but from the prospect that one candidate might be able to unseat the other with a bold stroke.

At a 1980 debate in New Hampshire, when the organizers threatened to turn off the sound system as George Bush protested Ronald Reagan's opening the event to other candidates, Mr. Reagan, who was once described by an aide as having the demeanor of "an ancient king," borrowed a line from Spencer Tracy in the movie "State of the Union." "I paid for this microphone," he said, instantly making Mr. Bush look smaller and more pinched.

In his 1988 debate with Mr. Bush, Michael S. Dukakis bombed when he offered a robotic response when asked if he would favor the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife, Kitty. Hero-kings do not see tragedy from a legalistic point of view.

The reason there are always such tortuous negotiations between the two camps about whether the candidates will be standing or sitting, and how big and how far apart the lecterns will be, is that strategists understand that Americans, despite their cynicism, still long for a President who looks heroic. In election after election, voters respond better to candidates who are tall, handsome and male. As Mr. Dundes puts it: "There is very little place for women in the hero pattern. The underlying psychology of elections is about sports and war, where women were not welcome."

Wendy Sherman, a Democratic consultant, said that women respond to archetypes as much as men do. "We were all brought up to believe that Prince Charming would come on a horse and make our life all right," she said.

Television interviews can also be used to simulate single combat. Mr. Bush's advisers, desperately trying to help him shed the wimp image in 1988, were giddy after Mr. Bush used the occasion of a testy interview with Dan Rather to issue a premeditated insult about the time Mr. Rather walked off the "CBS Evening News" for several minutes, leaving the screen black.

Since 1988, men who would be President have been expected to show more vulnerability and sensitivity. And this year, the electorate is clearly in the mood for some nurturing on the domestic front. But strategists agree that while male candidates can now cry and talk about problems, they still must wage the epic battle to try to prove that they are stronger, healthier and more gutsy.

Above all, candidates must not let their opponents paint them as weak or wimpy or chicken or feminine or overly cerebral. Adlai Stevenson and Michael Dukakis both got into trouble when their opponents tagged them as eggheads.

"Any good advance man automatically looks for virile, macho settings for the candidate," said Michael McCurry, an adviser to the Clinton campaign. "Of course, that didn't work when Michael Dukakis drove the tank."

Michael Deaver, a top Reagan aide, said he arranged to light the top of Mr. Reagan's head at public appearances to give his chestnut mane a soft, halo effect, and he told the former actor to stand as much as possible to show off his broad shoulders.

Although candidates are always trying to show off Spartan athletic valor by tossing footballs around -- usually badly -- and carting reporters off to watch them play basketball or golf or swim or hunt turkeys or wield axes, it can backfire. Mr. Clinton recently joined in a nighttime softball game in Glen Burnie, Md., hoping to beam images of inspiring vigor, and ended up in a huffing, lumbering run to first base that took so long the outfielder, the first baseman and the umpire all had to conspire to call him safe.

"On the manhood issue, Clinton has a problem besides the draft," said Lyn Nofziger, a portly former Reagan aide. "He's basically a fat boy. And he has my sympathy for that."

The pictures of Bill Clinton and Al Gore jogging have been so relentless that Jay Leno joked that when the two Democrats appeared this week on the Phil Donahue show, the topic was "Men who look bad in jogging shorts."