Now that Wesley Clark has thrown his General’s cap into the Ringling Brothers Circus of Democratic Presidential aspirants, starry-eyed white males (including the self-anointed anti-stupid white male, Michael Moore) are abuzz. Not unlike the cheering section that has surrounded the California Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, these celebrity groupies hope that showy style can trump serious substance. Of course, in Clark’s defense his educational pedigree (first in his class at West Point and a Rhodes Scholar) suggests a man of some intellectual profundity, certainly plumbing depths that would give Arnold the bends. While seemingly opposites on gray and grave matters, Arnold and Wesley share a variety of positions and postures that reflect they are two sides of the same coin, a coin whose currency is confounded by a political con job of cultism and macho leadership.
To demonstrate their political correctness in the cultural wars, both men claim to be pro-choice and anti-gun. Of course, Arnold’s self-proclaimed feminist sensibility is massively contradicted by his misogynistic antics during his body-building era, from groping to grabbing to allegedly gang-banging. Trying to bury this blighted past with the rationalization that “boys will be boys” hardly constitutes a defense of indefensible and boorish behavior. For Wesley’s part as NATO commander of the war in the Balkans, his “boys with toys” past will also face legitimate concerns over his use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium shells against a civilian population. For men who claim some sensitivity to woman’s issues and gun violence they both seem steeped in machismo, whether of the muscle-bound or militaristic kind.
As far as their preparation for holding political office, both appear as unsullied saviors of a corrupt political process. Trying to position themselves above the mundane fray, their seeming lack of political involvement (including in Arnold’s case failing to vote in many elections) makes them prime candidates for political operatives (in Arnold’s case, former California Governor Wilson’s coterie of country-club Republicans and in Wesley’s case, the down-home Clinton opportunists) who cynically promote them as men of political integrity. Coming from Hollywood and the Pentagon, those paragons of principled practice, Arnold and Wesley obviously never conducted self-serving campaigns filled with the usual back-stabbing and one-upsmanship.
What does it say about an American electorate, or to be more precise, about the white male electorate, that Arnold and Wesley can become such instant political heroes? The infusion of celebrity and superficial images into politics owes much to a televisual society where surfaces are everything. In addition, white men, in particular, as social critics such as James William Gibson and Susan Faludi contend, are attracted by the warrior psyche and ornamental style that dominate American popular culture. Finally, in an era when Viagra promises a quick-fix to impotence and the desire for intimacy, is it any wonder that quick-fix candidates with nothing more to commend them than their image should garner attention and even adulation?
The candidacies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wesley Clark ultimately underscore the bankruptcy of a political system that is in deep denial about the fundamental dilemmas plaguing the American landscape. From persistent class, racial, gender, and sexual inequities to the addiction to militarism and imperialism, the United States is fraying at the seams. Neither Arnold nor Wesley nor a host of other wannabee pop cult icons is capable of addressing these persistent problems. Their only function is to convince an already compromised electorate that they can be winners in this fixed and failed political game.
FRAN SHOR teaches at Wayne State University and is a peace and justice activist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org