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Return of the squares: Santorum, Lin, Tebow

It’s springtime for the anti-anti-hero

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In the annals of unexpected endorsements, it tops Fake Gorbachev slow-clapping for Sylvester Stallone at the end of "Rocky IV": Last week, heavy metal guitarist Dave Mustaine — Megadeth front man, longtime earthly vessel of sonically demonic sturm und drang — sized up the Republican presidential field and expressed his greatest admiration for … Rick Santorum.

The guy in the sweater vest.

The old-fashioned social conservative.

The total, irredeemable, square.

Why would a lifelong rocker back the least headbanging candidate since Bob Dole? Try this: In an online interview, Mr. Mustaine said that he liked the fact that Mr. Santorum took time off from campaigning to care for his ill daughter, and that he hasn't engaged in the same level of down 'n' dirty attack advertising as rivals Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.

In short, the rocker seemed to appreciate Mr. Santorum's essential squareness — much like the Republican primary voters who have helped the decidedly dorky former Pennsylvania senator rise from campaign trail road kill to a polling dead heat with Mr. Romney.

And the Square Surge doesn't stop there.

After all, the hottest athlete in sports — and the hottest story outside of sports — is New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin. Savior of Gotham. The biggest deal in big deals since, well, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, the most popular player in the nation's most popular league.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Lin and Mr. Tebow already have been compared. Both are devout Christians. Both have a knack for late-game heroics. Both have inspired silly Web photo memes. Both have piqued the reported interest of relentless fame grifter Kim Kardashian.

Only none of that is what truly makes the two similar.

No, what makes them similar is this: Both are classic squares. Devoutly unhip. Same as Mr. Santorum. Three men seemingly out of pop culture time, they come to us clean-cut and edge-free, dripping with sincerity, owing more to Christopher Reeve's straight-arrow Man of Steel than to Christian Bale's brooding Dark Knight. Fashionable as George Will and as ironic as Ward Cleaver, they're the kind of characters former New York Yankees manager Billy Martin derided as "milkshake drinkers."

And yet: Right here, right now, America doesn't care. We're all in on Lin, still gripped by Tebowmania, giving Mr. Santorum — you know, the Jerry Seinfeld-looking dude standing waaay off to the side during the early GOP debates — a second look.

Suddenly, we're cool with uncool, drinking the malted vanilla Kool-Aid. And that, in turn, begs a question, the one once posed by noted late-20th century philosopher Huey Lewis.

Is it hip to be square?

Tragically unhip

A square is traditional. Stodgy. Out of touch. Unmoved by the now, oblivious to the new.

Think Archie Andrews.

Once upon a time, Archie mattered. The venerable comic book character was a freckle-faced Everyboy, clumsy but generous, conventional in his tastes (girls, cars, sports), untouched by acne and teenage angst, a kindred spirit to the Hardy Boys — content to paint his life within a narrow set of cultural lines. He was a square, terminally so, and even when he flirted with ersatz-hipness by fronting his own garage band, they were squares, too.

And that was OK.

That was OK because squares were OK. Esteemed, actually. Ike? A Square. Truman? Ditto. Basketball superstar George Mikan was a gentle, bespectacled giant. Joe DiMaggio had yet to go anywhere. Father Knew Best — and he was a total square. Sure, squareness was in some ways a myth — real people seldom fit into neat little boxes — but it was a myth we wanted, maybe even needed.

Then — like a lot of things post-World War II — the two-martini lunch, women as second-class citizens, American Apartheid — squareness went belly up. Enter the age of antiheroes. The birth of the cool. The triumph of the hip. The rise of beloved — and oft-polarizing — iconoclasts who neither played by the traditional rules nor followed the established script.

Our athletic heroes became rebels, against the Man and contra the establishment, from Muhammad Ali to Brian Bosworth to Allen Iverson. They became glamorous, too, flashy and sexy and special, every man his own brand, from Joe Namath to Michael Jordan.

Shelves of books have been devoted to the shift in the '60s from traditionalism to counter-culture, an upheaval that would leave few of the time-honored cultural ideals standing. The manly heroes of Hollywood's Golden Age — the strong, silent screen paragons who stoically waged our wars, made sure crime didn't pay and won the West — gave way to new cultural archetypes for an age of self-styled rebels — outlaw chic ("Bonnie and Clyde," "The Godfather" saga); wounded and disillusioned warriors ("Coming Home," Apocalyspe Now," "Born on the Fourth of July"); rugged frontiersmen gone Native American ("Dances with Wolves"). From rock to rap, post-war popular music was conquered by genres defined by youth and racial rebellion, dominated by pop idols worshipped for — not in spite of — their indulgence in self-destructive extremes of hedonistic abandon.

Oh, sure: The squarish likes of John Stockton, Tim Duncan and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch still roamed the Earth. Thing is, they were seldom celebrated — unless, as in the case of uberdork Kurt Rambis of the Los Angeles Lakers and his Rambis Youth cult fan following, said celebration was laced with hipster irony.

Return of the squares

Of course, that was then. So six months ago. In Mr. Santorum, Lin and Tebow, the squares have returned, somehow chic yet still out of touch.

Tebow calls reporters "Sir." He says he's a virgin — where have you gone, Broadway Joe? — and appears in an ad campaign for Jockey underwear throwing a football shirtless, yet still wearing his pants.

Supermodel Gisele Bundchen, after her husband, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, saw his receivers drop key passes in a Super Bowl loss: "My husband cannot [expletive] throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time."

Tebow, after his receivers dropped a number of passes against the Chicago Bears: "I've just got to do a better job and just improve with accuracy and put it on my receivers more. They come up with a bunch of big plays, so I was just proud of their effort."

When a reporter asked Tebow about "Tebow Time" — referring to his penchant for fourth-quarter heroics — the Denver quarterback asked that it be called "Bronco Time." Similarly, Lin deflects individual praise as if a cobra has bitten him and the only antivenom is praising his teammates.

Though both men play with confidence — shoulder pad-lowering abandon from Tebow; big shot swag from Lin — neither projects off-field arrogance. Nor do they engage in now-commonplace theatrical grandiosity, what former New York Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson once called "the magnitude of me."

Then there's Mr. Santorum. According to Time magazine, he has no pollster. Not only is he uncomfortable with birth control pills, he's also comfortable making a campaign issue out of said discomfort, which plugs him squarely into the political zeitgeist of … 1951.

While speaking on the stump, Mr. Romney dresses like the guy already sipping a cocktail and checking his portfolio in his first-class seat while the rest of us board the airplane — wrinkle-free oxford, expensive jeans, anchorman hair never out of place — Mr. Santorum's campaign attire brings to mind a chain restaurant middle manager. Did we mention the sweater vests?

Fittingly, the Three Squares share another trait: In the case of each man, the public was presented with a superficially hipper alternative — a Cinnamon Dolce Latte, if you will — and instead chose a cup of Sanka.

Take Tebow. He's no Cam Newton, the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers who was the top pick in last year's National Football League draft. Tall, handsome and confident, he oozes 21st century sports cool. An athletic marvel, Newton carried a lousy team on his back; beyond being an adept runner, he is much, much better than Tebow at throwing a football. Both statistically and on highlight reels, Newton's rookie season was one for the ages. And also a relative blip, nearly forgotten in a tidal wave of Tebow coverage.

Similarly, the young point guard buzz in the National Basketball Association involved Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Ricky Rubio. A cross between Pistol Pete Maravich and a shaggy-haired, doe-eyed teen idol torn from the pages of Tiger Beat — albeit one whose facial scrub appears drawn in with Mascara — Rubio is an electric passer, a deft playmaker, a Spanish import who has helped make the woebegotten Timberwolves watchable. Thanks to Lin, however, he's already old news.

Much like Newt Gingrich.

Dumper of sick wives. Enlivener of debates. Gleeful tosser of Molotov cocktail sound bites. Gushing fire hose of half-baked policy prescriptions. Mr. Gingrich is the Whitmanesque song-singer of the GOP primary field. He contains multitudes. Plus, he wants to build a moon base. For all his flaws, Mr. Gingrich is seldom dull or inside a box; despite his unchanging Phil Donahue haircut, he is definitely not a square.

He's also not the guy threatening Mr. Romney — the erstwhile GOP Candidate of Inevitability — in Michigan.

Men of the (cultural) moment

Why are we embracing the Three Squares?

The simplest explanation is that America loves an underdog story. Especially one with a Disney-style reversal of fortune.

Tebow was a Heisman-winning campus demigod at the University of Florida — but thanks to his awkward, shot put-ish throwing motion, he also was considered a better professional prospect at tight end than at quarterback. Lin has been overlooked since high school: unrecruited by big-time college hoops powerhouses, undrafted after a standout career at Harvard, cut by multiple NBA teams. Just last month, Mr. Santorum's campaign was so lightly regarded that his aides reportedly asked a reporter to forward around an invitation to travel with the candidate.

Religious piety also plays a part in the Square Surge. Lin attributes his success to a "miracle from God"; he and Knicks teammate Landry Fields have devised a pre-game handshake ritual that involves pantomiming reading the Bible. Tebow is openly, enthusiastically evangelical, the eponymous popularizer of a signature praying posture that swept the nation like a popular dance craze. Mr. Santorum's Catholicism is more or less his unofficial running mate. Bringing religion into the public square often courts controversy — but in a largely Christian country, it also engenders identification and admiration.

It would be easy to see squares as fellow travelers in pop culture's complete and utter co-optation by all things Nerd: computer geeks and high school musicals, comic books (excuse us, graphic novels) and Wall Street/"Moneyball" quants. But that would be a mistake. A square is not a nerd. A nerd wears a pocket protector because he doesn't realize it's unhip; a square wears pleated khakis and a cellphone holster because that's what he always has worn, and besides, it's comfy.

No, understanding the Rise of the Squares means understanding our silent, concurrent Crisis of Cool. At its core, cool means one thing: being yourself. Being authentic. Not going along with the crowd, or even giving a darn about what anyone else thinks.

This is why cool matters deeply to Americans — it's in our escape-to-the-New-World DNA — and to adolescent Americans in particular. Only … cool is in trouble. It has been commoditized, turned into a marketing trick, a studied means of selling stuff. Modern cool is Newton declaring himself "an icon."

It's a calculated pose, not an organic byproduct. It's pop singer Lana Del Rey — real name: Liz Grant — whose manufactured cool (and seemingly manufactured lips) have triggered a swift and furious backlash.

When conservative voters exhibit ongoing apathy toward Mr. Romney — whose flip-flopping policy positions and stilted speaking manner are less suggestive of an actual human being than a vote-courting algorithm — isn't this packaged, premeditated superficiality what they're resisting?

Indeed, this is Mr. Santorum's one real advantage over Mr. Romney. He seems genuine. He is very much a political square — in the minds of many pollsters and pundits, too far to the right on some issues to be electable. Thing is, Mr. Santorum is fine with that. Welcomes it, even. He's comfort food for the Republican base because he's comfortable with himself. Much like Lin and Tebow. All three men are who they are, steady as Eastern Island statues, straightforward as the hero in the new "Captain America" movie. What you see is what you get.

And that's what makes the Three Squares men of the cultural moment.

Ours are tumultuous times, socially and economically. Technology is speeding up the rate of change. Reality television — a realm of DSM-IV case studies and screeching Real Housewives, though I repeat myself — reflects our buzzing anxieties. Squares are a security blanket. We may not always agree with them. We may not always relate to them. But we can trust them, because they trust themselves.

Recently asked about Lin, Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said that his new point guard was not a fluke, that he had all the necessary basketball tools. Perhaps inadvertently, D'Antoni also captured the essence of square appeal.

"[Lin] is the real deal," he said.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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