In measuring the sex appeal of presidential candidates, the pundits use a little device called the charm meter. The charm meter does not pick up character, policies, or ideology. Just charm. Sometimes we call it charisma.
The charm meter measures the way a man appeals to the ladies with masculine magnetism, and the way he appeals to the men so as to make them feel “he’s one of us.”
George the Elder was a Yalie, a baseball captain, a self-made millionaire and a diplomat, but he tried to be a good ol’ boy. He munched pork rinds (or said he did) and took to dining at Houston’s barbecue joints. It didn’t come naturally. He’s Barbara Bush’s husband, after all.
Bill Clinton, on the other hand, is the bad boy in the back seat, irresistible to the girl who goes for that kind of guy. She wants his sweet talk even though she doesn’t believe a word of it. She just can’t help herself. Character is not the issue at first, but it sure is later.
Al Gore, whether alpha, beta or gamma, is the guy the mamas want their daughters to go out with. He looks more like a sport in his new “earth tones,” than he used to, but you can’t take the well-mannered preppie out of the tough talking pol. Any man who talks nuns out of their life’s savings will not always be honorable, but when he talks about what he did you get the idea that he believes his own excuses. Unlike his mentor, he doesn’t seem to be the sort of guy who lies easily.
Bill Bradley is the guy the girl’s brother wants her to go out with. He’s a jock and smart, too, but little sister finds him a mite earnest. You can trust him for the long-term relationship, if you can last that long, but he’s not a lot of laughs along the way.
John McCain is the attractive older man not necessarily because he looks older, but because he was a prisoner of war. That makes him brave and forever fascinating, a man of worldly experience. Life’s scars didn’t make him bitter; he can still love. His worst fault is not his temper (a girl can sometimes find that exciting), but his righteous arrogance, which comes off as pretentious virtue.
Steve Forbes is a super-rich nerd with convictions, but the package lacks convincing balance. Gary Bauer is smart, witty and idealistic, but it’s impossible to weave a fantasy around a long goodnight kiss with him. Alan Keyes is handsome, principled and eloquent, but more like a preacher who marries the couple, not half of the couple.
So where does that leave George W.? Nicholas Lemann watched George W. work a living room at a party in New Hampshire. The guests were fans of his father and mother and now they’re devoted to the son.
“In this and most other rooms, he was maybe the second-handsomest man,” he writes in the New Yorker, “handsome enough to be magnetic, but short of the dangerous territory of being pretty or overtly sexual. He made you feel drawn to him, without feeling so drawn to him that it was frightening.”
This observation is right on. George W. is not the kind of guy other guys want to imitate. He’s too snug in his own skin. He doesn’t threaten a man because he won’t try to steal his girl or the show. He’s not that flashy. He makes men and women feel comfortable because he’s at ease in their presence and they’re at ease with him.
George W. projects the seductiveness of a faithful husband. He’s fun, neither moving in too close or moving too far away. He’s got a natural talent for natural body language. He’s comfortable around men who like a man’s man, and with women who do, too. He grew up in Midland, Texas, and it shows.
If W. makes anyone feel uncomfortable it’s the eastern intellectual liberal who wears glasses with wire rims and looks like a clone of Sidney Blumenthal or Michael Kinsley, men with a lean and hungry look, good in debate and conversation, but uneasy with men who aren’t just like them. Their defense against the W.s of the world is to make fun of their intelligence, hence the liberal media obsession with W.’s smarts.
Such men (they’re not ever “guys”) don’t think W.s are as smart as they are, but that’s their problem. W. has none of Lyndon Johnson’s difficulties with eastern intellectuals. He doesn’t despise them while craving their admiration. He dismisses them and enjoys joshing about how different they are from him.
In 1998, in the second-largest state, George W. got 65 percent of the women’s vote; 49 percent of the Hispanics; 27 percent of registered Democrats. Even the Democratic lieutenant governor endorsed him. If that ain’t smarts, it ain’t bad.