The Dave Barry Theory Of Winning The Presidency
I could have called this essay "Donald Trump Is Not A Man (Neither Is Obama)," but I'm tired today and don't feel like dealing with all the awful that that would cause.
The world is a horrible place right now, and I held this piece back for a bit while things unfolded in Ukraine, because it felt like…well, poor form to publish. But…it’s done, and ready to go out, and it relates to the future of American politics, anyway. I hope you’ll accept a long, relatively light-hearted essay during the horror, while understanding that there are super-important things happening in the world; far more important than…whatever I write. And anyway, when you’re done reading, or hell, right now — do what you can to help in Ukraine.
As a middle-schooler, my favorite book was Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys.
Whatever conclusions you're already drawing from that are probably 100 percent correct; was I the most popular girl at Titonka Middle School? Hahahaha of course not. Was I, however, convinced of my own hilarity? Proto-feminist? Kind of obnoxious? Outrageously on-brand, in retrospect?
Oh, heavens, yes.
Anyway: This book. I loved it. And I loved it because it made a clever, intuitive sort of sense about gender.
The book's foundational argument is that there are three categories of people: men, guys, and women.
Men build things, lead troops into battle, fix engines, wield power tools with ease, and generally stand astride the world, quietly winning at life, staring confidently about at all their accomplishments.
Guys...well, guys are less impressive. They belch, make dick jokes, get intimidated by power tools but use them anyway, blow things up in their backyards for fun, and ogle boobs.
If men are powerful, competent, effective, and above all, serious, guys are fundamentally unserious.
They love watching sports; they drink beer; they get in disproportionate arguments over parking spots; they tell inappropriate jokes; they do objectively stupid and pointless things for fun, like watching sports or -- to use a memorable example from his book -- rigging vacuum cleaners to catch fire.
Guys, in Barry's telling, do not contribute much to the world, at least not compared to men.
And women? Women are women. (I'll come back to this.)
If you're in a Dave-Barry-era, 1990s mindset, let's put it this way: guys are Tim the Tool Man Taylor. Men are Al Borland and Wilson.
It doesn't have to be about power tools, though. It's about knowhow, as well as the earnestness, the seriousness with which one wields it. Think of any field, and you can come up with a reasonably simple man-versus-guy framework. Some 2022 examples:
Barry Jenkins and Martin Scorsese? Men. Michael Bay? Guy.
Michael Barbaro and Ira Glass? Men. The McElroy brothers? Guys.
Any dude featured on Chef's Table? Man. Guy Fieri? Guy.
But back to the '90s. This kind of taxonomy made immediate sense to 12-year-old me.
After all, I was chubby, loud, deathly scared of flirting, mystified at how to apply eyeliner. Sure, I was female, but I was hyperaware at how bad a job I was doing at being a *girl*.
And thus, with a beat-up paperback that contains the word "fart" more times per page than I like to admit now, I was introduced to the heady idea of gender as performance.
There's a key point to Dave's analysis, though, that I haven't gotten to yet...the quiet part he never says out loud:
Guys are *fun*.
The whole schtick to the book, after all, is to give guys no redeeming qualities. They're oafish and the world just has to put up with them. Alas.
But the subtext is that we'd all prefer to hang out with guys, wouldn't we?
Again, I come back to Home Improvement, modern America's richest text on masculinity.
Guyness is why Americans would watch season after season of that show. You're not there for the men characters -- yeah, Al is competent and Wilson is wise, but...c'mon. Tim is FUN. That was the central draw.
People like Wilson were there to help him look good -- to make it clear that Tim is just moral enough to be likable, capable of learning just enough lessons (which is to say: one per week, not that said lessons ever stuck) to keep the show from being essentially a weekly half-hour Ernest movie.
I want to be clear about Mr. Barry’s Guide to Guys: it has aged incredibly poorly. If you read it now, know that you are walking into a book written in the 1990s. It comes with a dose of gay panic and…well, as you have probably gathered, a firm grounding in gender stereotypes. I mean, gender stereotypes are the whole joke here.
And yet, please understand that my nostalgic connection to it is unbreakable.
Because by God, did my partner catch me sitting and snickering at it last week? Sure. Is it clear now that I learned how to be funny from Dave Barry? Yes. Did quietly reading his books get me through the torture of middle school -- of being a fat girl in the front row, in glasses and braces and Garfield t-shirts from Walmart? Extremely yes.
Anyway. I say all this because the man-guy framework also explains a *lot* to me about the modern era of presidential politics, and in particular, why we haven't had a lady president yet. And so here goes.
THEOREM OF GENDER AND THE PRESIDENCY, NO. 1: It is way easier to be elected president as a guy than as a man.
To win the presidency in modern America, you generally have to be able to *convince people that you are a guy.*
This does not mean that a potential dude presidential contender doesn't take himself seriously (some measure of arrogance is a prerequisite to running for president), nor that he isn't capable of being serious.
But it DOES mean that he has to come off to a large number of voters as laid-back, relatable, able to take himself non-seriously -- just another Guy.
A taxonomy of recent contenders, based on my informed opinion, with the winners asterisked:
*George H.W. Bush: man
*Bill Clinton: guy
Bob Dole: man
John Kerry: man
*George W. Bush: guy
Al Gore: man
*Obama: guy (I hear you objecting for 90 reasons, and trust me, I will come back to him)
John McCain: man
Mitt Romney: man
*Donald Trump: guy
Hillary Clinton: woman (boy oh boy will I come back to her as well)
*Joe Biden: guy
You will note that George H.W. Bush is the outlier here...this is why I said that it is *hard* to become president as a man, but not impossible.
But then, perhaps Bush merely had to out-guy Michael Dukakis. Which he clearly attempted to do. Consider that one of Bush's campaign tactics was to make objectively dumb jokes about what a weenie Dukakis was. (A quote that I am not making up: "I wouldn't be surprised if he thinks that a naval exercise is something you find in Jane Fonda's workout book.")
(And then, to hammer this home, there was the infamous Dukakis-in-a-tank photo op, which again allowed Bush to present himself as better-at-guy-ness.)
One hallmark of guyness, after all, is the need to do meaningless posturing at other dudes, whether it's via tailgating them, threatening to fight them, or insinuating that they do aerobic workouts.
Anyway, back to H.W. Bush, because the kicker here is that he eventually lost to Bill Uberguy Clinton.
So anyway: If you want to become president or *stay* president in modern America, it appears that it's a major benefit to be able to present as a guy.
That said, it's clearly not the ONLY thing you need...in a guy-guy presidential contest (say, Trump-Biden), there can only be one winner.
To make a few things clear here:
A) I'm not making a value judgment about whether guys or men are smarter or better at leading. Could Mitt Romney or John Kerry have been a fine president? Sure! This is purely about who won.
B) This rubric has nothing to do with a person's accomplishments. Bill-Rhodes-Scholar-Clinton was a guy, probably aided by the Southern accent and saxophone-playing and endless charm and -- let's say it -- his reputation at the time for liking the ladies a little too much. (We will also come back to this.)
C) Guydom also doesn't necessarily correlate to being *nice*. I'm stretching Dave Barry's definitions here. He made guys out to be lovable doofuses. But in the Kurtzleben Taxonomy of Presidential Guydom, one can most certainly be a guy politician who does incredibly non-lovable things (for example: prey upon a White House intern) (or say nakedly racist things) (or attempt to undermine democracy).
Likewise, Dave Barry doesn't make men seem particularly warm and caring. But I submit that there is something incredibly endearing about that clip of Mitt Romney (again, a man) plucking his birthday candles out of a cake and blowing them out, one by one, so as not to give his staff his cold.
Donald Trump, of course, would do no such things. The dude who tapes his tie, loves photo ops with big machines, ad libs his speeches, talks a lot about women's looks? He's trying to tell America loud and clear that he's a guy...and crucially, many, many people buy it.
Plenty of these dudes could turn it on and off -- Obama the serious orator was plenty "manly"...but that didn't mean he couldn't sing a few bars of Al Green or have impeccable comedic timing. Obama was also telling America that he was a guy.
(This brings me to my aside about Obama -- I would also theorize that as a Black man, his guy-ness was tightly constrained – not allowed to be sloppy or gaffe-prone, as with his White counterparts, and certainly not angry or pugilistic. He knew this, too — see when he brought out Luther, the Anger Translator at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Obama’s guy-ness was a sort of casual elegance. He could shoot baskets, joke around, relate to kids, do a Buzzfeed video, all without the awkward smack of trying too hard. But can you imagine if Obama had taped his tie?) (And don't come at me with any tan-suit nonsense. I'm talking a TAPED TIE.)
Joe Biden likewise can give a speech that's dark, grave, somber. But he's also the guy who afterwards will slap backs in the crowd, smile his piano-key smile, hug kids. Speech-giving Joe Biden may be a man, but Scranton Joe? The guy who called Obamacare a "big fucking deal"? *That* is a guy.
Is it all a constructed persona? Maybe, sure! But all of these are constructed personas. We never see the deep dark centers of our candidates. But if their constructed personas are convincing enough for enough voters, they count.
You may be thinking, "Danielle, you're just repackaging the concept of voters picking the person they'd like to have a beer with."
And to some degree, yes! But I'm adding a couple of additional points to it...most importantly, that there is a gendered aspect to that.
Which brings me to my next, two-part theorem:
THEOREM 2A: Women cannot be guys.
THEOREM 2B: Therefore, it is exceedingly hard for a woman to be president.
(Another important note before we delve into this: Please note that this is NOT about a person's sex assigned at birth. There are men AND guys in this world who were assigned “female” at birth. And there are women assigned male at birth. I’m talking here about how the world perceives women, and the hard line it draws between what it means to be a Lady and what it means to be a Man or Guy.)
(And, additionally, whenever America gets its first major-party trans or non-binary presidential candidate, I am *here for it.*)
Back to Theorem 2A: Women cannot be guys. And, frustratingly, Dave Barry doesn't even leave room for there to be a woman-equivalent-of-a-guy. There are simply women, men, and guys.
To expand...Dave paints women as:
useful to the world
And also as:
in possession of boobs
obsessed with romantic commitment
once again, serious
...which is to say, women are not fun, in Dave Barry's telling. (Unless we're talking about the fun one has while looking at their boobs.) ([Heavy sigh]) Women do not cut loose. Women move furniture around and try to get men to marry them.
(Here is where I drop a note for Real Dave Barry Fans, which is to acknowledge that Barry does, okay, in this book allow for one woman-guy, and that is Katie Couric. Katie Couric is a guy, he says. Keep in mind that this is Today Show-era Katie Couric and not CBS Evening News-era Katie Couric. Anyway, I’ll admit that I’m fully ignoring it because (a) It’s a throwaway joke and (b) No she’s not a guy.)
Twelve-year-old me instinctively knew that there are of COURSE guy-versions-of-women -- ladies who don't take themselves or womanhood seriously.
For simplicity's sake, let's call these ladies "gals."
And despite whatever Dave Barry said, there were high-profile gals around the time that he wrote this book -- Roseanne being the prime example. Gum-chomping, crass, willing to murder the national anthem on national television (seriously, Gen Z-ers, if you haven't seen this, go watch it now).
Roseanne was a gal.
Comedy might be the easiest place to find gals: Sarah Silverman is a gal. Leslie Jones? Sure. Tina Fey? Maybe...but Liz Lemon? For sure.
To dissect and thus suck some oxygen out of Barry's whole worldview, part of what makes a person a guy -- and thus, part of what makes guys so fun -- is that "man" is theoretically an option for them. The world expects dudes to use power tools or command an army. By subverting that and riding a canoe off a ski jump while drunk (another sterling example from the book), a guy is showing that he's less serious, more relatable — again, more fun.
Again, Liz Lemon is a GREAT example of this on the ladies’ side. Over and over in 30 Rock -- usually via Jack's girlfriends -- we see what Women are: hot, well-dressed, competent, intense, maybe a little mean (see: Avery Jessup). Liz's WHOLE THING is that she's supposedly bad at being a woman. She hates wearing a bra. She doesn't know how to flirt. She eats a lot. She at one point attempts to use a scented candle as deodorant.
Liz is a gal.
So. Guys are rejecting manhood — seriousness, achievements, a certain type of power.
What is a gal rejecting? Some applause from the world, in whatever form that comes. Possibly male attention. The knowledge that you’re kicking ass. But also plenty of stuff that is just at its heart annoying – again, male attention, as well as torturous foundation garments and heels and following a zillion unspoken rules that never quite get you as much respect as Men get anyway.
On the presidential stage, we have had precious few lady contenders, and thus not a lot of data about how America receives women versus gals when they're seeking power.
And therefore we're left to theorize. So here's one conjecture: maybe the first lady presidential nominee was always bound to be someone like Hillary Clinton -- outrageously qualified, earnest, intelligent. Someone who led with her resume, not her personality; who came off as awkward when she tried to be funny.
Candidate Hillary Clinton? Oh, good heavens, she's a capital-W Woman.
I'd also say Carly Fiorina in 2016 was a woman. She didn't stay in the field for long, but she was buttoned-up, keeping her face straight and gritting her teeth stolidly when Donald Trump insulted her looks.
The 2020 field of women, in my opinion, was tougher to dissect.
Kamala Harris, for example, is a tough call -- she could crack a joke, cook on camera, wear Chuck Taylors. But she was always in her pearls, ever-prepared, on-message, keeping her composure even during that debate where Mike Pence interrupted her 45 times a minute.
Or consider Elizabeth Warren...she was the hyper-prepared woman with plans on plans on plans -- which feels like a "woman" trait. But also? She got crowds laughing with self-deprecating stories of her divorce and setting a toaster on fire...she also MIGHT have been a gal.
It is quite possible that the ladies running for president thus far have either felt the need to present themselves as serious and straight-laced...or that the only way to get that far is to at your core be that kind of person. (Consider how many of the women in that primary had *never lost a political race*.)
I'd also argue that after the Uber-Woman Clinton ran, it opened up that much more space for women who were a bit more chill, loosey-goosey, beer-drinkable-with to run.
Which brings me to a sub-theory: being a guy depends upon having a dominant, powerful paradigm within your gender to push against -- to show that you're not. You don't even need to point and say, "I'm not a stiff like him." You simply need those stiffs to exist.
Perhaps once we have more women running for president — or, perhaps, once a woman is elected president — the gals will emerge.
You can argue that this has happened at the congressional level, where ladies win all the time (despite remaining woefully underrepresented). AOC is perhaps a gal -- playing video games and doing unscripted instagrams.
Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene might fit the bill as well ... though there's a whole dissertation's worth of discussion of the signaling that women candidates do with traditionally "manly" props like guns -- which has picked up on the Republican side in recent years.
(But also, voters think differently about the presidency than their congresspeople. To paraphrase what a pollster once told me, the president is primarily a leader in people's minds -- the person who commands the armed forces and is the embodiment of the full country. Congress members, meanwhile, serve. People are more likely to be open-minded about who their congress members are. In short, the whole guy-man-woman framework isn't fully applicable to how people vote for Congress. And to keep this essay from expanding to 10,000 words, I will move on and save that topic for another day.)
THEOREM 3: Guydom is remarkably forgiving.
And here let us go back to Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.
Here's a fun fact: Bill Clinton's approval rating INCREASED during the Monica Lewinsky investigation. Isn't that great? Hahahahaha it's great hahahaha.
Now, look. I'm not going to sell this as uncomplicated. Some of that rise was good old-fashioned political backlash -- plenty of Americans looked at the Ken Starr investigation and did a collective eye-roll at moralizing members of Congress.
But even so, it's hard not to marvel at the incredible beating that Monica took in the public sphere, especially in comparison to Bill Clinton, who ultimately, in the public sphere, suffered...what...dirty jokes? Late-night-host snark? SNL bits?
At minimum – to paint with a very broad brush – mainstream America tolerated Bill Clinton's bad behavior.
And some even applauded it. One response to the scandal that floors me every time I read it is a New York Observer conversation between 10 "New York Supergals" tittering over the "naughty prez." Erica Jong -- Fear of Flying feminist icon Erica Jong -- said that she wanted a president who was "alive from the waist down."
Guys -- they just love the ladies. What'llyado?
And so, nearly two decades later, maybe it should have surprised no one when the Access Hollywood tape didn't derail Trump's presidential bid.
In fact, I would posit that his campaign's "locker room talk" defense was a three-word opus of political genius.
And that's because as a phrase, it didn't just defend Trump; it reinforced the ultimate message for anyone in doubt: Donald Trump was a GUY. This person who gold-plates everything he owns and hobnobs with high society and doesn't mix with regular Joes and Janes? Nah, he does normal-dude stuff. Locker-room bullshitting, like ya do. Brags about loving the women, even if he's a little coarse about it. GUY.
The repercussions of having a Guy in the White House go well beyond mistreating women. There's also a whole chapter in Barry's book about guys' propensity to dismiss any injury, however serious, as "just a sprain."
It's genuinely funny, and yet now, in 2022, I couldn't help but hear our former president's "it's basically like the flu" covid rejoinder in my head as I read it.
It might seem that I'm being glib about 900,000 covid deaths here, and I assure you I'm not. I'm saying that the attitude of "tough it out, walk it off" on a national level, with a highly infectious disease, can be profoundly damaging.
There's also something to be said about the connection between masculine posturing and threats to democracy. And for much, much greater depth on this, I urge you to look up Strongmen by Ruth Ben-Ghiat, about the history of rulers weaponizing masculinity to facilitate their authoritarian politics.
And when you look at people like Vladimir Putin or Jair Bolsonaro or Silvio Berlusconi, it's remarkable how much strongmen succeed by showing what guys they are — photo ops on horses, demeaning opponents, talking about hot women. Democracy? Compromise? Following rules? All that is for weenies.
To me, a big question ahead of 2024 is if/how Republican candidates do the Guy Thing compared to how Trump did it.
Here I have Sen. Josh Hawley top of mind. He is Trumpy in his politics (see: raising his fist at the January 6 insurrectionists) and in his instincts (see: selling mugs of raising his fist at the January 6 insurrectionists).
And Hawley has made masculinity a part of his persona. He gave a speech last fall about his fears that American men are falling behind economically and educationally, that we need to figure out how to give them a boost as a nation.
But Hawley is also a Yale and Stanford graduate who podcasts about being a good Christian husband and dad.
He's telling us that he's a man.
But this is just one person. The Republican Party will have a whole new array of people to watch with this whole mental framework in mind, which is most definitely one way I will be thinking about 2024.
It's possible that Nikki Haley and Kristi Noem could greatly expand how we think about ladies running for president. It's possible that a staid Republican of whatever gender will come out on top. It's possible that Joe Biden will run against a Man. Or a Woman. Or a Gal. It's possible that he will lose to one, and it will blow a giant hole in my thinking.
Or it's possible that Trump will run and win the nomination, and we will have another guy-guy matchup. (Or it’s possible that Joe Biden won’t run.)
I'll be watching. Meanwhile, 12-year-old me will be marveling. Who knew her favorite book -- that hilarious, stupid, clever, immature book -- would be so perfectly fitted to her nation's future?
I had my eye on CPAC this whole last weekend…and I did a rundown of how the GOP is responding to what’s going on in Ukraine. (This was before Trump’s speech at CPAC, which was a doozy.) (I live-tweeted the bejeezus out of it, if you want to know what was in it.) Click through the tweet below and check it all out.
A big beautiful, bilingual (!) read on a new, heavily Latino congressional district. Colorado’s 8th — watch it this year.
Republican reaction to Biden’s promise to put a black woman on SCOTUS. Former RNC chair Michael Steele had some choice words for his fellow Republicans, some of which are not usable on a family radio program.
Peloton culture! I was on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour last month to talk about the joys and non-joys of being a Peloton obsessive, and somehow I hadn’t posted it here in the newsletter until now.
Other things you should read:
Texas election workers are scrambling to inform a confused electorate — A great piece from my colleagues Juana Summers and Barbara Sprunt ahead of this week’s primaries, about the many problems that voting restrictions helped create.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn — I plucked this novel at random from our bookshelf at home…it was an old book (published in 1989, and National Book Award finalist, it turns out) my gent had received as a gift but had never read himself. And it is not only outrageously good — I mean just floored-me, now-one-of-my-top-books-of-all-time good — but also apparently has a sort of cult fandom.
Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg — I’m trying to read more stuff about writing lately, in this (you may have noticed) big push to write more and put it out there. This book is a less-intense cousin of The Artist’s Way…and yet I found it way more helpful. While The Artist’s Way encourages daily free, blank-page writing — which mainly, when I tried it, sent me further burrowing into my anxious, self-pitying tendencies — Natalie here encourages at least having prompts or topic. The idea is to use writing time as practice time, not just a time to dump out whatever is in your brain.
And now back to obsessively following Russia-Ukraine news on TV. Take care of yourselves.