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Romney, Bush and Newsweek's "Wimp Factor"

Romney, Bush and Newsweek's "Wimp Factor"

By Carl M. Cannon - August 2, 2012


Given the myriad problems facing print journalism, Newsweek editor Tina Brown can hardly be faulted for her quest to create provocative magazine covers. And this week's edition, in which Newsweek reprised its hoary "wimp factor" conceit, certainly attracted attention.

There are several problems with calling Mitt Romney a “wimp,” however, and they were ably pointed out by other journalists left, right, and center.

For starters, there’s little evidence that Romney is actually a wimp, whatever that really means, and there are some indications to the contrary. Even more jarring, in the fourth presidential election of the 21st century, are we really employing schoolyard language to claim that a presidential candidate lacks the requisite amount of machismo?

How much, exactly, would be ideal?

Perhaps the problem for Newsweek was bad karma. It reprised a 25-year-old cover, but it was a fatuous device the first time the magazine’s editors used it -- in October of 1987 -- when they applied that appellation to George Herbert Walker Bush.

It must be noted that the text of the 1987 cover story, written by Margaret Warner, was insightful and fact-based -- and not necessarily unsympathetic to its subject, the sitting vice president. The same care wasn’t taken in assembling the 2012 “wimp factor” piece. This year’s version is more informed by the sensibilities of cartoonist Garry Trudeau, the man who did the most to push the “wimp” line against Bush back in the 1980s -- long before Newsweek did.

Through his popular “Doonesbury” comic strip, Trudeau was, and remains, a reliably partisan operator. He was particularly spiteful toward the Bush family, with whom he shared a Yale background. Trudeau often let his ideology, or perhaps his excitements, get the better of him. Over the years he and his cartoon characters regurgitated old rumors about George W. Bush using drugs, needled the Bush daughters for underage drinking, asserted that the 43rd president didn’t fulfill his National Guard obligation, and routinely characterized Dubya as a dim bulb.

(Regarding this last critique, Trudeau inadvertently brought his own candlepower into question by falling for a ludicrous Internet hoax. Citing a study from the [non-existent] Scranton, Pa.-based “Lovenstein Institute,” Trudeau passed along the claim that George W. Bush had an IQ of 91 -- and that Bill Clinton’s was exactly twice as high.)

For the most part, the Bushes took the abuse in good stride. The exceptions were the “Doonesbury” cartoons in the mid-1980s depicting George H.W. Bush as a “wimp” who had “put his manhood in a blind trust” to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate.

As Bush later confided to a journalist, “I thought, ‘What the hell? Who is this, you know, elitist . . . who never ran for sheriff, never taken his case to the people? Who is this little guy that comes out of some of the same background as me?”

Even before their father succeeded Reagan as president, two of Bush’s sons -- George W. and Jeb -- also told the old man they’d like to “kick Trudeau’s ass.” And on March 13, 1991, Bush referred to Trudeau in his diary as “a little elitist who is spoiled, derisive, ugly, and nasty.”

When tapped as the Republican Party’s vice president nominee, Bush was asked by Reagan to adopt exactly one political position that was new to him -- opposition to abortion. He agreed, and justifiably took some heat for it. But this is a journey many Democrats with national political ambitions have made in the other direction, and no media commentators ever accused Dick Gephardt, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, or Bill Clinton of being a wuss.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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