Mitt Romney’s sex appeal and Newsweek’s ‘wimp’ cover

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
Font Size:

Does Mitt Romney have sex appeal? Does he need it to win?

That this campaign has been dubbed the dullest campaign ever cuts like a knife into Romney’s most serious defect: He seems so totally boring and uncharismatic. This has led at least one person to ask if Mitt Romney can make boring sexy. If America is a sexy bitch, as Meghan McCain and Michael Ian Black call our country, then will she be willing to go all the way with Romney come November 4?

These were the questions running through my head upon reading the Newsweek cover story on Mitt Romney’s alleged wimpiness. What immediately struck me about the Newsweek “wimp” cover is that it is an attack on Mitt Romney’s sexuality above all — his manliness. Here’s an excerpt from the story:

It isn’t fine that Romney has changed his view on every issue. It’s pathetic. It suggests that he lives in fear of America’s right wing. That’s the real wimp factor.

Calling a guy a wimp is like calling him a sissy. Asking, rhetorically, if Romney is too insecure to be president serves one aim: It’s meant to strike down the one quality that every man needs to have to be considered manly: confidence. In the last election cycle, Obama overflowed with confidence, so much so that he, at times, seemed petulant and cocky. Better that, though, than the alternative. No one wants to see a potential president get emasculated.

It’s important to think about a candidate’s sex appeal, because sex appeal matters, especially among women voters. Back in 2008, Obama’s sex appeal was inescapable and it’s what carried him into his historic victory.

Recall that in August 2008 — exactly this time four years ago — The Nation ran a breathless essay titled “Obama as Sex Symbol” by JoAnn Wypijewski:

In politics as in pop, legions of little girls jumping out of their panties can’t be wrong. That’s the vital lesson so far of Election ’08. I watched a throng of them in November 2006, teenagers in their short skirts and breathlessness, jumping and jittering, hands to cheeks, screaming for Barack Obama. …

He wasn’t yet a candidate. He was Frank Sinatra, so cool he’s hot, a centrifugal force commanding attention so ruthlessly that it appeared effortless, reducing everyone around him to a sidekick, and the girls in the front rows to jelly.

Then there was the Obama Girl, of course, who sang about having a crush on the future commander-in-chief. And Tina Brown, who wrote about Obama’s “heat quotient.” And Judith Warner, writing in The New York Times, about fantasies of the women she knows:

Many women — not too surprisingly — were dreaming about sex with the president. In these dreams, the women replaced Michelle with greater or lesser guilt or, in the case of a 62-year-old woman in North Florida, whose dream was reported to me by her daughter, found a fully above-board solution: “Michelle had divorced Barack because he had become ‘too much of a star.’ He then married my mother, who was oh so proud to be the first lady,” the daughter wrote me.

There was some daydreaming too, much of it a collective fantasy about the still-hot Obama marriage. “Barack and Michelle Obama look like they have sex. They look like they like having sex,” a Los Angeles woman wrote to me, summing up the comments of many. “Often. With each other. These days when the sexless marriage is such a big celebrity in America (and when first couples are icons of rigid propriety), that’s one interesting mental drama.”

And let’s not forget the thrill that went up Chris Matthews’ leg.

The point is, part of Obama’s cache during his last campaign was his sex appeal — his charm, charisma, youth, and energy. That may have been his only appeal, in fact. But that was clearly enough.

What about Romney? His perceived sex appeal can be determined by the amount of coverage it’s received — which is, by my count, pretty much none. I did find one tidbit from 2002, which seems so long ago in political time, that it’s charming to read now. People magazine, of all places, listed Romney back then as one of the 50 most beautiful people on the scene:

Just don’t tell him he’s arrestingly handsome. “Nothing embarrasses Mitt more than when someone says he’s good-looking,” says Cindy Gillespie, a colleague on the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. Yet now that Romney, 55, who lives in Belmont, Mass., is the GOP candidate for governor of his home state, it’s hard not to notice his blinding smile. Says Olympic skeleton gold medalist Jimmy Shea, 33: “I’d be really excited to look like him when I get to be his age.” Political critics like to paint the 6’2″ Mormon as a too-perfect Ken doll. The son of former Michigan governor George Romney amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune as a venture capitalist at Boston’s Bain Capital and has been married 33 years to his high school sweetheart, Ann, with whom he has five sons. But childhood pal Tom McCaffrey insists that while Romney’s “family looks like a Gap ad, which makes us all a bit cynical,” he is a man of “immense credibility and character — which shows in his face.”

Beyond random message board discussions of Romney’s sex appeal, the verdict seems to be that the former governor of Massachusetts is a sexless organization man with a pretty face.

But this all just goes to show how superficial the definition of manliness has become. One thing that Tina Brown pointed out in her 2008 analysis of Obama’s sex appeal is that it was androgynous. That makes Obama a perfect idol of manliness in our gender-bending time of beta-males and alpha-females. Obama is about as far from the alpha-male ideal as one can get: He is a bookish academic who wrote a lot of “very bad poetry” in his youth (even his politics are poetic, we are told). And he talks a lot. Some would call him a master sophist, defined more by his dazzling rhetoric than by his actions. Is this the new manly? Is this what passes for sex appeal? There’s something very adolescent — dare I say “wimpy” — about the poet-as-president model.

Against the current trends, Romney strikes me as a guy who embodies a more traditional version of manliness that’s absent from the culture today. He may seem boring, but behind that flat facade is a man who has provided for his family, assumed leadership roles in business, devoted himself to his religion, and committed himself to public service. In other words, he is a model of civic virtue, a man of action rather than a man of verbiage (remember Charles Krauthammer’s brilliant column comparing Obama to Hamlet?). Romney is no young Hamlet. He is an adult. Maybe this isn’t sexy, but it represents one prototype of manliness that we could use more of in the United States.

Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of the Hoover journal Defining Ideas and associate editor of The New Criterion. She writes about pop culture at acculturated.com.