Dear Mr. Kerry:
On September 11, the History Channel aired a documentary based on the 9/11 Commission report. Did you see it?
Here, again, we saw a slightly stuttering Condoleezza Rice admit that the infamous Presidential Daily Briefing of August 6, 2001 — when Mr. Bush was spending a month whacking brush on his ranch — was titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike the United States.” We saw her dismissing this information as “historical,” and Richard Clarke indicting the administration for doing next to nothing to combat terrorism before 9/11 and obsessively setting its sights on Iraq after. We saw footage of Team Bush insisting that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, followed by the revelation that he had none. We saw the committee note there was no connection between al Qaeda and Iraq.
The hearings dominated the news this spring — when not overshadowed by Abu Ghraib — and Mr. Bush’s approval ratings sank below 50 percent. Shortly after, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 broke box office records for a documentary and treated us to the spectacle of our president sitting paralyzed in front of preschoolers for seven minutes while the nation was under attack. In addition to this disastrous foreign policy record, Mr. Bush has an equally dreadful record on the environment, civil liberties, women’s issues, jobs, healthcare and education.
Mr. Kerry, why are you losing to this guy?
Everyone is giving you advice, and we are heartened to see you may be taking some of it. Your attacks on Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq, especially your speech at NYU, are rallying your dispirited faithful, getting you lead-story coverage and highlighting the utter stupidity and arrogance of Rumsfeld’s delusion of a two-month victory march through Iraq.
People are telling you to stay on message, to attack the president on national security and to get away from Vietnam. All of this makes sense. But the main thing Team Bush has sought to do — given it has no record to run on — is to make this election a referendum on masculinity.
As a feminist I wish the election were not about who is more “manly,” but this is the culture in which we live. The “girlie man” jokes, the over-used “flip flop” attacks, the ridicule of your use of the word “sensitive” when discussing the need for diplomacy, Bush’s determined performance of certainty about Iraq despite evidence of the debacle there: All are designed to make voters see you as not “man enough” to be president.
It is this perception you must reverse by November. The main gap your campaign must expose is that between Bush’s macho posturing and the cowardice of his policies.
Explain to the voters that Bush is not “man enough” to admit when he and his aides have made a mistake. He is not man enough to fire those, like Rumsfeld, who have presided over one foreign policy scandal after the next. He is too chicken to take on his vice president’s financial interests in the “rebuilding” of Iraq.
Bush is not man enough to take care of those less fortunate than he. New census data shows that the poverty rate has risen under Mr. Bush, as has the gap between the rich and the middle class. More Americans than ever — a projected 45 million — are without health insurance, millions of them children. Despite some job increases over the summer — many of them in low-paying service-sector jobs — about 2 million jobs have been lost during the Bush administration. The national debt and deficit are ballooning under the Bush tax cuts. A real man would not pass these debts onto his and others’ children. A real man would do something, not stand by like a pampered wimp while men and women struggle to feed their families.
A real man would not attack the women of the world; those who are secure in their masculinity do not bully those with less power. Everything Team Bush has done — making sure the federal judges he appoints pass a litmus test on abortion; attempting to undermine Title IX; attempting to undermine Head Start; attempting to increase the number of hours mothers must work to collect workfare; seeking to impose abstinence-only sex education and abortion gag rules here and around the world; refusing to extend the assault weapons ban; and sending, in disproportionate numbers, the children of rural women to the quagmire in Iraq — shows Team Bush’s contempt for women.
Mr. Kerry, recent polls show you losing support among women. A real man, a confident man, would reach out and persuade them that he will do a better job of taking care of and protecting their families.
The debates will be crucial for you. Please, no “lock box,” no strutting around the stage. You must be, simply enough, presidential — firm, unwavering, strong, pointed, compassionate, unflappable. You must drive home that Bush — too passive before 9/11 and too misguided after, too tied to corporate America — is the one not “man enough” for the job.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.