Americans are having something of an anger management moment. Tweeters hated on NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, campaign crowds heckle both presidential candidates, and viewers lost interest in the last season of “American Idol” because the judges were too nice.
Last week, the presidential campaign took its turn, detouring from health care and tax cuts to focus on which candidate was the angry one. First, Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama and Joe Biden of running an “angry and desperate” campaign. The Obama folks dutifully replied in kind, calling Romney “unhinged.”
The exchange put the spotlight on one of the most exacting measures we use to judge a leader. For men especially, the expression of anger is a crucial test of mettle; it may, in fact, be the ultimate measure of masculinity, even though the cultural ideal is rooted more in Hollywood than reality.
We want men who rise, steely eyed and straight-spined, above most petty bickering until some clear moral line is crossed and then — bam! — quick and irrevocable response.
Clint Eastwood grinding out: “Go ahead, make my day.” “The West Wing’s” Jed Bartlett furiously quoting Scripture as he takes down a homophobe. The previously unflappable Michael Corleone’s declaration of war after his family is attacked — “In my home! In the room where my wife sleeps! Where my children play with their toys.” Dr. David Banner, trying to avoid becoming the Hulk, warning: “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
Neither Romney nor Obama expresses anger particularly well. The president, who used his famously even temperament to great effect during the last campaign, found himself, once in office, accused of bloodlessness.
One headline after another asked when Obama would get mad as his refusal to be riled by his opponents increasingly seemed arrogant and overly insular. Two years ago, a spoof video of the president kicking down a door made the Internet rounds; more recently, comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele gave him an Anger Translator, who stomped around and swore while the “president” gave an even-keeled speech.
The president responded that he needed a translator of his own. He was kidding, but it might not be a bad idea. In this campaign, that hepcat cool seems strained, erupting now and then in exasperation. It’s no wonder the man had such a hard time giving up smokes.
Romney has a different problem — he is quicker to show his anger but too often he sounds peevish. And peevish is Not Good In a President. Both candidates become annoyed when interrupted, but “Let me speak,” “Let me finish speaking,” “It’s my turn” has become something of a mantra for Romney, his finger waving in a most schoolmarmish manner whenever anyone, be it a rival candidate or a group of voters, interrupts him. He can also be sarcastic — “I’m glad you find that funny, Glen,” he said to an Associated Press reporter who laughed when Romney explained that having a lobbyist as a senior adviser did not directly conflict with a previous assertion that lobbyists don’t run his campaign — and, when irritated, his voice goes up an octave, which doesn’t help at all. Abraham Lincoln had a famously high voice too, but then the Gettysburg Address was not televised.
And, as Lloyd Bentsen might say, Mitt Romney’s no Abraham Lincoln. Remember Bentsen’s icy-voiced throw down of Dan Quayle? “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Or Ronald Reagan as he called out: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” That’s what we’re talking about. That’s the restrained but roiling fury that has fueled the American hero since James Fenimore Cooper created Hawkeye.
By accusing the president of being angry, Romney opens both his opponent and himself up to criticism of both substance — shouldn’t political opponents be angry given the state of the union? — and style.
Style inevitably has the more fatal sting. Would Bill Clinton’s assertion that “I didn’t have sex with that woman” have irked as many people if he hadn’t wagged his finger in that absurdly admonishing manner?
Two years later, his heir apparent, Al Gore, rolled his eyes and made adolescent noises of frustration, thereby losing the edge in the presidential debates to George W. Bush. (Real men don’t roll their eyes, Al; real men smile politely and then go in for the kill.) Further back, when the Watergate tapes were released, the biggest revelation was not the apparent disregard for the Constitution of the United States, but President Nixon’s chronic, vindictive and perpetually profane rage.
There was a time when anger was the lingua franca of the political process. In the ’60s and ’70s, the “angry young man” was looked to as a savior by many voters who felt that society had behaved too long like sheep. Righteous anger on behalf of women and minorities, the poor and working class, rang out on podiums across the country.
Now anger rages all around us, with folks like Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann setting a tone of political fury and vindictiveness that too often obliterates the initial message or issue.
With so much of the coverage wallowing in emotion, the natural contrast is, not surprisingly, restraint; neither Romney nor Obama is a yeller or a podium pounder. Some of what passes for anger in the campaign can be put down to posturing, but if post-presidential biographies teach us nothing else, they make it clear that no candidate remains mild-mannered in private.
Which is one reason we buy these biographies — to read about the infighting and private takedowns. We want our leaders to hit back hard, to create unforgettable catchphrases like our fictional heroes.
Never mind that Howard “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Beale existed to showcase how quickly the ravings of a breakdown could be exploited for ratings or that Jack Nicholson’s famous “You can’t handle the truth!” was spoken by the villain of the piece, a man whose anger exposed his hypocrisy.
These remain our gold standards, moments when previously powerfully controlled men made it clear that enough was enough, moments that can define a career.
Like it or not, the electorate is just another audience, and every audience longs for the defining moment. The country will be waiting to see which angry man hits it first.
Mary McNamara is senior culture editor of the Los Angeles Times.