I'm Not Impotent, I Just Like Willie Dixon!

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Last week's announcement that in the coming months Bayer and Eli Lilly are going to enter the impotence-pill market that has heretofore been monopolized by Pfizer's Viagra brought to mind a problem I have. I'm developing a reputation for impotence by accident. n I'm not generally a big fan of the blues. But there's one blues songwriter?Willie Dixon, who died a couple of years ago?whom I've always just loved. And there is one Willie Dixon song that I've always loved in particular. It's his most famous song. It's called "I'm Ready."

I used to think of this as a private enthusiasm, but now Willie Dixon's music is known to pretty much anyone who watches political talk shows. That's because "I'm Ready" has become the theme song for all of Viagra's ads. It's the soundtrack to a narrative of this dorky, 50-ish, divorced-looking fellow who's decided to give up his life of suburban torpor and finally Get Some.

This shouldn't be a problem for me. I could say, "Isn't it funny that one of my favorite songs has become the Viagra ad pitch?"?much as the only decent song by that extremely bad early 80s band the Romantics, "What I Like About You,"became a car commercial. But unfortunately, I'm one of those people who can't get tunes out of their heads. And I walked into a convenience store in San Francisco the other day singing "I'm Ready" aloud. The woman at the counter said, "Hey, you're singing the Viagra song!" I got totally defensive?"I most certainly am not!" I said. Then I assured her that the verse I was singing ("Stop what you doin'/Baby come over here/I'll prove to you baby that I ain't no square") was not in the ad. But she'd have none of it, as I found out the following morning when I came in to buy a newspaper. It was so early they hadn't stacked them up yet, so she hollered out to a kid who was just turning on the coffee machines, "Hey, can you see if you can find one Chronicle? It's for the Viagra guy."

Cell High

One night years ago I went to dinner with my friend Tim, an English army officer, who started waxing emotional about leadership. A second lieutenant at the time (he's now a colonel), he was running down the list of his Sandhurst cronies and trying to figure out the ones whose men would "follow them into battle." I brought up the name of a mutual friend who was pretty notoriously drunk and unreliable.

"How 'bout Owain?" I said. "Do you think his men would follow him into battle?"

Tim laughed and said, "Oh, yes. They'd be too curious not to."

That observation came to mind as I listened to George Bush's stem cell speech last week. This is a very different kind of oratory than we're used to from American presidents. Listening to Ronald Reagan?the model for Republican speechmaking most likely to present himself to Bush's attention?you were prepared to be inspired, and you kind of knew how you'd be inspired. But Bush's stem cell speech was riveting in exactly the opposite way. He walked Americans through his own deliberations on a topic that they surely understand but poorly, and the speech was 90 percent over before anyone had any idea where he was going with it.

It's certainly the most curious performance of his presidency, but there's another thing. The stem cell speech is also the only major speech of his presidency thus far. That's evidence of a particular strategy by Bush and his speechwriters?one that bucks an historical trend. Clinton's speechwriter Michael Waldman remarked last year in his book POTUS Speaks that, whereas Harry Truman's speechwriters used to turn out one speech a week, Clinton's were cranking out one, and sometimes two, a day.

Bush is following the Truman strategy: drive up the value of your words by limiting the supply of them. But it's surprising, for a couple of reasons, that he would choose to make his stand on stem cells. One is that this is not a fight he had to have. Had Bush simply left the Clinton administration's stem cell policy in place when he took office, no one would even have noticed that experimentation was being done on stem cells. Had he simply killed the Clinton program, there would have been little public outcry. But instead he dragged the country through weeks of moral agonizing on an issue none of them had ever heard of. And since there was no obvious political advantage to be had from raising it, we ought to entertain the possibility that, for Bush, the moral agonizing was the whole point. Bush used stem cells to introduce into American politics a new style of talking about moral issues that will have implications for abortion, foreign policy and a whole bunch of other things.

On abortion, it's worth remembering that the very first policy bombshell Bush lobbed in his candidacy was to say he liked the anti-abortion "tone" of the Republican Party. That has led savvy people to assume that Bush would behave on abortion basically like a Republican "moderate"?one who has no particular convictions on the topic, but recognizes the might of the Southern bloc of his coalition, and also recognizes (as Ronald Reagan did) how easy it is to dupe them.

But I'm no longer quite sure of that. Bush confuses me more and more. He confuses even the right-wing people who are reputed to be his strongest supporters. To use stem cell research to push moral concerns to the very center of American politics the day before he used the Adarand decision to assert that the worst kind of affirmative action will continue forever is to take partisan politics into unfamiliar territory. It's not that Bush is a moderate. He's a rightist and a leftist at the same time.


Pretty much everyone in Washington spent the week snickering at the beard that Al Gore grew on his European tour. That's a mistake. True, the beard makes Gore look fat and lazy. But that's exactly the point. Fat and lazy is the opposite of lean and hungry, and lean and hungry is the attitude that appalled half of America during last November's mayhem in Florida. We don't hear as much from the half of America that Gore appalled as we do from the half of America that Bush appalled.

The losers' narrative is always more appealing?it's a much more interesting story to say that Bush "stole" the election from Gore. But what should be kept in mind is that, going into 2004, Gore has precisely the same assets and liabilities Bush has. Pollsters have realized since about March that Bush has an upper limit on his popularity ratings that is probably due to the circumstances under which the election was resolved?but he's got a lower limit on his ratings for precisely the same reason.

Fully half the country believes that Gore tried to steal the election, and his only hope for victory three years from now is lulling them into forgetting they think that. The more Gore looks like a guy who spent several months just kicking back and drinking rioja and eating jamon serrano?and the less he looks like a guy who spent several weeks last fall trying to undermine America's constitutional order and accede to the presidency in the most piggish way possible?the better off he is.

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