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

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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
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."


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

’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.

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.