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Friday, April 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ellen Goodman / Syndicated columnist

Manipulating the faucet of fear

BOSTON — For those who have ever wondered when a promise of protection becomes a protection racket, this is your moment.

We now have the forced admission that in 2003 George W. Bush himself approved the leaking of classified intelligence gathered before the Iraq war. He didn't let it all leak out. He authorized a trickle of information buttressing his case that Saddam Hussein had been a nuclear threat — information that had already been discredited.

After manipulating this faucet of fear, the president then defended the war in the name of national security, casting himself as the country's father-protector. In short, he sold himself as the person we needed to protect us from the fear he provoked. Welcome to the protection racket.

And lest you forget, his re-election campaign was run by the same racketeers. George W. was transformed from a conservative who was compassionate to a commander in chief who was unflappable. John Kerry was accused of the unmanly crime of nuance and caricatured as flip-floppable. We were subjected to an endless strongman debate with Arnold Schwarzenegger leading the attack on "girlie men."

A stock figure of the election cycle was the soccer mom transformed into the security mom. This was the woman scared right — into the arms of the president. In this favorite story line, women who mock husbands who don't ask for directions fall for the politician who insists that he knows where he's going.

The security mom was something of a cartoon figure and the balloon over her head now reads: "What was I thinking?" There are enough second thoughts in the citizenry to make Bush's approval rating look like the "Summit Plummet" ride at Disney World. But I'm afraid the racketeers aren't filing for bankruptcy yet.

Consider the success of Harvey Mansfield's book, a last-ditch defense of "Manliness." Harvard's token conservative has written a plea to common sense replete with enough provocative nonsense to make you wonder if he handled public relations for Larry Summers. Women, he asserts manfully, like changing diapers, fear spiders and are cute when they're mad. But the oddball, often-impenetrable mix of Socrates and stereotypes has landed Mansfield attention even in such estrogen-laden bastions as Oprah's magazine.

Mansfield defines manliness as "confidence in the face of risk." His manly man is something of a drama king who prefers conflict and war. He "asserts himself so that he and the justice he demands are not overlooked."

What makes this a somewhat modest defense is that Mansfield acknowledges good and bad manliness. The same characteristics can lead a terrorist to fly a plane directly into a building or a firefighter to race up the stairs to save lives.

So Mansfield believes we need to bolster the "good" manliness to protect us from the "bad" manliness. "Manliness is the only remedy for the trouble it causes," he writes. But here is where the scam clicks in. He calls on women to accept, jolly, humor and respect manly men as a way of muting their danger. Protection Rackets Inc.

Despite the existence of women terrorists, soldiers and secretaries of state, most wars have indeed been initiated and waged by men. Tribes and countries do continually look to one group of men to defend them against another group of men.

But sometimes we have to just ask: How well have humoring and jollying muted the dangers of war or honor killings, wife-beating or ethnic cleansing? Haven't we shown too much respect for people whose blood rushes to conflict? In a Time magazine piece, even a retired general chastises the White House for going to war with a "swagger." What happens when the men who fantasized a nuclear threat in Iraq confront the swagger of such a threat in Iran?

In the past weeks, I've heard any number of people ask whether Katie Couric has the gravitas — that's Latin for baritone — to be a sole network news anchor. And whether Hillary Clinton has the cojones — that's Spanish for, never mind — to be president. I've taken the pulse of liberals who have a crush on John McCain for his wartime courage even when his convictions have turned the Straight Talk Express into a Right Wing Local.

There's something to be learned in the Bush debacle. Beware the call of the old manliness. Beware the man who ramps up the danger and offers himself as hero and security blanket. And beware the leader whose unwavering, unflappable, unnuanced and unjustified confidence in the face of risk becomes our disaster.

Ellen Goodman's column appears Friday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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