Washington is a place where people wear a lot of khaki and are considered well-dressed. It's where ugly people go to become stars. It's where bespectacled nerds go to reinvent themselves as brawlers. The ranks of nerds who've become political manly men is large. George W. Bush is the most obvious one -- the former cheerleader from Connecticut somehow convinced everyone that he was a brush-clearing cowboy from Texas. More recently, we had Jon Huntsman, the son of a billionaire whose entire campaign strategy was to trick political reporters into thinking he was cool with photos of him on a motorcycle or in a jean jacket, and then to release ads of a motocross driver cruising through the desert. The American people did not buy it, and Huntsman is still a little mad at the press for failing to help him sell it.
This week, we have a case study in the type: Mitt Romney's top aide -- he prefers "utility player" -- Eric Fehrnstrom, who is profiled by GQ's Jason Zengerle. Fehrnstrom, famous-for-D.C. for getting in fights on Twitter, hits all the key points of this familiar character: the nails-for-breakfast straight-shooting potty-mouthed punch-you-as-soon-as-look-at-you male political aide -- and sometimes it manifests in politicians too. But it's all disconcerting since these men usually look less like Olympic athletes than Olympic mascots. They eat french fries and ride on buses. Most importantly, they make a living using words to describe changing relationships between people, which is, if you believe in evolutionary psychology, the girliest job of all time. Nevertheless, every four years, you read about dorks who've become the embodiment of machismo. Zengerle writes about how Fehrnstrom was toughened up at the start of his career as a reporter for the Boston Herald, a place where people used word processors as weapons:
"The Herald was like the schoolyard bully," Howie Carr, the legendary Boston brawler who was the paper's top columnist and animating spirit, told me. "We were all about finding people and kicking them when they were down. And then we'd laugh about it."
What kind of bully brawler was Carr? He told Wellesley Weston Magazine in 2006 that in high school, "they said you had to have extra-curriculars to get into a good college. I wasn’t a good athlete, but I looked around to see if there was stuff I could do." He discovered writing for the newspaper like the nerd he is deep down inside. You can tell this by the profile's accompanying photo, in which Carr is wearing glasses and talking with his hands.
But it's the guys who run national campaigns who become icons of old-fashioned American manliness. Here are five case studies, with their D.C.-manliness ranked on a 1 to 5 scale:
Man: Eric Fehrnstrom
Candidate: Mitt Romney, 2012
Physical Manliness: Unlike many other manly campaign aides, so far, there don't seem to be many anecdotes about Fehrnstrom bench pressing swimsuit models or something. But Carr told GQ's Zengerle, "guys like us—white heterosexuals without trust funds—we were never going to get hired by the Globe, so we decided pretty quickly that we were going to have fun." Zengerle explains: "Fun meant wrecking people." Also, sometimes he pushes people: "When reporters tried to buttonhole Romney on the campaign trail, they were rebuffed—sometimes physically by Fehrnstrom, who had no qualms about shoving pesky journalists out of the way."
Style Manliness: "We political writers... were in fact a sort of underworld mob unto ourselves," Fehrnstrom wrote in a 1999 essay for Boston magazine. "If Karl Rove was Bush's brain, then Fehrnstrom is Romney's balls," GQ says. In December 1989, Fehrnstrom ambushed Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy while she was jogging on vacation (budget talks were going on back home.) GQ reports the paper snapped "an unflattering picture of her in her running shorts on the Herald's front page—'her middle-aged thighs flouncing across 300,000 newspapers,' as Fehrnstrom would later describe it. The photograph helped end her political career."
Fighting with Words: Sometimes Fehrnstrom fights with Obama adviser David Axelrod on Twitter. "Not everyone in the Romney camp is amused. 'It's just juvenile,' one senior adviser" told GQ. Another time Fehrnstrom was caught on tape yelling at an Associated Press reporter for arguing with Mitt Romney over whether he hired lobbyists.
That One Actual Fight He Almost Got In: "As Fehrnstrom and [John] Barrett were leaving the studio, according to [small town mayor] Barrett and an NECN [TV] producer, Fehrnstrom called Barrett 'a classless piece of shit.' Then Barrett says Fehrnstrom got in his face and chest-bumped him. Barrett shoved back. The NECN producer separated the two men before things could escalate."
Manliness Rating: 2
Man: Mark Salter
Candidate: John McCain, 2008
Physical Manliness: After high school, Salter "wound up swinging heavy tools on the Iowa railroads for a few years to the tune of $4.25 an hour... Salter's barrel chest and thick arms testify to this," The New Republic's Michael Crowley reported. Plus: "When outdoors, he can usually be found in aviator sunglasses and, whenever possible, sucking on a cigarette." And: Salter was discovered as an intern at the 1988 Republican National Convention when a McCain aide "mistook the stocky Iowan for a bodyguard."
Style Manliness: "Salter, 53, comes by his love of grit and combat honestly," Newsweek wrote in October 2008. "[Salter] channels [McCain]—and the results can be amusingly pugnacious, befitting McCain's poke-'em-in-the-snoot style." Salter, The Wall Street Journal reported, "came out swinging against Sen. Obama."
Fighting with Words: In 2006, then-Sen. Obama backed out of a deal to work on campaign finance with McCain. Newsweek explained the incident in July 2008: "'Brush him back,' McCain ordered. The resulting letter—written above McCain's signature, but not presented to him for a signoff—was so soaked in sarcasm and venom that it drew winces on Capitol Hill. 'I guess I beaned him instead,'" Salter said.
That One Fight He Almost Got In: "McCain adviser Mark Salter looks like he’s been in a bar fight: There’s a cut on the bridge of his nose, and a scrape through his right eyebrow," Newsweek's Ana Marie Cox reported in November 2008. "Yesterday he was roughhousing with senior aide Steve Schmidt and someone’s shadow boxing got a little less shadowy. He jokes that campaign in-fighting is usually less physical."
Manliness Rating: 4.5; Bonus tenths for having actually done a job that required manual labor.
Man: Steve Schmidt
Candidate: John McCain, 2008
Physical Manliness: "a linebacker of a campaign adviser"; "the cueball-headed, barrel-chested Steve Schmidt"; "If you want to really irritate Steve Schmidt (and seeing that he's 6 feet, 225 pounds, and can show a flash of temper, it's not recommended), just compare him to Karl Rove"; "When he can, he lets off steam at the gym by practicing Ultimate Fighting techniques."
Style Manliness: "He isn't pure or a dreamy-eyed idealist; he was hired to win, and he has shown he's not averse to punching or getting elastic with facts," Newsweek's Holly Bailey said. Plus: "In GOP circles, Schmidt's nickname is 'The Bullet,' both for his gleaming shaved head and the way he relentlessly seeks out his target." Politico swooned: "It was classic Schmidt – straightforward, forceful and concise. There are no subtleties, and social graces be damned."
Fighting with Words: One time he wrote this really mean memo about Obama: "He has never put his career on the line for a cause greater than himself... We have seen Barack Obama forced to choose between principle and the interests of himself and his party. He has always chosen the latter..."
That One Fight He Almost Got In: (See roughhousing story with Salter, above.)
Manliness Rating: 3.5
Man: Rahm Emanuel
Candidate: Bill Clinton, 1992; Barack Obama, 2008
Physical Manliness: "His wiry body tensed"; "The top of his right middle finger was severed when he was a teenager, adding to his aura of toughness"; "wiry man with conspiratorial-looking dark circles around his eyes"; "a wiry tough guy who also dances ballet and whose slender build belies a muscular intensity."
Style Manliness: Emanuel is "not one of these butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth guys," The New York Times' David Brooks said in a love letter to Emanuel. But he is "like an urban cowboy." Time called him "the most hardheaded, no-nonsense, foul-mouthed, smart-as-hell, get-it-done-or-get-out-of-my-way Washington insider of his generation," the Chicago Tribune said he was a "brutally effective taskmaster" who was "called 'Rahmbo' even by his mother." Even foreigners were impressed: Der Spiegel said he was "infamous as Clinton’s political pit bull."
Words Fish: "During the  campaign, Emanuel had feuded with Alan Secrest, a well-known pollster. The Democrats had lost a close race for Jack Kemp’s old seat in Buffalo, and Emanuel blamed the loss in part on a faulty Secrest poll. When the campaign was over, he sent Secrest a dead fish, accompanied by a handwritten note: 'It’s been awful working with you. Love, Rahm,'" the Chicago explained. "Secrest responded with his own letter, six typed pages that began with the words 'What a waste,' and went on to diagnose Emanuel's supposed problems with 'star-fucking,' 'hubris,' 'immaturity (personalizing conflict),' and 'lying.'"
That One Fight He Almost Got In: "I am showering, naked as a jaybird, and here comes Rahm Emanuel, not even with a towel wrapped around his tush, poking his finger in my chest, yelling at me because I wasn't going to vote for the president's budget. Do you know how awkward it is to have a political argument with a naked man?" former Rep. Eric Massa said in 2010.
Manliness Rating: 2. Loses points for exhibiting no interest in a manly activity like mixed martial arts and for past as a ballet dancer.
Man: Ed Rollins
Candidate: Ronald Reagan, 1984; Mike Huckabee, 2008; Michele Bachmann, 2012
Physical Manliness: "street fighter and aspiring boxer from a tough neighborhood in Vallejo, Calif"; "bearded and balding with the beefy build of a onetime boxer" United Press International said August 9, 1984. Rollins was "built like an amphibious landing craft, a beefy, balding former weightlifter who once bench-pressed 385 pounds. He lumbers rather than walks, his thick arms held slightly out from his sides, jock-style. In college and high school, he was a boxer and running back, too," the Washington Post said December 19, 1983.
Style Manliness: "both a former pugilist and a backroom storyteller, is great with the blow-by-blow"; "now the Ed Rollins tough-guy narrative takes yet another turn." Rollins' "passion is not for working in government; it is for working in politics, which he pursues with the pugilistic spirit of the successful amateur boxer he once was," the Washington Post said October 20, 1990. Plus: "Rollins talks straight, saying the things that most pols think and few will say out loud." And: He "speaks the standard mix of sports cliche and powertown jargon." The September 1, 1996 edition of the Providence Journal said Rollins was a "pugnacious former political spin doctor" who "comes across as a tough, savvy, ex-boxer from a blue-collar background who traded the ring for the corridors of power, where he learned to take the gloves off and throw feints and jabs with a fax machine and press releases."
Fighting with Words: Rollins wrote a tell-all in which he said mean things about Ross Perot ("wacko," "extremely dangerous demagogue with delusions of adequacy"), Nancy Reagan "Mommie Dearest," "Paranoid, high-strung, and neurotic"), and George H.W. Bush ("Without a doubt, the worst campaigner to actually get elected President in modern times.") He has repeated this pattern since.
That One Fight He
Almost Actually Got In: "My dreams of being an Olympic boxer were snuffed out in 1967, when I lost my last fight by a TKO," he wrote in his 1996 book.
Manliness Rating: 4. Bonus for getting in an actual fight, even though it happened when he was 24 years old and there was referee. Clarification: Rollins writes in with details of other fights, including real live street brawls.
Photos via MSNBC and Associated Press.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.