Our Obsession With 'Looking Presidential'
Our Obsession With 'Looking Presidential'
Who would now prefer the tall, slim Neville Chamberlain to the tubby, bald Winston Churchill?
What does it mean to "look presidential," and why does it matter? An enormous amount of the media coverage of presidential candidates is focused on whether or not he (or, very rarely, she) "looks presidential."
Grow up, America! Has the great democratic system of the Republic really come down to choosing leaders not on the basis of what they say, or even the way they say it, but on the way they fill a suit while saying it?
Looking presidential can be broadly translated to mean being around 6 feet tall, relatively slim and broad-shouldered, and having a full head of preferably pepper-and-salt-colored hair and a ready, winning smile. It isn't being only 5 feet 6 inches tall and slightly balding that makes me want to blaspheme at the TV screen whenever I hear approving talk of Messrs. Romney, Perry and Huntsman "looking presidential." It's because I'm a historian—and where would the United States be if she had always adopted such blatantly look-ist criteria in the past?
"There's no way they can run this Lincoln dude," one can hear the media pundit telling a colleague in 1860. "Yes, the background story's good, with the rail-splitting and the log cabin and all, but look at that beard without the mustache. Weird. And that stovepipe hat—so 1850s. Now, that James Buchanan, he looks wonderfully presidential with his noble head of grey-white hair."
Lincoln worked at looking odd. Along with the more famous styles of facial hair around at the time—goatee, muttonchops, Franz Josef, etc.—there were plenty of unusual types, such as the hulihee, French fork, chin curtain and a la Souvarov. Yet Lincoln chose a style even more obscure than those. Thankfully, no one cared.
How would Teddy Roosevelt have fared in a more look-ist age, with his spectacles, mustache and height of only 5 feet 8 inches carrying a 200-pound body? Yet he was light beside William Taft, a much under-appreciated president who would have been massacred by the late-night satirical TV shows for his 335-pound girth (although he lost 80 of them within 18 months of leaving the White House).
Andrew Jackson's long wavy hair, George Washington's ill-fitting hippo-ivory dentures and the distorted smile it gave him, Woodrow Wilson's tombstone-like teeth and lack of vision in his left eye, Ulysses Grant's grizzly little beard—all might have proven fatal at the polls if earlier ages had been as morally stunted, intellectually limited and looks-obsessed as ours. Yet even now one of the great American political parties is in the process of choosing someone to stand for president at a nerve-wracking moment in the history of the U.S., and we're saddled with commentary that not only ignores the issues but makes the jury of "American Idol" seem kind.
When Jon Stewart called Mitt Romney "The guy who looks like everyone who ever fired your dad," or David Letterman said he "looks like a guy who would run a seminar on condo flipping," they were OK gags but totally focused on Mr. Romney's looks. What would they have made of the outbreak of boils on Thomas Jefferson's buttocks in 1818, or his breaking a wrist while (allegedly) jumping over a kettle while he was ambassador to Paris?
Jefferson, whose hair was brushed straight back like Bill Maher's, also wore spectacles, another very unpresidential look in public. Of course he might have worn contact lenses if running for office today, but the fact that this would be required of one of history's greatest political wordsmiths further underlines the stupidity of it all.
Today's looks-obsessed but also politically correct culture might allow for a president in a wheelchair, like Franklin Roosevelt, but when will there be another president as bald as Dwight Eisenhower? Not, I suspect, until the U.S. accepts that a national leader needs entirely different qualities and attributes than a person playing the president in a Hollywood movie. Slate.com has recently married up photos of the GOP contenders with actors who have played the president in films and presumably could again, including Ronny Cox as Mr. Romney, Cotter Smith as Mr. Huntsman, and Bruce Greenwood as Mr. Perry. The resemblances are indeed uncanny.
Yet surprisingly few great American presidents have "looked presidential" (Ronald Reagan and JFK being the obvious exceptions). A much larger and more interesting number looked the part but never made it to the White House. Think about it: John McCain, John Kerry, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Adlai Stevenson (despite baldness), Bob Dole, Barry Goldwater (very much), and even Al Gore until he opened his mouth—they all could have come from central casting. Even Thomas Dewey might have qualified until he was fatally described as looking like "the little man on the top of the wedding cake".
So looking presidential may in fact be a poisoned chalice or, at best, a kind of consolation prize that one gets before having the chance to lose. Mr. Romney might look presidential, but there is still something about him that suggests a 2015 bumper sticker that will state: "Don't blame me, I voted for Mitt."
There can be nothing more moronic than choosing someone because he "looks presidential." In Britain, it would have meant the tall, slim and distinguished-looking Neville Chamberlain winning out over the tubby, bald Winston Churchill. Any country that selects its leaders on such a basis deserves everything it gets.
Mr. Roberts is author most recently of "The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War" (Harper, 2011).