That Presidential Look: The Bad, the Beautiful, and Voting-Booth Realities

While there was more than one reason why John McCain was a long shot to win the 2008 general election, a big one was something almost no one talked seriously about: appearance.

That is to say, when was the last time an old-looking, white-haired, half-bald man won the presidency?

If you think this piece will be satire or fluff, think again.  It rather will be very serious commentary about a very silly -- but painfully real -- phenomenon.

When people do discuss looks' impact on presidential fortunes, they usually treat the matter as a joke; we may hear, for instance, how a candidate must have "great hair" to enjoy rarefied commander-in-chief air.  But if professional pundits and politics wonks think it's beneath them to wax anything but comedic on this issue, the joke is on them.  After all, this is the age of American Idol.

To answer my earlier question, the last time Americans elected a bald president was 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower defeated similarly hair follicle-deprived Adlai Stevenson.  Not coincidentally, this was just prior to the full flowering of the television age.

Four years later, America's first televised presidential debate made a star of relatively unknown but strikingly handsome John F. Kennedy and an underdog of his opponent, incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon.  It's said that people who only listened to the event on radio thought Nixon won, but the TV audience -- perhaps numbering 74 million -- was a different matter.  Wrote Time magazine, "Nixon, pale and underweight from a recent hospitalization, appeared sickly and sweaty, while Kennedy appeared calm and confident.  ... Those that watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy was the clear winner.  Many say Kennedy won the election that night."

Fifty-one years later, looks carry more weight than ever.  Aside from the baldness handicap, can you imagine an ugly person winning the presidency?  Then, how about someone who lacks that somewhat less tangible quality -- that of looking "presidential"? 

When you understand appearance's true impact, you realize that you can usually look at a person and say with almost 100-percent certainty whether or not his appearance disqualifies him from the White House.  Now, this is where some will get angry, behaving as if voicing an unpleasant truth helps give it wings.  But know that I certainly don't cast my vote on a superficial basis; for my part, a candidate could be an ideologically sound goblin.  Moreover, I realize that if you're reading this, you too are someone who is relatively unlikely to be swayed by the superficial.  Many Americans, however, wouldn't read a piece of news or commentary if it were pasted to a stripper.  And the fact is that if looks can influence five to seven percent of the vote, it's enough to sway most elections.

So now we get down to business.  What about the current crop of major GOP candidates, announced and potential?  Who is saddled with a chance-killing countenance?  Who has that fortuitous physiognomy?  What follows is my analysis of how this factor affects the chances of a group of Republican presidential aspirants.  Do not take any of it as endorsement or opposition.  I can love a candidate yet accept that his appearance will scare away the idiot vote; I can also recognize a devilish politician yet acknowledge that he possesses Luciferian dark-angel looks.

Only one simple question must be asked when making this analysis: if I were casting a president in a movie, would I choose this person?  If the answer is "yes," he has a chance on life's stage.  If it's "maybe," he already has a handicap.  Then there is "no" and "heck no!"  These four quoted words will be my ratings system.

Congressman Ron Paul: heck no!  I love Paul on the Constitution, but his facial constitution is as appealing to most people as 200-year-old parchment.  Thin, gray, old-looking, and seldom sporting a smile, Paul too often looks like a funeral director -- on duty.  This is fine when comforting the bereaved, but it doesn't exactly exude a Ronald Reagan, Morning in America spirit and uplift a nation in the midst of an economic death spiral. 

Congressman Michele Bachmann: no.  Her politics are certainly manly enough, but her appearance is a different story.  And the issue here is that looks must be assessed differently in a female candidate as compared to a male one.

Whereas attractive men have an advantage over mediocre-looking ones, I sense that it's just the opposite with women.  There are a few reasons for this.  First, fair or not, people tend to associate female attractiveness with flightiness and lower intelligence.  Second, as history has shown, female voters are often taken in by a good-looking male candidate.  But while men will certainly think that a female candidate's beauty makes her fit for a certain role, president isn't it.  Additionally, while men may view a handsome male politician as a man's man, a certain percentage of women will actually be jealous of an attractive female candidate.  And we all know what that means.

To support my thesis, consider the most successful female politician of modern times, Margaret Thatcher.  While she wasn't ugly, neither was she a looker; rather, her appearance reflected sobriety and seriousness.  She was the Iron Lady.  Today, Hillary Clinton, walking ideological nightmare that she is, has that sufficiently hard look.  And, in my estimation, a woman will have difficulty winning the presidency unless she appears to be an iron lady.

Mitt Romney: yes.  Romney's only defect may be that he appears too much the quintessential politician.  With hair on steroids, he is the Sam Malone of the presidential race.  You certainly would cast him as a politician in that movie, but would he be a character you'd trust?

Herman Cain: no.  I love him on social issues, but the last president with facial hair was William Howard Taft in 1913, and the last one who regularly sported eyeglasses was Harry Truman.  Put both together and, well...  Additionally, while Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe can get away with wearing dark shades in public, he doesn't have to win elections.  What was Cain thinking? 

Sarah Palin: no.  Now, I know how passionate you Palin supporters are, but try not to kill the messenger.  I agree with her on virtually all the issues, but I refer to my commentary on Bachmann.  Palin has it all over Thatcher ideologically (the latter was conservative only in a European sense), and she's certainly much more capable with a .30-30 against a grizzly.  But when the average voter looks at the two, he'll nevertheless think that Thatcher could break Palin in half like a crumpet before tea time.

Newt Gingrich: maybe.  However, even if he weren't weighed down by personal baggage, the gray hair doesn't help and he doesn't smile enough.

Rick Santorum: maybe.  I would take Santorum as president in a heartbeat, but do his looks and persona make him seem like too much the choir boy?  Will the average voter see him as exuding strength?

Governor John Huntsman: maybe.  He's a little gaunt, but he could perhaps pull off that starring role.  Of course, with his neither-fish-nor-fowl politics, he actually does have a better chance of playing a president in Hollywood than in real life as a major-party candidate.

Governor Rick Perry: yes.  Like Romney, Perry is a quintessential politician (you can interpret what that means); unlike Romney, his looks are not politician-like to the point of plasticity.  Handsome and hair-endowed, appearance-wise he is the man to beat.

In making these assessments, I don't imply that ideology is insignificant.  The point is, however, that just as the wrong politics alienates a certain percentage of voters, so does the wrong appearance.  Also note that the latter's significance varies depending on the group in question.  Conservative voters are more informed and less likely to operate based on emotion than other Americans, making looks a relatively minor factor in the Republican primaries.  But the general election is a different matter.

Of course, it's tragic that people are so influenced by superficials, but it's nothing new.  It's little different from when a man marries for looks or a woman for money.  And the fact is that, unless and until we can get election turnouts down to five percent, having fatally un-presidential looks will doom even a stellar statesman's chances. 

Don't like it?  Talk to the people who think that rallying the idiot vote somehow makes our republic stronger.     

Contact Selwyn Duke

While there was more than one reason why John McCain was a long shot to win the 2008 general election, a big one was something almost no one talked seriously about: appearance.

That is to say, when was the last time an old-looking, white-haired, half-bald man won the presidency?

If you think this piece will be satire or fluff, think again.  It rather will be very serious commentary about a very silly -- but painfully real -- phenomenon.

When people do discuss looks' impact on presidential fortunes, they usually treat the matter as a joke; we may hear, for instance, how a candidate must have "great hair" to enjoy rarefied commander-in-chief air.  But if professional pundits and politics wonks think it's beneath them to wax anything but comedic on this issue, the joke is on them.  After all, this is the age of American Idol.

To answer my earlier question, the last time Americans elected a bald president was 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower defeated similarly hair follicle-deprived Adlai Stevenson.  Not coincidentally, this was just prior to the full flowering of the television age.

Four years later, America's first televised presidential debate made a star of relatively unknown but strikingly handsome John F. Kennedy and an underdog of his opponent, incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon.  It's said that people who only listened to the event on radio thought Nixon won, but the TV audience -- perhaps numbering 74 million -- was a different matter.  Wrote Time magazine, "Nixon, pale and underweight from a recent hospitalization, appeared sickly and sweaty, while Kennedy appeared calm and confident.  ... Those that watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy was the clear winner.  Many say Kennedy won the election that night."

Fifty-one years later, looks carry more weight than ever.  Aside from the baldness handicap, can you imagine an ugly person winning the presidency?  Then, how about someone who lacks that somewhat less tangible quality -- that of looking "presidential"? 

When you understand appearance's true impact, you realize that you can usually look at a person and say with almost 100-percent certainty whether or not his appearance disqualifies him from the White House.  Now, this is where some will get angry, behaving as if voicing an unpleasant truth helps give it wings.  But know that I certainly don't cast my vote on a superficial basis; for my part, a candidate could be an ideologically sound goblin.  Moreover, I realize that if you're reading this, you too are someone who is relatively unlikely to be swayed by the superficial.  Many Americans, however, wouldn't read a piece of news or commentary if it were pasted to a stripper.  And the fact is that if looks can influence five to seven percent of the vote, it's enough to sway most elections.

So now we get down to business.  What about the current crop of major GOP candidates, announced and potential?  Who is saddled with a chance-killing countenance?  Who has that fortuitous physiognomy?  What follows is my analysis of how this factor affects the chances of a group of Republican presidential aspirants.  Do not take any of it as endorsement or opposition.  I can love a candidate yet accept that his appearance will scare away the idiot vote; I can also recognize a devilish politician yet acknowledge that he possesses Luciferian dark-angel looks.

Only one simple question must be asked when making this analysis: if I were casting a president in a movie, would I choose this person?  If the answer is "yes," he has a chance on life's stage.  If it's "maybe," he already has a handicap.  Then there is "no" and "heck no!"  These four quoted words will be my ratings system.

Congressman Ron Paul: heck no!  I love Paul on the Constitution, but his facial constitution is as appealing to most people as 200-year-old parchment.  Thin, gray, old-looking, and seldom sporting a smile, Paul too often looks like a funeral director -- on duty.  This is fine when comforting the bereaved, but it doesn't exactly exude a Ronald Reagan, Morning in America spirit and uplift a nation in the midst of an economic death spiral. 

Congressman Michele Bachmann: no.  Her politics are certainly manly enough, but her appearance is a different story.  And the issue here is that looks must be assessed differently in a female candidate as compared to a male one.

Whereas attractive men have an advantage over mediocre-looking ones, I sense that it's just the opposite with women.  There are a few reasons for this.  First, fair or not, people tend to associate female attractiveness with flightiness and lower intelligence.  Second, as history has shown, female voters are often taken in by a good-looking male candidate.  But while men will certainly think that a female candidate's beauty makes her fit for a certain role, president isn't it.  Additionally, while men may view a handsome male politician as a man's man, a certain percentage of women will actually be jealous of an attractive female candidate.  And we all know what that means.

To support my thesis, consider the most successful female politician of modern times, Margaret Thatcher.  While she wasn't ugly, neither was she a looker; rather, her appearance reflected sobriety and seriousness.  She was the Iron Lady.  Today, Hillary Clinton, walking ideological nightmare that she is, has that sufficiently hard look.  And, in my estimation, a woman will have difficulty winning the presidency unless she appears to be an iron lady.

Mitt Romney: yes.  Romney's only defect may be that he appears too much the quintessential politician.  With hair on steroids, he is the Sam Malone of the presidential race.  You certainly would cast him as a politician in that movie, but would he be a character you'd trust?

Herman Cain: no.  I love him on social issues, but the last president with facial hair was William Howard Taft in 1913, and the last one who regularly sported eyeglasses was Harry Truman.  Put both together and, well...  Additionally, while Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe can get away with wearing dark shades in public, he doesn't have to win elections.  What was Cain thinking? 

Sarah Palin: no.  Now, I know how passionate you Palin supporters are, but try not to kill the messenger.  I agree with her on virtually all the issues, but I refer to my commentary on Bachmann.  Palin has it all over Thatcher ideologically (the latter was conservative only in a European sense), and she's certainly much more capable with a .30-30 against a grizzly.  But when the average voter looks at the two, he'll nevertheless think that Thatcher could break Palin in half like a crumpet before tea time.

Newt Gingrich: maybe.  However, even if he weren't weighed down by personal baggage, the gray hair doesn't help and he doesn't smile enough.

Rick Santorum: maybe.  I would take Santorum as president in a heartbeat, but do his looks and persona make him seem like too much the choir boy?  Will the average voter see him as exuding strength?

Governor John Huntsman: maybe.  He's a little gaunt, but he could perhaps pull off that starring role.  Of course, with his neither-fish-nor-fowl politics, he actually does have a better chance of playing a president in Hollywood than in real life as a major-party candidate.

Governor Rick Perry: yes.  Like Romney, Perry is a quintessential politician (you can interpret what that means); unlike Romney, his looks are not politician-like to the point of plasticity.  Handsome and hair-endowed, appearance-wise he is the man to beat.

In making these assessments, I don't imply that ideology is insignificant.  The point is, however, that just as the wrong politics alienates a certain percentage of voters, so does the wrong appearance.  Also note that the latter's significance varies depending on the group in question.  Conservative voters are more informed and less likely to operate based on emotion than other Americans, making looks a relatively minor factor in the Republican primaries.  But the general election is a different matter.

Of course, it's tragic that people are so influenced by superficials, but it's nothing new.  It's little different from when a man marries for looks or a woman for money.  And the fact is that, unless and until we can get election turnouts down to five percent, having fatally un-presidential looks will doom even a stellar statesman's chances. 

Don't like it?  Talk to the people who think that rallying the idiot vote somehow makes our republic stronger.     

Contact Selwyn Duke

RECENT VIDEOS