Good looks may have always been an advantage in politics, but the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon television debates have long been considered the turning point when the outside package trumped substance. Supposedly those who heard the first debate between the two over the radio thought Richard Nixon was the winner, while those who viewed it on television (and got a good look at Nixon’s bad makeup job that made him look the part of “Tricky Dick”) believed the far more handsome Kennedy came out on top.
Not all successful presidential candidates have had the charm of JFK, but the notion that “sex appeal” may have something to do with the outcomes of elections did not originate with former congressman Vin Weber, who has been put through the wringer after publicly noting Michele Bachmann may have a way of appealing to voters his candidate Tim Pawlenty does not. Weber has been forced to apologize in large measure because such a remark is rightly seen as sexist. There’s little doubt female politicians’ looks, hair and clothes are the subject of far more comment than that devoted to their male counterparts. Attractive female politicians, among whose ranks Bachmann must certainly be counted, are also routinely subjected to the sort of objectification and demeaning comments about their abilities that are the stuff of boys’ locker room banter.
But as much as Weber was dead wrong even to touch on the question of Bachmann’s looks, a candidate’s appearance is bound to have some impact on their chances of victory. While we hope our presidential selection system is a bit more sophisticated than contests for high school prom kings or queens, does anyone really think homely candidates don’t have a steeper hill to climb than handsome ones?
Had Mitch Daniels run for president, we might have had a good test of just how important looks were in contemporary politics. There’s no reason to assume a plain, short man could not have won the presidency, especially if he was as smart as the Indiana governor, but does anyone think his height and lack of matinee idol looks would have helped him? Prior to the age of television, the ranks of our presidents were filled with almost as many ordinary looking men as handsome ones. For every tall and handsome George Washington, there was a short and squat John Adams. But we haven’t elected a truly homely man president since Nixon and his predecessor Lyndon Johnson.
One of the homeliest residents of the White House, Abraham Lincoln, supposedly considered his looks no great disadvantage to his political career since it allowed the majority of voters to identify with him. Far from hurting his chances, Lincoln’s rough-hewn appearance actually played into the conceit of his campaign that portrayed a sophisticated, prosperous railroad lawyer as the embodiment of the common man. As Lincoln said, “Common-looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.”
But in the age of television and the Internet, it appears most of us common-looking people prefer presidents who look the part. While it must be conceded the odds are still against Michele Bachmann’s taking the presidential oath in January 2013, it is doubtful her good looks will be an impediment to that goal.