It's not smart to judge books by their covers or presidential candidates by their looks, but we do so all the time, as lawyer-columnist Ben Shapiro shows in his entertaining Project President: Bad Hair and Botox on the Road to the White House (Thomas Nelson). He writes about Abraham Lincoln's decision to grow a beard, which led to the Golden Age of Facial Hair (1860-1912), John F. Kennedy's choice to forgo the fedora in 1961, John Kerry's decision to get Botoxed for the 2004 race, and more.
WORLD: Who was "the purest image president" in American history, and what was his administration like?
SHAPIRO: Warren G. Harding. He was a do-nothing, one-term senator from Ohio but a master of platitudes-his speeches sounded like Barack Obama's, only less substantive. H.L. Mencken said Harding's rhetoric was "so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."
Harding had one political advantage: He was strikingly good-looking-tall, tanned, and silver-haired. His campaign manager, Harry Daugherty, decided to push Harding because, in Daugherty's words, "He looked like a President." Harding won the White House by the largest popular percentage margin to that time. His administration was a corruption-filled disaster. In Harding's own words, "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here."
WORLD: You write that Harding's successor, Calvin Coolidge, was frugal with both budgets and words . . .
SHAPIRO: Coolidge is a favorite target of the liberal media, but he was brilliant, and immensely popular in his time. Pilloried as a buck-first, fat-cat enabler, Coolidge was actually one of the last presidents to believe fervently in the idea of natural law. "Prosperity is only an instrument to be used," said Coolidge, "not a deity to be worshipped." Laws, said Coolidge, "must be justified by something more than the will of the majority. They must rest on the eternal foundation of righteousness."
Coolidge also said, "Nothing is easier than spending the public money. It does not appear to belong to anybody." He was as stingy with words as with spending taxpayer dollars. One famous story had a woman approaching Coolidge, explaining that she had made a bet with one of her friends that she could get the president to say more than two words. Coolidge's response: "You lose."
WORLD: Franklin Roosevelt's polio was a terrible burden, but you suggest that it helped him politically . . .
SHAPIRO: Because he was able to convince the American public that he had defeated it. Roosevelt contracted polio in 1921. Paralysis spread up both sides of his body from legs to chest; only with physical therapy was he able to simulate walking using a cane. FDR's people quickly told the media that he was on the way to a full recovery, and reporters rarely mentioned it. During FDR's presidency, the press took no photos of FDR struggling to walk or sitting in a wheelchair.
Newsweek's Jonathan Alter writes that the polio experience "wiped the residue of Harvard snobbery off FDR's public image." It also showed the American public that he could overcome hardship-and during the Great Depression, the optimistic image of the polio-beater was a tremendous political plus.
WORLD: How did Harry Truman's farm upbringing and knowledge of horses get him votes?
SHAPIRO: In 1948, Truman ran against one of the most buttoned-down candidates in American history: Thomas Dewey. Dewey, who became known as the "little man on the wedding cake" thanks to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, was famously formal.
Truman, by contrast, looked comfortable on a ranch, a man of the land and of the people. During campaign stops in rural areas, Truman would often disembark from his train, find a horse, look into its mouth, and tell the owner how old the horse was. This never failed to astonish the horse's owner; one young horse owner exclaimed, "Who'd of thought that the president of the United States would know about horses?"
In any race between a "suits" candidate like Dewey and a "boots" candidate like Truman, the boots candidate has the upper hand. In 1948, Truman's down-home feel won him re-election.
WORLD: Why did John F. Kennedy change his haircut?
SHAPIRO: JFK became famous for his hair well before his presidential run in 1960. While most of his contemporaries slicked back their hair-the "wet" look-Kennedy wore his hair dry, brushing it low across his forehead. The Associated Press reported that "barbers get minute instructions on how to trim it. . . . His aides admit that without the wistful forelock dangling over his right eyebrow . . . his appeal to women voters might suffer." JFK had a stylist arrive at the Senate each morning to blow-dry it.
In 1960, however, JFK wanted to tone down the ultra-young look. He needed gravitas, so he got a haircut. Edwards and Kerry tried to imitate JFK's hair focus, but the blogosphere wasn't as sympathetic as the JFK-era media. JFK could hire a stylist and it seemed stylish; Edwards and Kerry paid hundreds for haircuts and looked elitist. JFK recognized that his hair was great, but that if the sole focus was on his hair, his gravitas would suffer.
WORLD: Kennedy's adultery is well-documented, but what do we know about Lyndon Johnson during his White House days?
SHAPIRO: Where JFK was a secret boor, Johnson was an open one. Before male and female aides, LBJ stalked about naked, burped, broke wind, urinated and defecated-all while talking politics. . . . Johnson was JFK's heir in more ways than one. He used to stock up his White House staff with good-looking young women, hoping to sleep with them-and hoping that others would assume he was sleeping with them. He engaged in sex in the Oval Office with at least six different women. "Sex to Johnson was part of the spoils of victory," explained reporter George Reedy. Lady Bird Johnson simply overlooked Johnson's affairs.
WORLD: You note that we have no magic formula that can unerringly predict winners and losers in presidential elections, but some of the trends (such as tall men generally beat short men) are evident . . .
SHAPIRO: Tall men generally beat short men. Men with hair almost always beat bald men. Boots candidates beat suits candidates. Military service is a plus, but less so now than in the past. Older candidates aren't necessarily at a disadvantage against younger candidates.
The bottom line: We look at candidates as an entire person, not an aggregation of factors. We're looking for the most genuine person, the most authentic and honest guy. Scientists say we judge whether a person is likeable, competent, attractive, trustworthy, and aggressive within less than one-tenth of a second. That means that superficial factors matter. It also means that politicians must find a winning image that meshes with their personality-Americans can spot a phony.
WORLD: What does your image analysis predict about Obama-McCain or Clinton-McCain races?
SHAPIRO: If Clinton is the nominee, McCain will beat her easily. McCain has several image drawbacks: He's old, he's short, he's balding, he's a mediocre speaker-but he's also a military hero, a boots candidate, and an energetic and vital older candidate. Hillary, by contrast, is an image disaster. She's grating. She seems distant and arrogant. She does best when she plays the victim-and it will be tough for her to do that against McCain, who has often reached across the aisle to her.
If Obama is the nominee, the race becomes more interesting. McCain's age may play in his favor-it accentuates Obama's inexperience. On the other hand, McCain's height is a dramatic disadvantage against Obama-it makes him seem stooped and decrepit. Obama's a far better speaker. But if Obama continues to cultivate his own deification, McCain's humanity may make Obama seem cold rather than caring.