The Measure Of A Man

In modern presidential races, the short guy usually has a disadvantage. So does the fat one, the bald one, the one wearing glasses...

Election 2004

January 17, 2004|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The short boy who would become the short man can dream of becoming president of the United States.

Good presidential campaign tradition, however, demands the slap in the face about how the contenders stack up vertically. With some variations, the analysis goes something like this: If you're short, you lose.

Some newspaper stories go beyond presidential elections, quoting studies showing how tall men also fare better in pursuing impressive jobs, promotions, women, woolly mammoths, pelts, fuel for the fire and great parking spaces.

"Something called the Presidential Height Index indicates that since the advent of television, the taller candidate has gotten more votes in every election except one," the Capitol Hill weekly, The Hill, reported. The exception was the post-Watergate election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, an anomaly in more ways than one. Not only did a 5-foot-9 Carter defeat a 6-foot-2 Gerald R. Ford, but a Democrat won the South.

At least the nation did not do something really alarming like, say, elect a guy with a mustache. Or - perish the thought - a beard. Or even eyeglasses. Or a guy who would belly up to the lectern for a press conference, opening his suit jacket to reveal a gut like Dennis Franz's.

Whatever else is going on in the zeitgeist, whatever the racial mix on television, however enlightened we seem to be about the handicapped or the overweight, the roster of leading presidential candidates continues to look like a casting call for the adult male lead in Leave it to Beaver. Short guys aren't the only ones dealt out.

At least when the story of Ward, June and Beaver Cleaver went on the air in 1957, the president was a bald guy.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the last bald guy to be elected president, and the way things are going we'll never see that again. Of course, he twice defeated another bald guy, Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson.

This was before television and John F. Kennedy changed the rules. Kennedy had about the same relationship with the camera as Juliette Binoche does, only he had better hair.

Television brings particular things about a politician into focus. Things that might not necessarily bear on the candidate's ability to lead the Free World. His nose, for one thing. The jowls, for another, or jaw or ears or the relation of all these parts.

Even the most issue-oriented voter can watch Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry discussing trade policy and find it impossible not to think of Herman Munster. Dennis Kucinich? Looks like a very decent guy, but you mostly see him managing a Home Depot.

Besides, Kucinich is listed as 5-foot-7. The last president we had who was that height was John Adams, who was also bald.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, a top Democratic contender, has been dogged by questions about his physical stature. The New Republic not long ago told how Dean was yakking with reporters on his campaign jet and taking exception to a story in The New York Times that described him as "diminutive."

Dean evidently found this annoying, not least because, he said, the Times reporter who wrote the story is "about 5-3." When asked how tall he is, Dean told a group of reporters he's 5-8, "almost 5-9." Then he said "5-8 and three-quarters," explaining that he doesn't usually get into the whole business about that "three-quarters" because "it sounds like I'm very sensitive about my height. And I'm not."

Of course. The famous Dean anger probably has nothing to do with any of this. Nothing at all.

Dean fits the 1950s TV look at least as well as anyone in the race, although he may not be quite as telegenic as either Gen. Wesley Clark or U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who could easily do Dockers ads. Dean looks like the sort of nondescript guy who shows up in a short-sleeved dress shirt and polyester necktie to fix the photocopy machine. Maybe he'd slap the darn thing around a little.

Dean is trim, of course, as are all the leading candidates, as is or was just about anyone who has campaigned for or held the office in 90 years. The last fat guy to occupy the White House was William Howard Taft, a 6-footer who left office in 1913 reportedly weighing about 335 pounds. Taft, incidentally, was also the last president with a mustache.

These days, anytime a politician or former office holder either shaves or starts losing weight, it's taken as a signal of big doings to come.

For example, GOP Maryland State Sen. E.J. Pipkin shaved his mustache to enter the 2004 U.S. Senate race against Barbara Mikulski.

"A lot of people believe you are hiding things" behind facial hair, says Jill Bremer, a corporate image trainer in Oak Park, Ill.

A rather recent notion, evidently, as there was a time when a beard or a mustache seemed a requirement for the presidency. Of the 12 presidents who served between 1861 and 1913, only two were clean-shaven.

Speaking of hiding things, Bremer says she "wouldn't vote for someone who had a comb-over."

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