Third Party & Independents Archives

The Politics of Appearance

Recently there was an outcry that John Kerry used Botox to improve his looks for his presidential run. Faced with this momentous accusation, one which would leave Rene Zellweger staggered, Kerry strongly denied the allegations. Reminiscent of Clinton, he could have defiantly declared: “I did not inject”. Whatever the truth about this silly rumor, what is really being “covered-up” here is the hypocrisy of presidential politics. Why is John Kerry in the commanding lead of the democratic nomination process today? Sure his war record is impressive, but the major reason is that he looks presidential (and why is John Edwards in second place…) Lets not fool ourselves, an ugly person will not be elected president- people want a leader who projects the persona they imagine as a leader. That is why he got Botox.. or did he? Does it matter?

The momentous debate between JFK and Nixon ushered in the TV era of politics in 1960. Nixon looked like he had his 5-oclock shadow, while JFK looked young and vigorous (ironic, since JFK was perhaps the most sickly president we have ever had, as detailed by Chris Matthew’s excellent book on Kennedy and Nixon, which I recommend to anyone). JFK “won” that debate based upon his appearance (those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won), and went on to take the election.

Before this, our president didn’t have to look a particular way. Howard Taft was rotund. FDR was in a wheelchair. A Colonel once declared that Abraham Lincoln was the “ugliest man I have ever laid eyes upon”. It is not so these days. From the heart-throb JFK, to the movie star Ronald Reagan, to the smooth talking and slick Clinton- the image and appearance matters a lot to the electorate, whether they want to admit it or not.

A convincing signal of this is the amount of time candidates spend practicing their posture, gestures, appearance with highly paid consultants. From Clinton’s “I feel your pain” thumbs up to George W. Bush’s defiant posture to John Kerry’s funny looking “arms raised in the air like giant man”- they all play on the electorates views of what is “presidential”. They also spend tons of time on their looks, making sure they project the right appearance, because they know the momentous decision of who will become the leader of the most powerful nation in the history of the world can turn on them looking stressed or tired or unpresidential in some other way. They know the imagine will be played over and over again on TV, and that will be it for them.

And yet, when a candidate is suspected of using some sort of chemical injection to make themselves look better, less wrinkled, more presidential- we are outraged (shocked, shocked- to quote Casablanca), the candidate denies it, and we all feel good about ourselves. But the better questions to ask are: (1) say he did use Botox- wouldn’t that make him more likely to win? (who wants a president who looks “old”- isn’t that what really did Bob Dole in..) and (2) what does that say about us?

In the end, we get the candidates and president we deserve. If we wanted the most brilliant thinkers in our nation leading us, I would be flying out Milton Friedman airport on my way from D.C. on spring break. If we wanted those who have the most experience and expertise, Joseph Biden, Bob Dole, Orin Hatch and Joe Lieberman would be our presidents, not slick “outsider” politicians like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

So while Kerry and the congenial looking John Edwards are using either Botox or more “conventional” methods of making themselves look more appealing to us, perhaps we need to take a long look at ourselves in the mirror instead.

Posted by Misha Tseytlin at February 5, 2004 9:04 AM