Heading in the stretch run of presidential primaries, political analysts are looking at many indicators. Some are looking at polls, some are looking at fundraising prowess, some are looking at endorsements, and some are looking at belly fat. Yes, belly fat. Specifically the midsection of former vice president turned Nobel Prize-winning global-warming warrior Al Gore.
The word is that Hillary Clinton's advisers are very concerned that Gore might, at the last minute, toss his hat -- and his Oscar and his Nobel Prize -- into the race, and they have been keeping track of his waistline. The thinking goes, if Gore suddenly starts losing weight, it will be a sign he is going to run.
Indeed, I was at a dinner party not long ago where I was seated next to a senior political writer for a major newspaper. When I mentioned that I'd heard from friends that Gore was on a diet and had dropped 10 pounds, the reporter's eyes lit up. "That changes everything!" he said, and he immediately began calculating the impact of a Gore candidacy on Clinton and Barack Obama.
It made me wonder: Have we gotten to the point in our looks-obsessed culture where a svelte waistline is a prerequisite for higher office and a double chin an automatic disqualifier? Has a trim physique become a sign of virtue and cottage-cheese thighs a sign of indolence and sloth? Is this the reason George W. is always riding his bike in front of photographers? Are we ready for a black president or a woman president but not a fat president? How's that for an inconvenient truth?
This focus on appearance is, of course, nothing new. Ever since JFK took the country by storm, with Jackie and her glamorous Oleg Cassini wardrobe by his side, personal style has been an important component of a candidate's appeal. But the celebritization of politics has reached new heights. With Election Day 2008 a little less than a year away, we've already had breathless stories about Obama in a bathing suit and endless mentions of first female speaker Nancy Pelosi's Armani-filled wardrobe and love of Tahitian pearls. And Mitt Romney has been the object of a veritable media man crush, with Chris Matthews gushing about "the perfect chin, the perfect hair" and Politico's Roger Simon swooning over Romney's "chiseled-out-of-granite features" and "shoulders you could land a 737 on." Who says metrosexuality is only for liberals?
For the record, Obama looks buff, Romney is leading-man handsome, and Pelosi gets high marks for elegance. (When was the last time you saw a similar comment on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's sartorial preferences?) Are these things relevant to what kind of leaders these people are? Of course not. Do we care how our leaders look? Of course we do. Style shouldn't trump substance -- but it is a factor.
To a point. Because, despite the undeniable ascendance of "Hey, Good Lookin'" politics, the American people still have a schizophrenic attitude toward the subject. On the one hand, we want our politicians to look good: attractive, fashionable, well-dressed, and perfectly groomed. But we definitely don't want to think of them spending any time or money -- or even any thought -- on achieving the proper look. We want the steak but don't want to hear about the slaughterhouse.
Take the major dustup this past spring over John Edwards' $400 haircut. In one fell snip, his image as a champion of America's poor took a pummeling. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it, "Someone who aspires to talk credibly about the two Americas can't lavish on his locks what working families may spend on electricity in a year. You can't sell earnestness while indulging in decadence." The big problem with Edwards' costly cut wasn't the price tag; as a multimillionaire, he can afford it. It was the sloppiness of a staffer's charging the haircut to his campaign -- which, of course, was the only reason we knew about it.
As is the case in society at large, women in Washington tend to receive more attention for their fashion choices than do their male counterparts, although this could change as the Queer Eye/Extreme Makeover mentality becomes further entrenched. Senator Clinton's evolving styles (including her Oscar de la Renta pantsuits, which she pays for herself) have gotten almost as much ink as her evolving political positions. In February, Donatella Versace advised her to tap into her femininity, and she clearly listened. Her coral jacket and the cleavage-revealing top she wore on the Senate floor in mid-July drew the attention of the Washington Post and many others in the media (as well as her fundraising team), while her talk about the cost of higher education went virtually unnoticed.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has, of course, famously found herself raked across the fashion coals on more than one occasion. Remember the torrent of bad press she received for spending "thousands of dollars" on Ferragamo shoes? Of course, that might have had something to do with her Manhattan shopping spree occurring while people in New Orleans were still dying in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Ultimately, when looking for leaders, we want their style, sexiness, and good looks to go hand in hand with empathy, compassion, and caring. So will Al Gore lose the spare tire and six-pack-ab his way into the White House? Will Barack Obama's multicultural sexiness secure him the all-important single women's vote? Will Rudy Giuliani go after the YouTube demographic by claiming he doesn't wear boxers or briefs but goes commando? Will Fred Thompson's much younger "bombshell blonde" wife prove an asset or a liability? Only time and the American electorate will tell.
As for me, here are my style requirements for a possible president: Don't go hat in hand to big-money donors (who always want something in return), don't be afraid to wear your heart on your sleeve, and, for goodness' sake, when someone asks for a show of hands of those who don't believe in evolution, keep your arm by your side.
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