The book is Project President: Bad Hair and Botox on the Road to the White House. The author is Ben Shapiro. And there would be fewer tears on the campaign trail if every campaign had someone give it a read. Consider the stakes; National Review Online Editor Kathryn Lopez did in some queries to Shapiro.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: So, is image everything?
Ben Shapiro: As Vince Lombardi might put it, image isn’t everything — it’s the only thing. We judge politicians the same way people we meet in everyday life: based on superficial indicators. Scientists say that we decide whether people are attractive, likable, competent, trustworthy, and aggressive all within less than one tenth of one second. Those judgments rarely change, even after we take more time to reconsider. That means that politicians generally have one shot to woo us — and they better get it right.
Naturally, politicians try to shape their image. The funny thing is that they can’t shape it too much — voters see through the façade. In order for a candidate to put forth a credible image, he (or she) has to embody that image every minute of every hour of every day. If it’s a pure act, that’s tough to manage. In today’s world of total media coverage, Americans can spot a phony pretty quickly.
Lopez: Where does policy and experience fall?
Shapiro: Policy and experience are important elements in shaping image. I think policy matters insofar as it melds with the image the politician is trying to present. Politicians will promise us the world. Unless we believe that they’ll keep their word — a dicey proposition, since as Reagan used to say, politics is the world’s second oldest profession, and it bears a striking resemblance to the first — policy doesn’t mean much. George H. W. Bush promised us no new taxes, but that policy prescription didn’t matter much when he raised the existing ones.
That means that in order for policy and experience to matter, they must gibe with the candidate’s image. Mitt Romney can talk about cleaning up government because he’s a businessman — when career politician Hillary Clinton talks about changing the government, that carries less weight. Rudy Giuliani can credibly talk about fighting terrorism, since he has the post-9/11 experience — Barack Obama can’t. By the same token, Obama’s “change” message has been quite effective because he’s young and fresh. Hillary’s expertise message has worked so far because she’s the most experienced of the Democratic contenders.
Lopez: What is “Mr. President Right” and who looks like him? And how can one start preparing now?
Shapiro: I don’t think there’s a “Mr. President Right” out there. Washington, Lincoln, TR, FDR, and Reagan all had their image flaws. Back in 1959, CBS News journalist Eric Sevareid said that Mr. President Right was “the universal man, for we are a complex federation, we Americans, of different ethnic strains, economic conditions, and geographical identifications, and to all of us he must somehow appeal. What American voters really want in their hearts is a man with whom they can personally identify, yet one who is a little better than they. One who is of them, but yet above them.”
Which, of course, means precisely nothing. It’s vague and ridiculous. We judge politicians as a whole — we don’t mark down a checklist that has boxes for hair and height and age. The question is which candidate projects the best total image. Winning images can range from competent banker (Woodrow Wilson) to rustic backwoodsman (William Henry Harrison) to boyish Easterner (JFK).
It’s hard to image a Mr. President Right. Often, we’re simply voting against Mr. President Wrong.
Lopez: Who is the best image candidate of all time?
Shapiro: I have a couple answers to this question. The first answer is Lincoln — he had to do the most with the least. Lincoln was a uniquely ugly fellow. “A horrid looking wretch he is, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse swapper, and the night man, a creature ‘fit evidently for petty reason, small stratagems and all sorts of spoils.’ He is a lank-sided Yankee of the uncomeliest visage, and of the dirtiest complexion. Faugh! After him what decent white man would be President?” exclaimed the Charleston Mercury. One detractor went so far as to state, “Barnum should buy and exhibit him as a zoological curiosity.”
Lincoln had three big positives.
First, he was rustic — Americans love candidates who have that down-home feel, what I call “boots” candidates (as opposed to “suits” candidates like Dukakis or Adlai Stevenson).
Second, he was tall — he ran against “Little Giant” Stephen Douglas in 1860 and “Little Napoleon” George McClellan in 1864, and in both cases, caricaturists had a field day.
Third, he was hilarious — Lincoln had the quickest wit of any president in American history. My favorite Lincoln story is a telegraph exchange he had with McClellan when McClellan was leading the Union armies. McClellan famously refused to use the Union armies unless he had an overwhelming numeric advantage … and usually even then he refused. Lincoln was constantly urging him to use the army. Finally, in a fit of pique, McClellan fired off this missive:
To President Abraham Lincoln
Have just captured six cows. What shall we do with them?
George B. McClellan
Lincoln fired back:
General George B. McClellan
Army of the Potomac
Lincoln used his positives to his advantage — and he minimized his biggest disadvantage, his looks, by growing that iconic beard.
In terms of the purest image candidate of all time, that title goes to Warren G. Harding. Political strategist Harry Daugherty first met Harding in 1899; he immediately decided that he would make Harding president based on the fact that Harding looked presidential. Harding was a horrible speaker — Mencken described Harding’s speeches this way:
I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is 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.
It didn’t matter. Harding was tanned, tall, handsome, and distinguished. Unfortunately, he was also a rotten president.
A close second: Franklin Pierce. As Harry Truman put it, “Pierce was a nincompoop. He’s got the best picture in the White House . . . but being president involves a little bit more than just winning a beauty contest.”
Lopez: Who is best image-wise this year?
Shapiro: Every candidate out there has serious image flaws. The candidate with the fewest flaws is clearly Romney. He’s got good hair, though he should muss it up a bit — it almost looks plastic. He’s genial. He’s a family man, and he’s got a sense of humor, though he should flash it a bit more. I don’t think he’s a tremendous image candidate — one columnist has already labeled him the Ken Doll, as opposed to Barbie, and I don’t think that charge is entirely without merit — but he’s not as deeply flawed as the rest of the candidates. McCain looks old and acts crotchety. Giuliani could be a great image candidate, but his personal life is a shambles and he’s largely lost his sense of humor as the race has progressed.