New York, NY — There was a sharp, mischievous article in this. It just wasn’t materializing.
Everything started out great. I arrived early for the press conference at the Museum of Sex where sculptor Daniel Edwards was unveiling his latest piece, The Presidential Bust of Hillary Rodham Clinton. I talked to Bob Kunst, founder of HillaryNow.com, a grassroots pro-Hillary website / organization, who was standing outside the museum entrance holding up a hand drawn “Hillary in ‘08” sign for a dozen reporters and cameramen. I had quotes before I even went inside.
And the bust, how could I not write something clever about the bust? Pure absurdity. Hillary — cast in ashy resin — shoulders angled for a three-quarters view. Strong cheeks. Sagacious eyes. Topless.
Well, not technically topless. Edwards, whose canon includes sculptures of Britney Spears giving birth on a bear skin rug and slugger Ted Williams’s cryogenically frozen head, mingled with the press, explaining how he’d etched the lacework of an inaugural gown into what is fundamentally exposed cleavage.
Edwards had been inspired when he read a quote by actress Sharon Stone to the effect that Hillary couldn’t win the presidency because she was too sexy, and thus too intimidating to voters. When he spoke about the reply he was making with his bust, Edwards talked in that airy, vaguely evasive language of artists: verbs like “explore” and “investigate.”
And so my article took mirage-like form. If Edwards wasn’t giving too many answers, I would, to questions like: Does Hillary Clinton have sex appeal? Really? How much? What’s that mean for 2008? I could wring 1,200 words from this.
I called the senator’s press office and left a message on their machine asking for comment. They knew what I was talking about. A few weeks earlier, Clinton’s office politely declined an invitation to appear at the bust’s unveiling. They didn’t call back, even after another two messages.
Fair enough. No serious person in Washington wants to get drawn into an on-the-record discussion of their boss’s semi-nude figure. It was just as well too. My mind had stalled as I tried to formulate intelligent questions for them. All I could come up with were mushy half-questions that sounded like non-sequiturs.
It dawned on me about then that I could be chasing a ghost. While female politicians may potentially be sexy, and in that event, said sexiness might work on voters’ minds in this or that way, it was equally likely that no significant number of people happened to find Hillary attractive, and thus there was no issue.
I posted an ad on Craigslist soliciting America’s anonymous thoughts on Hillary Clinton’s sex appeal. It drew exactly three responses. A sampling: “I would love to be here White Hosue Intern,” “I wish I was her boyfriend, I would make her happy” (phone number included) and “she has kankles.” It seems premature to drawn any conclusions here.
Standing outside the Museum of Sex that day, Hillary partisan Bob Kunst acknowledged an attraction (and added the only bit of political sex appeal strategizing I got.) “She’s a very good looking woman…that may be a problem…women are jealous…the country may not be ready for someone who’s attractive and smart.” Then he quickly changed the subject to Clinton’s national security credentials.
To try and add some scientific heft to Kunst’s appreciation, I downloaded an unlabeled, amateur-taken picture of Hillary from the web and posted it on Hot or Not.com — leader of a small pack of teen-tilted websites that allows visitors to scroll through pictures of strangers and rate their hotness on a scale of 1 to 10. Over 1,000 voters rated Hillary, judging her a 6.6 (according to the site’s metrics, hotter than 62 percent of the women on the site) before Hot or Not moderators took the picture down for violating their “no pictures of famous people” rule.
Armed with something like proof that I was not imagining this whole topic, I e-mailed a few journalists and experts for their thoughts. None replied.
I contacted the press people at several well-respected D.C. political consulting firms. One laughed when I told him what I was working on and said he would call me back, then did not call me back. Another laughed and said it was an interesting topic that he could not help me with. Another said it would be hard to get anyone who works in political image making to say anything that wasn’t bland and respectful, just because she was too powerful. There was a deeper hesitation in his voice.
I considered calling Mary Carey, the porn actress who ran in the 2003 California recall race. She would probably talk about anything. Then I thought what she might say. Then I decided it would be safer not to pursue that or, well, her.
Too Hot for the Talkers?
Three trenchant facts: In two years, Hillary Clinton may be the first female president in the history of the United States. At least some subset of the electorate finds Hillary Clinton sexually attractive. Very few, including those admittedly sweet on Hillary or who can speak about it with professional distance, are eager to talk about any possible connection between facts one and two.
It’s tempting to dismiss fact two and tie off an imprecise and uncomfortable mental conversation before it gets started. In fact, for almost two pantsuit-and-sensible-hairstyle-filled decades, dismissing Hillary Clinton’s sex appeal and its potential implications seems to have been Hillary Clinton’s goal.
A thought experiment: about the same time Clinton’s presidential bust was unveiled in New York, paparazzi in France snapped a photo of that country’s next, first female president, Segolene Royal, sunbathing in a bikini. It was splashed across the tabloids, along with flattering commentary on Royal’s physique (“And to think she’s 53!”)
Now try to imagine Hillary Clinton even putting on a bikini, more or less wearing it to any place where she might conceivably be photographed.
If this idea does not compute, consider it some sort of evidence of how successful Clinton has been in steering the public to think of her as a woman to whom the normal physics of sex appeal do not apply. The fact that she has cultivated this impression suggests there’s something to the topic of her sexiness worth discussing.
Since the subject is (so far) half-baked, it’s only possible to construct half-baked theories about why no one wants to talk about the electoral implications of Hillary Clinton’s cleavage. Mine, currently, is that whether you are strongly anti-Hillary or pro-Hillary, if you acknowledge that she has a certain sexual charisma and that it might influence voters, then you have to consider that your own opinions of her are at least in part based on your conscious or unconscious perceptions of her sexiness. That raises the possibility that your political opinions could be a good deal shallower than you’d thought. The political superego must avoid this conclusion, so pulls the plug on the entire idea.
The first presidential bust of Hillary Rodham Clinton will be on public display until mid-September; time enough to contemplate whether it’s as silly as it first seems. I’m inclined to look at it a little more seriously. It was something Daniel Edwards said as his sculpture’s press conference was breaking up. He was musing on the supposed irreverence of his work.
“By being playful,” he said, “sometimes you acknowledge something that [otherwise] goes unacknowledged.”
– Louis Wittig is a writer in New York.