Politics & Policy

What Not to Do to Be President

Take notes, campaign managers.

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

Washington DC

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

Milk them.

A. Lincoln

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.

On the Democratic side, it would be Edwards — if the man would only stay away from the Herbal Essences products! It’s amazing to watch a candidate who literally cannot help his metrosexuality. Hillary’s an image disaster — she needs to stop wearing pantsuits immediately. And Obama is young and fresh, but he’s also inexperienced beyond belief, and he acts like it.

Lopez: Does the candidate with the best image always win?

Shapiro: Not always. I think that in 1976, circumstances conspired to hand Jimmy Carter the presidency. Gerald Ford was a likable fellow. Carter wasn’t. But because Ford succeeded Nixon, he was bound to lose. On the other hand, Ford did have serious image drawbacks — he seemed clumsy (almost entirely thanks to Chevy Chase’s puerile routines) and Betty Ford couldn’t stop making ridiculous remarks about abortion, sex, and marijuana.

Carter basically won that election the moment he said he would never lie to the American people. Fortunately, Americans recognize their mistakes quickly enough, which is why they dumped Carter in 1980.

Lopez: Rudy can’t win because of his hair or lack thereof?

Shapiro: We’ve only had five presidents in the history of the United States who were completely bald. One was Ford, who was unelected. Another was Eisenhower, who was running against Stevenson — a guy who joked that his campaign slogan was “Eggheads of the World, Unite!”

The average age of winning presidential candidates is close to sixty, and more than half of American men begin balding by age fifty – yet 88 percent of our presidents have had enough hair to comb over without looking silly. That’s an extraordinary statistic.

That doesn’t mean baldness is the only factor. Giuliani can win because we’ve used to his baldness the same way we were used to Ike’s. He’s been on the public stage for decades, and he’s been bald the whole time. Rudy’s baldness doesn’t look like Rudy’s aging — it looks like Rudy normally. McCain, on the other hand, has become bald before our eyes. That hurts him. The same holds true for Fred Thompson.

Lopez: Could Fred Thompson ever win in this environment?

Shapiro: He could if he stopped acting like Eeyore with narcolepsy. Thompson is a boots candidate; he’s great on television; he’s got a nice, folksy sense of humor; he’s tall; he’s got a basso profundo voice. That internet video he did responding to Michael Moore was great politicking.

His imagistic issue is his energy — or rather, his lack of energy. On Saturday Night Live, they spoofed Thompson’s perceived laziness, asking a Thompson impersonator how much he wanted the presidency on a scale of one to ten. “About a six,” the impersonator drawled.

Unfortunately for Thompson, that perception sticks. He looked listless in the early Republican debates, and that listlessness has carried over to the primaries in general. In a general election, it’s difficult to see how he’d shake that.

Lopez: Do you feel silly talking about these things?

Shapiro: Not at all, for two reasons. First, it’s a hell of a lot more fun than debating John Edwards’s latest health plan. And second, it’s what’s really under the surface of politics. We like to pretend that democracy is an exercise in high-minded judgment regarding pure policy. It isn’t, and it never has been. I think it’s good to humanize our politics — it’s good to recognize that we’re judging people here, not just bundles of policy positions.

I agree with Edmund Burke when it comes to representative government — we’re electing people who will exercise their independent determination when it comes to shaping policy. That means we have to judge the people, not just their policies.

So we look at hair and height and age and rural vs. urban feel and sense of humor and first lady candidates. It seems trivial, but it isn’t. We turn the candidates inside out, handle them, inspect them for flaws and strengths. We want to get a complete picture of the men and women vying for the most powerful job on earth. The more we know about the candidates, the better our decisions will be.

And it’s also good for us to recognize that we aren’t the pure democrats we think we are when it comes to voting. The more we recognize how we judge superficialities, the more we can learn to distinguish the superficialities that matter from the superficialities that don’t. Gerald Ford’s penchant for bumping into things didn’t betray a general sloppiness — it was just clumsiness. John Kerry’s penchant for $1000 haircuts, however, betrays a generally elitist view of the universe.

Lopez: What is the “Suits versus Boots Divide”?

Shapiro: “Suits vs. Boots” is a phrase I coined to discuss the difference between candidates with a rural, cowboy feel (“boots” candidates) and candidates with a big city, businessman feel (“suits” candidates). Americans generally love boots candidates and are ambivalent about suits candidates. That’s because Americans adore cowboys — ask Lincoln or Reagan — and aren’t too fond of urban values or slickster habits — ask Dukakis or Kerry. We trust men of the land, because they’re generally more connected with traditional American values. The biggest mistake the media ever made with regard to George W. Bush was labeling him a cowboy.

It isn’t a Republican vs. Democrat thing. Bob Dole was a suit, and Clinton was a boot. That reaped huge dividends for Clinton at Dole’s expense.

It goes all the way back to Andrew Jackson, who was the ultimate boots candidate. Jackson, said paradigmatic suit John Quincy Adams, was “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.” That wasn’t a bad thing for Jackson. He was a rough and tumble SOB, and Americans loved that.

In 1806, lawyer Charles Dickinson impugned Rachel Jackson’s honor. Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel. Dickinson fired first; the bullet struck Jackson directly in the chest. Jackson didn’t move an inch. He stood, “his feet sloshing in blood that had drained from his chest,” and then coldly shot Dickinson through the abdomen. Dickinson died. Jackson carried Dickinson’s bullet in his chest all the way to the grave.

Americans figure if you’re that tough, you’ll make a pretty decent president.

Suits, by contrast, are boring banker types or slick lawyers. We don’t trust them right away — they’re too out of touch with the common man. Stevenson, the ultimate suit, once said, “My life has been hopelessly undramatic. I wasn’t born in a log cabin. I didn’t work my way through school, nor did I rise from rags to riches, and there’s no use trying to pretend I did.” What would make someone want to vote for a candidate with that sort of background? Not much.

Lopez: Isn’t “who would you rather have a beer with” a ridiculous question when choosing a president?

Shapiro: It’s definitely ridiculous when you consider that Washington was a rather aloof fellow — as were most of the Founding Fathers. On the other hand, we can gain valuable information from the question. I call this type of voting “the beer buddy syndrome.” It’s shorthand for likability — and personal likability is often an indicator of presidential performance. Easygoing people are likable, and easygoing people are not easily rattled in emergency circumstances — just ask Ronald Reagan. Funny people are likable, and funny people can cope with hard times — just ask Lincoln. Witty people are likable, and witty people are often intelligent — just ask Clinton and Coolidge. Confident people are likable, and confidence often determines presidential strength — just ask FDR and TR. We want America strong and confident rather than weak and vacillating — and we want the presidents who represent our country to have those same qualities.

Besides, we’re never going to elect Barney from The Simpsons.

Lopez: What’s the most ridiculous fact you learned while researching this?

Shapiro: The extent to which some candidates have gone to shape their image. Washington wore his French and Indian War uniform to the Second Continental Congress to demonstrate his military prowess — he was the only man to show up in uniform. It won him the leadership of the Continental Army and eventually, the presidency. Coolidge used to dress up in Indian garb for photo ops. Dewey wouldn’t allow tall men to approach him when photographers were present, since he’d look short by comparison. JFK used his speechwriters to write hundreds of jokes for his Gridiron Dinner speech in 1958.

That means we, as voters, have to be especially alert when it comes to gauging image. We’ve got to keep an eye on these people day in and day out. They’re masters of their craft — we should be masters of ours.

Lopez: The best advice for the candidates?

Shapiro: Don’t try to be all things to all people. You can’t fake the image — you’ve got to find that genuine winning image inside before selling it to us. Roger Ailes, a great campaign strategist with Reagan and H. W. before taking over Fox News, gives some great advice: “Sometimes we can make mistakes about others if, as we view them, we segment them and only get a partial picture. This person has good-looking hair; that person has no hair. This person should lose weight; that one should gain weight. We look at all these parts of people, but then we quickly perceive the person in totality. You can have the greatest head of hair in the world, or the greatest smile, or the greatest voice, or whatever, but after two minutes you’re going to be looked at as a whole person. All of those impressions of your various parts will have been blended into one complete composite picture, and the other person will have a feeling about you based on that total impression. Enough of that image has to be working in your favor for you to be liked, accepted, and given what you want.”

Lopez: Can John McCain remake himself as young and conservative?

Shapiro: It’ll be easier for McCain to remake himself as young than as conservative. He looks old, but he’s energetic. If he can channel that angry vivacity into something resembling an upbeat geniality, he can overcome the fact that his hair is white and he stoops. Plus, Americans don’t hate older candidates. In fact, over the course of 19th century, the average president was elected at age 56. During the 20th century, the average age of elected presidents remained 56. The television era, surprisingly, increased the average age of victorious presidential candidates; since 1952, our presidents have been elected at the average age of 58. Obama has more of an age problem than McCain, in many ways.

It’s McCain’s conservative credentials that are going to be tough to fix. His image is that of a maverick, which is great when it comes to the independents and Democrats. It isn’t so great when it comes to the base, which recognizes that he’s voted against them on immigration.

Lopez: Does Bill Clinton help or hurt Hillary’s image?

Shapiro: He definitely helps her. The only reason Hillary’s a presidential candidate today is because her last name is Clinton. And Bill is doing for Hillary what Hillary did for Bill — he’s playing the attack dog. When Hillary attacks other candidates, she seems shrill. When Bill does it, it seems like he’s defending his poor, put-upon wife. And Hillary has always done best when she’s played the victim. Allowing Bill to defend her is great strategy. She’s a clever politician — it will take a clever populace to see through her charade.

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