Our dumb obsession with "looking presidential"

Andrew Jackson’s long wavy hair, George Washington’s ill-fitting hippo-ivory dentures and the distorted smile it gave him, Woodrow Wilson’s tombstone-like teeth and lack of vision in his left eye, Ulysses Grant’s grizzly little beard—all might have proven fatal at the polls if earlier ages had been as morally stunted, intellectually limited and looks-obsessed as ours. Yet even now one of the great American political parties is in the process of choosing someone to stand for president at a nerve-wracking moment in the history of the U.S., and we’re saddled with commentary that not only ignores the issues but makes the jury of “American Idol” seem kind…

Yet surprisingly few great American presidents have “looked presidential” (Ronald Reagan and JFK being the obvious exceptions). A much larger and more interesting number looked the part but never made it to the White House. Think about it: John McCain, John Kerry, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Adlai Stevenson (despite baldness), Bob Dole, Barry Goldwater (very much), and even Al Gore until he opened his mouth—they all could have come from central casting. Even Thomas Dewey might have qualified until he was fatally described as looking like “the little man on the top of the wedding cake”…

There can be nothing more moronic than choosing someone because he “looks presidential.” In Britain, it would have meant the tall, slim and distinguished-looking Neville Chamberlain winning out over the tubby, bald Winston Churchill. Any country that selects its leaders on such a basis deserves everything it gets.