Holmes: The presidential beauty pageant
In "Blink," his fascinating treatise on snap judgments, Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter to the "Warren Harding error," a cautionary tale about first impressions.
Harding's political career took off after a chance meeting with Harry Daugherty, a legendary Ohio political fixer, at a shoeshine stand. He noticed that Harding was tall, tanned and handsome, with a barrel chest, a commanding voice and great hair. Daugherty's first thought, Gladwell writes, was "wouldn't that man make a great president?"
With Daugherty's help, Harding's presidential looks carried him to the Senate, and in 1920, to the White House. He sure looked like a president, but he turned out to be neither smart nor interested in the office. He drank, played golf, and chased women - and accomplished little before dying of a heart attack 29 months into his term. Until George W. Bush at least, historians considered Harding the worst president ever.
Here we are, 88 years later, still trying to figure out who looks presidential. The rules have changed a little. Harding spent the 1920 campaign greeting visitors on his front porch in Ohio, looking presidential and not saying much, while his backers spread money around.
Today's candidates fly around the country, make speeches and hold debates. But they are also doing their best to look presidential without saying too much, while their backers raise and spend millions of dollars selling the candidates.
Our idea of how a president looks has evolved a little, but TV has, if anything, raised the premium on appearances. The hue and cry for Fred Thompson to run, for instance, was almost entirely based on how presidential he looks on TV - at least until he opens his mouth.
Mitt Romney has the most traditionally presidential looks in either party, and may well qualify for the Warren Harding prize. He makes a swell first impression, which, with help from a weak opponent, got him elected governor of Massachusetts five years ago.
On second impression, Bay State voters saw in Romney someone who would rather strut than govern, who always had his eye on the next prize, whose thinking ran no deeper than his hair gel. He would never have won re-election here, and Massachusetts Republicans are mostly supporting other presidential candidates.
My question has been whether the positive first impression Romney makes would wear off in the course of a long presidential campaign. In Iowa, it apparently did. Yes, he looks presidential, but on second impression, Romney gives empty suits a bad name.
Today's political beauty contest goes beyond tall, dark and handsome. George W. Bush, for example, doesn't look all that presidential, but was deemed by many voters in 2000 as the candidate they'd most like to have come over for a neighborhood barbecue. This time around, that part is being played by Mike Huckabee.
Then there's Barack Obama, who looks presidential in a 21st-century way: Young, handsome, urbane, multi-racial. He's running on themes - change, youth, hope, unity - which are almost as superficial as looks.
It worked in Iowa for Obama, and it will work elsewhere as well. But I can't help but wonder what the second impression will be. And as one who is still waiting for Deval Patrick's performance to match his promise, I want to be convinced there is more to Obama than charisma and the chance to make history.
So what should we be looking for in a president, beyond style and slogans? For starters, everything George W. Bush lacks: intelligence, curiosity, discipline, skepticism, judgment. Does he or she hire good people and manage them well? Does the candidate tell the truth, not just to the people but to the mirror?
Then there's political courage. Here's a question I've been asking people for weeks: Can you name one thing Hillary Clinton has done in the last 10 years that involved political risk?
I have yet to hear a good answer. Clinton is in favor of health care for National Guard members, help for the middle class, and anything for the children. She hasn't gone out on a limb since health care reform blew up in her face. She learned from that, she says, but what she learned is never take a chance on something that could cost her votes.
And that is the essence of Clintonism. Everything is about the next election. In its most shameful application, Clintonism meant supporting Bush's invasion of Iraq so Hillary could look tough on the campaign trail. Bill Clinton now says he was against it from the start, and maybe Hillary was as well. But neither said anything at the time, which is far worse than being sincerely wrong.
Contrast Hillary's risk-averse strategy with John McCain. He went against his party and every special interest in Washington to push for campaign finance reform. He led the charge against his own president to outlaw the use of torture in interrogations. And on the eve of his presidential campaign, he sponsored an immigration reform bill he knew would be anathema to millions of Republican voters. McCain has many flaws, but when it comes to political courage, none of the other candidates comes close.
Amid the noise and hype of a campaign, identifying real leadership qualities is tough. This long campaign still has a way to go, enough time, I hope, for people to see beyond first impressions and avoid another Warren Harding error.
Rick Holmes is opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News and blogs at Holmes & Co (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.