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Looking Good in Politics: Let’s Face the Truth

You can’t say the fixation with John Edwards’ looks is just a media phenomenon (“His dazzling smile” -- Wall Street Journal; “His hair is a beautiful shade of chocolate brown with honey-colored highlights” -- Washington Post; “Each tooth is an ivory treasure, perfectly polished and aligned” -- Slate). Not when Republicans refer to him as “the Breck girl” or when John Kerry, who selected the North Carolina senator as his running mate, gazes upon him in a manner that would make even a Breck girl blush.

Kerry has repeatedly made the joke that, in their match-up against George Bush and Dick Cheney, he and Edwards have “better hair.” Kerry even acknowledged Edwards’ selection as People magazine’s sexiest politician. What’s next, candidates for office showing up at MTV’s plastic surgery show, “I Want a Famous Face,” holding pictures of John Edwards?

But politicians’ looks have always mattered -- they become a shorthand way of capturing someone’s character. Even the least vain of people instinctively know this. With the election of 1860 weeks away, Abraham Lincoln received a letter from an 11-year-old girl, Grace Bedell, that read in part, “If you let your whiskers grow ... you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s [sic] to vote for you and then you would be president.”

Lincoln replied, “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affect[ta]ion if I were to begin it now?”

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He grew the beard.

In 1920, Warren Harding, an undistinguished Ohio senator, won the Republican Party nomination, and the presidency, in large part because, as the U.S. Senate’s website says, the “tall and handsome” Harding “fit the popular image of what a president should look like.” His presidency was brief and scandal-plagued. As for those good looks, portraits of the 29th president show a jowly, white-haired man.

Edwards’ looks coincide with a cultural moment in which, as the New York Times recently pointed out, the new leading man is “soft of cheek.” You can imagine, if he loses the race, Edwards taking over for Tobey Maguire in “Spider-Man 3.” Despite Edwards’ youthfulness, at 51 he is not actually young. But how many candidates for vice president could say convincingly, “If I’m elected, I promise to reach puberty before my swearing in?”

Of course, Edwards’ glow only underscores Kerry’s dullness. Kerry’s face -- once considered dashingly attractive -- has been a constant source of unflattering comment, from his resemblance to the television character Lurch to the “Why the Long Face?” jokes, to the speculation that Botox is behind his lack of animation. The insults seem not simply gratuitous because they get at a dreariness of personality.

Edwards’ selection has also caused much comment about the contrast between the two tickets. Edwards’ boyishness plays off Dick Cheney’s persona as the geezer down the street who threatens to call the police when the neighborhood kids cut through his yard. The most demoralizing Bush trope is that he resembles a chimpanzee. (Make your own judgment here: www .bushorchimp.com).

How a presidential candidate’s looks are perceived can change as the whole person comes into focus. Youth and attractiveness would seem to be an irrefutable asset, but not when these qualities are wrapped around a perceived dolt. Think of the first George Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle. After Quayle’s painfully awkward introduction to the nation, his youthfulness became callowness; he was the boy in short pants, a propeller on his beanie.

During the presidential debates between the young John F. Kennedy and the far more experienced Richard M. Nixon, Kennedy, with his competence and wit, put to rest the question of whether he was ready to be president. In modern times, probably no two presidents have been more celebrated or reviled for their looks. Writing on the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, William F. Buckley Jr. observed: “The legacy of John F. Kennedy is his sheer ... beauty.... He was all-American, splendid to look at, his expression of confident joy in life and work transfiguring.”

In Nixon’s case, not just age but personality changed the perceptions of his looks. As David Greenberg, Rutgers historian and author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image,” points out, at the beginning of his career Nixon was described as “a handsome 6-footer, full of bounce and vitality,” one possessing a “flashing white smile.”

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“He began to be described as ugly after he developed the reputation as ‘Tricky Dick,’ ” Greenberg says.

As everyone knows, good looks help, and as everyone’s mother has observed, they’re not everything.

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Emily Yoffe is a contributing writer to Slate.com.

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