Is presidential race a simple matter of standing tall?
Lisa D. Tossey / Capital News Service
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Four inches. It may not seem like much,
but that could be the hurdle standing between President Bush
and a second term in office if he faces Sen. John Kerry in
Or so say believers in the Presidential Height Index, which
holds that since the rise of television in American homes,
the tallest candidate has won the popular vote in every
election but two: the 1972 defeat of 6-foot-1-inch Sen.
George McGovern by 5-foot-11 and 1⁄2-inch President
Nixon, and the 1976 defeat of President Ford, 6 feet, by
former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, 5 feet 9 and 1⁄2.
The theory puts the 6-foot-4-inch Kerry on solid ground
against Bush, who is an even 6 feet, according to his 2001
physical released by the White House.
"Height counts," said Tim Blessing, a Penn
State/Alvernia College presidential scholar. "Kerry will
tower over Bush, and that will provide a very visceral kind
of comparison and a powerful image."
Beryl Wing, president of the Association of Image
Consultants International, NY/Tri-State Chapter, agreed that
height and other physical factors can sway votes.
"It makes sense," she said. "People vote for
the most powerful looking. We want the top dog to lead
But Steven F. Hayward, resident scholar at the American
Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, is not
sold on the predictive powers of height. It is "a bit of
a fluke," he said.
"The problem with that is that you're dealing with
a small sample size," Hayward said.
And it overlooks other factors that can influence campaigns,
including the power of money and incumbency, the health of
the economy, candidates' track records and their
positions on issues.
Proponents argue that height influences not only campaigns,
but politicians' effectiveness in office. Numerous
studies demonstrate tall politicians "literally stand
out from the crowd, and intimidate their colleagues,"
Thomas F. Schaller, an assistant professor of political
science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County,
finds the intimidation factor interesting - especially if
Kerry ends up facing Bush in a debate. Schaller recalled a
1988 presidential debate when the elder Bush greeted
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis with an exaggerated long
handshake - a move he said was orchestrated by Bush's
campaign manager to reaffirm the fact that Bush was taller.
"It will be revenge on the Bush family," Schaller
said. "Kerry will want to do a long handshake to make
the same point."
The rest of the Democratic pack lags behind the lanky
Massachusetts senator. Sen. John Edwards stands 6 feet,
followed by the Rev. Al Sharpton, at 5 feet 10 inches, and
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, at 5 feet 7.
Democrats who have dropped out of the race include retired
Gen. Wesley Clark, who is 5 feet 10, and former Vermont Gov.
Howard Dean, once called "diminutive" by The New
York Times. The New Republic quoted Dean in October as
telling reporters that he is "Five-eight and
three-quarters," but that he usually does not mention
the "three-quarters" because, "It sounds like
I'm sensitive about my height. And I'm not."
Of the remaining candidates, only Sharpton has facial hair -
an apparent presidential faux pas for nearly a century. The
last president to sport a mustache was William Taft, who
served from 1909 to 1913, while the last bearded president,
Benjamin Harrison, left office in 1893.
Both Schaller and Blessing agree that the lack of facial
hair on candidates reflects societal trends. But Blessing,
Wing and Hayward contend that other physical traits may be
"Since the television era began, experience has not
been so important. Image really becomes important, allowing
presidents to get in with little experience," Blessing
said, citing presidents John F. Kennedy, who served four
years as a congressman and one term as a senator, and Carter,
who was governor of Georgia.
"The visual phenomenon is so powerful it puts people in
office." Hayward agreed. "Since politics has become
show business, you have to be decent looking but not too
handsome," he said.
Since Nixon, presidents have had "a distinct
look," Hayward added, noting Carter's smile and
Ronald Reagan's matinee-idol features. "Even Clinton
had a Reaganesque rock-star quality."
Blessing said Bush's "rubbery, mobile face"
could cost him. "When he smiles one corner of his face
comes up," he said. This characteristic could be
responsible for Bush's infamous smirk. "People
respond to that," Blessing said. "No question -
looks will play a role in this race."
Wing has noticed a shift in Bush's attire that may
influence how voters view him. "He's started to wear
light-blue ties - a paler, friendly hue that signifies
trust," she said. "He needs all the trust elements
he can get."
As for Kerry, Wing says it is hard to know if his height can
overcome his "patrician aura, and that's his main
"He looks like a Northerner one might be afraid to
approach," she said. "(Americans) like the 'guy
next door.' " But Wing notes that lately Kerry has
appeared more friendly and approachable on the campaign
"Very strong body language trumps everything," she
said. "If he keeps the looser body language, it will go
a long way to helping him win."
© 2004 Capital News Service
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.