Do Appearance and Background Affect Presidential Success?
IN THE EARLY DAYS OF THE REPUBLIC, few Americans ever saw their president, and until the advent of movie news in the early twentieth century, most could describe their president only on the basis of official photographs or newspaper pictures. But in the recent period, because of almost unlimited television exposure, his face has become as familiar as faces in our own family. As a result, the president's physical appearance has acquired increasing importance, especially in the eyes of the media and the general public. Certainly how he looks has become a much talked-about factor in successfully seeking the presidency. But has this attribute really contributed to the success of presidents or to how historians have rated their performance once they were in the White House?
As a group, the presidents varied in their physical attributes. Most of them, however, were quite average. A few were thought to be "handsome." Kennedy might have been a movie star. Reagan was one. Fillmore was considered to be exceedingly "good-looking," and in 1920 Harding captured the votes of hundreds of thousands of newly enfranchised women partly because he "looked like a president." On the other hand, John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren were decidedly unimposing, and Lincoln, the butt of many jokes about his appearance, frequently commented about his homeliness himself. Presidents have also come in all shapes and sizes. Madison was the shortest at 5'4". He was also the smallest president, weighing little more than 100 pounds. Taft was the largest, tipping the scales at over 320. Lincoln was the tallest chief executive, soaring to 6'4 1/2". Presidents, as a group, have been taller than the average height for the adult male population;