“It’s still different for women. It’s only a woman whose appearance would be talked about while running for president — never a man. And that’s what women understand.”
That was Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina appearing on CNN’s “New Day” on Sept. 17, referencing Donald Trump’s comments about her face in a Rolling Stone interview, claiming no male candidate for president has ever had his appearance talked about.
Was Fiorina born yesterday?
In fact, the appearance of presidential candidates, and presidents, for that matter, rightly or wrongly has been a topic of great interest since at least 1960, in the famous Sept. 26 debate of that year between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
It was the first televised presidential debate in history. Nixon is thought to have lost the debate if, for no other reason, than he looked terrible. He was recovering from the flu, he had a 5 o’clock shadow, and to top it off, he didn’t use any television makeup despite appearing under very bright lights.
By contrast, Kennedy looked well-rested and energetic compared to Nixon’s exhaustion. And, with 70 million people watching the debate, it made a difference in the race. Kennedy went from being slightly behind in the polls to slightly ahead afterward. Then, appearance mattered.
One can go back slightly further in history to the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who suffered from polio, did not want the nation to know he was paralyzed. So, whenever he appeared publicly, long before he ever ran for president, it was with the assistance of braces so he could stand.
In fact, according to a CNN interview with filmmaker Ken Burns, citing rare 1937 footage of Roosevelt struggling to walk at a baseball game, “Burns said footage of Roosevelt struggling to move is rare because the Secret Service either prohibited or confiscated cameras at the time to minimize the public’s knowledge of the devastating effects that polio had had on him. The media complied with the request.” Then, appearance mattered.
These are obvious, well-known examples of where the appearance of presidential candidates and presidents was a topic of discussion. But there are more.
In 1979, when Jimmy Carter changed his hair part from right to left, it did not go unnoticed in media outlets. Famous presidential barber Milton Pitts was horrified at the time, commenting to friends, “That guy is not going to last.” According to Pitts’ 2003 obituary in Time magazine, “One Pitts theory was that untested leaders could, with seemingly innocent things, set off a slide into oblivion. In Pitts’ view, Carter’s hair change was too dramatic, suggesting self-adulation.” Pitts thought it played a role in his 1980 defeat to Ronald Reagan. Then, appearance mattered.
In 1975, when Gerald Ford slipped down the stairs of Air Force One when arriving at a state visit in Vienna, Austria, it helped propel Chevy Chase’s career on Saturday Night Live (SNL), who would often portray Ford stumbling and falling every which way. Later, when Ford shot Comedy Central’s Indecision ’96, he sagely told voters, tongue in cheek, “When you elect a president, you also elect a clown, who [you] will make fun of him for the next four years. So, while your head of state is keeping America strong and free, [there’s] some joker who’s making his career by falling off a ladder on national TV.” Here, Ford was making light of Chase’s famed SNL bits, but at the time, appearance mattered.
One could go on and on. It was widely speculated Ronald Reagan dyed his hair. Chris Christie’s weight is often discussed. So too was Bill Clinton’s as a topic of humor — one of his nicknames was Bubba. Dana Carvey made a living off of George H.W. Bush’s mannerisms. So too did Tina Fey portraying Sarah Palin. And now Jimmy Kimmel, complete with a Donald Trump toupee.
Then, as now, appearance matters. This is nothing new. In fact, it comes with the territory.
Something Fiorina knows all too well. In 2010, when she was running for senator out of California, she was caught open mic mocking sitting Democrat Senator Barbara Boxer’s appearance. She said a staffer of hers “briefly saw Barbara Boxer on television this morning, and said what everyone says, God, what is that hair?” and then broke out laughing, adding, “So yesterday. You didn’t see—” and then she cut herself short, smirking as she realized she was live.
Fiorina reportedly went on to say, “People talk about my hair all the time.”
Yet, at the CNN debate, she suddenly took issue of Trump’s comments about her face, saying, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” Knowing the footage of her mocking Boxer’s hair was out there. And then again on CNN, she doubled down and made it some sort of issue of sexism in American politics where there is none, claiming “It’s only a woman whose appearance would be talked about while running for president — never a man.”
The ability to make fun of a female candidate’s looks is actually a testament that women are in fact being treated equally in politics. And for a candidate who at first ran against gender identity politics to now so cynically play the sexism card is almost beyond belief. It makes her appear, dare I say, two-faced. It’s a huge mistake.
And, surely, it will backfire.
This is a guest post by Robert Romano senior editor of Americans for Limited Government.