An interesting article here on The Atlantic Web site about beauty standards for women, Elena Kagan, Sarah Palin, etc. Worth a read. I was especially struck, however, by a comment made by a reader who asked when we have last elected someone who looked like William Howard Taft:
A very interesting point. Many scholars (including, in some respects, myself) have argued that Kennedy was the first president to successfully run on a politics of image. This is not to suggest that image and physical features did not color politics before the television age; James Madison was mercilessly heckled for his diminutive stature, and there is a reason why we have the term "Napoleon complex." Still, there were significant advantages to an era when truly meaningful attributes could trump the irrelevant importance of physical attractiveness.
Individuals who listened to radio broadcasts of the first presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960 believed Nixon won, hands-down. Those who watched it on television preferred the well-coifed Democrat over the recently ill, underweight Nixon by a large margin. Leaving Nixon's future escapades aside, and regardless of one's opinion of Kennedy's actions as president, this seems an early indication of something going horribly wrong.
As humans, we are always going to make imperfect judgments, and our opinions will change over time. It bears repeating, however, that the physical attributes we laud now will change dramatically over the centuries:
Woman With a Mirror, c. 1640, Peter Paul Rubens
Seems a lot more sensible to do our thinking through our ears, so to speak, and judge based upon the content of candidates' arguments.
Taft image from Wikipedia Commons. Rubens image from www.peterpaulrubens.org.