By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Twenty years ago, in the midsummer heat of the George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis battle for the presidency, I began a lonely effort to warn America of a bone-deep bias that has poisoned our presidential politics and rendered our media's campaign analysis largely irrelevant.
I wrote a story in Style about the problem then, and have done so every four years since on the same topic.
Few people have paid attention.
I don't actually cover politics and couldn't interpret a polling report if my pension depended on it. But I have trudged on, hopeful of eventual vindication, and have seen promising signs in the latest voting trends. I thought the election of 2008 might be a triumph for my point of view, and a great day for America.
That is, until a young Democrat from Illinois, Sen. Barack Obama, began to win caucuses and primaries and rise in the polls. Uh-oh. Once again, sweeping aside all the demographic intricacies and issue comparisons that are supposed to be important, it looks like the taller guy is going to win.
Not that I am against the 6-foot-1-inch Obama, or anything like that. In the two decades I have been ranting about the influence of height on presidential elections, I have admired the character and intelligence of most of the candidates, including him and his 5-9 opponent, Sen. John McCain. My problem is that those important factors seem to be of little consequence when compared with this simple, tape-measured fact: In only four of the last 20 presidential elections has the shorter candidate won.
The last time I checked, my height was 5 feet 5 inches. Not very tall, I admit, which is one reason why I am distressed that no one my size has served in the White House in 191 years. Now I am at the age where tissues compress and bones disintegrate, so I don't measure myself anymore.
But I still root -- in a nonpolitical way, of course -- for the shorter candidates, and I really thought things were going my way. In 2004 George W. Bush, 5-11, beat John Kerry, 6-4, and became the first person to win the presidency with as much as a five-inch disadvantage since William McKinley, 5-7, beat William Jennings Bryan, 6-0, in 1900. After the 2004 election, Hillary Rodham Clinton began to rise in popularity and, at 5-5, had a chance to become the shortest president since James Madison, 5-4.
Even my groundbreaking analysis of the 2000 Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Gore, gave me hope. That decision gave the presidency to the shorter man despite his losing the popular vote. It was endorsed by five justices who were on average two inches taller than the dissenters. I speculated that my country might finally have reached a watershed where height no longer made the difference, where my much-taller children would no longer make rude remarks about my stature, where Danny DeVito could be cast as Indiana Jones, where the big jobs like CEO and managing director and quarterback and even the presidency of the United States could go to little people.
Such a change would have reversed biological and cultural trends that are centuries old. Our ancestors were shorter than we are, on average, thus tying greater height to our concept of modernity and progress. If we had all descended from giraffes, on the other hand, diminutive stature might have become a mark of betterment, a greater evolutionary distance from those unattractively tall progenitors. Or, if we, like many insects, metamorphosed from larvae larger than our adult form, less might have actually come to be thought of as more.
An end to heightism would have relieved the bitterness that started me writing about this in 1988. Bush, the Republican candidate, was 6-2. He towered over the 5-8 Democratic nominee, Dukakis. Many people thought this was funny. Johnny Carson (5-10 1/2 ) said Dukakis might become "the first president in history who will have to be lifted up to see his own inaugural parade." In a "Saturday Night Live" campaign debate sketch, viewers heard what sounded like the noisy gears of a mechanical lift as Jon Lovits, playing Dukakis, rose into the air so that he could see over his lectern.
The Washington Post's most senior campaign chroniclers are friends of mine, but they have never been happy with my suggestion that they just stand each candidate against a wall, mark the spot at the top of the head, report the exact feet and inches, and spend the rest of the summer at the beach. Imagine my joy, then, when one of our younger political correspondents, the award-winning Peter Baker, addressed the height issue himself in a piece for washingtonpost.com. Baker, 5-6, was respectful of my point of view. He even credited my previous work, something no one at The Post had ever done. I am sure his sudden disappearance from The Post newsroom, to turn up on the staff of the New York Times magazine, had nothing to do with his brave assault on the conventional wisdom. But I miss him, and once again have to forge ahead alone.
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe the Obama phenomenon has nothing to do with height. Maybe the dominance by taller candidates is a temporary byproduct of the television era. Wikipedia has a list of the heights of most major-party candidates, starting with George Washington, 6-2. Its data are incomplete and should be cited with caution. But it suggests that, assuming an Obama victory, 71 percent of the presidential elections in the television era will have been won by the taller candidate, compared with 58 percent in the elections before that, when voters rarely had a chance to see their contestants standing side by side.
People seem to watch less TV news now than they used to. There is more texting and blogging and other political activities that don't lean so heavily on appearance. So I still pray that some day height will no longer make a difference and hope for an election where the outcome will no longer depend on an accident of genetics. But down here barely five feet off the ground, and getting shorter, it is hard to see very much support for my case. As usual I suspect the person who stands tallest on Election Day will win.