Comedian Cecily Strong asked reporters to raise their right hands and make a pledge during her speech at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on Saturday night. "I want all the media to put their hands up and swear something this election season," she said. "I solemnly swear not to talk about Hillary's appearance because that is not journalism."
Her line divided the room more than anything else uttered that night. There was wild cheering from some sections of the crowd. (Remember that lots and lots of people in attendance are not journalists before you start bashing the "lap dog media.") There was silence from other sections of the audience.
I get what Strong was going for. (You'd have to be a real dummy not to.) Her point: Commentary and coverage over the years about Hillary's changing hairstyles, her penchant for pantsuits and other assorted appearance ephemera are the direct result of Clinton being a woman. A man running for president would never be subjected to similar treatment. So, stop.
To a point, I agree with Strong. Hillary Clinton, by far the most high-profile woman in politics for, well, the better part of the last two decades, has been subject to more scrutiny (and analysis) over how she looks than any male politician over that time. And much of the coverage has not-so-subtly suggested that Clinton's appearance is the sole -- or at least the most important -- factor on which she should be judged. Which is wrong, obviously.
But the broader idea that Strong was pitching was some version of this: How a candidate looks doesn't matter at all, and reporters who spend any time writing or thinking about it are committing journalistic malpractice. To which I say: Wrong.
Ever since the dawn of the TV age of politics, which, for my purposes, I consider the Nixon-Kennedy debate in the 1960 presidential election, how candidates -- in that case two males -- look has played a not-insignificant role in how they fare with the electorate. Wrote Kayla Webley for Time of that 1960 debate:
Nixon, pale and underweight from a recent hospitalization, appeared sickly and sweaty, while Kennedy appeared calm and confident. As the story goes, those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won. But those listeners were in the minority. By 1960, 88% of American households had televisions — up from just 11% the decade before. The number of viewers who tuned in to the debate has been estimated as high as 74 million, by the Nielsen of the day, Broadcast Magazine. Those that watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy was the clear winner. Many say Kennedy won the election that night.
Twenty years removed from that election, America elected a former actor as the president of the United States. Ronald Reagan knew better than any politician before him -- and most since -- how much looks mattered. If you looked tanned, rested and ready, people tended to believe that you were up to the job of leading the country. Bill Clinton's youthful appearance -- doubled down on when he picked the telegenic Al Gore as his vice presidential nominee -- told people, without using any words, that he represented the turning of a new page in history in the 1992 presidential election.
More recently, if you believe that John Edwards, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would have had the success they enjoyed in the political arena if they looked, well, more average, then you are wrong. Do you remember the massive Internet debate set off by President Obama wearing a tan suit? Or the "Mom jeans controversy?" How about the attention Edwards got for this two-minute video of him combing his hair?
Writing in Slate about a 2005 study by a Princeton psychologist regarding attractiveness and voting patterns, the terrific Libby Copeland noted:
Voters appeared primarily drawn to faces that suggested competence — so much so that the effect could actually be seen in election results. In the lab, subjects glanced for a single second at the faces of congressional candidates. They didn’t know anything else about the candidates, and they didn’t recognize them. Almost 70 percent of the time, the face that subjects judged as more competent-looking actually won the election.
So, no, it's not ONLY looks that gets people elected to things. If that was the case, Nikolaj Coster Waldau (a.k.a. Jaime Lannister) would be emperor of the world.
But, the idea that appearance -- the appearance of competence as opposed to pure attractiveness -- doesn't matter just isn't borne out in life. If looks lead to snap judgments -- or at least first impressions -- in, literally, every other aspect of life, it seems counterintuitive that the appearance of a candidate wouldn't matter in politics.
That's especially true in the modern era of politics in which two things are true: (1) Television is king, and (2) voters are less and less engaged in the actual policy platforms of the candidates.
If you have ever sat in on a focus group of voters (or potential voters), you know that one of the most common things that people comment on is looks. "He seems nice." "He has a friendly face." "I think he looks like an elitist." Whatever. You get the point. Voters are often shaping their perceptions about candidates -- perceptions that heavily influence how they vote -- based on nothing more than how a candidate looks or even sounds.
This from an MIT study on the correlation between looks and voting nails it:
People often judge unfamiliar individuals based on their appearance, inferring personality traits such as competence, intelligence, honesty, and trustworthiness from facial features alone. People rely more heavily on such impressionistic assessments when they know little else about individuals, using appearance as a low-information heuristic.
Already in the course of the 2016 campaign, we are seeing how looks/appearance and the perceptions they create matter in how voters regard candidates. The news that Jeb Bush is on the Paleo diet drew huge attention, including from places such as NBC's "Today" show that don't usually spend much time on politics. How about the huge focus on Chris Christie's weight and the surgery he underwent to deal with it? Or Mike Huckabee's weight fluctuations? Or even -- and this is less about looks than overall perception -- Scott Walker working to get some of the Midwest accent out of his speech?
Now, I am not advocating the sort of coverage that Clinton has been subject to in the past -- where her appearance seems to be the ONLY thing many reporters are interested in writing on or commenting about. But I also think that comments like Strong's, which, I know, was just to make a point, also miss the mark somewhat. We know how a candidate looks and sounds is part of the overall equation for how voters decide whether to vote for him and her.
Given that, the right thing to do is to properly contextualize coverage of any candidate's appearance. It should neither be 90 percent of the coverage nor zero percent. How we look matters in ways measurable and not. A journalist's job is to understand how voters make up their minds, not pass moral judgment on whether they are doing it "right."