[Paleopsych] CHE: Political Timber: Glitter, Froth, and Measuring Tape
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Political Timber: Glitter, Froth, and Measuring Tape
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.10.1
By EDWARD TENNER
As the presidential debates approach, some anxious Democrats are
taking comfort in the five-inch height advantage of their candidate,
who stands 6 feet 4 inches to George W. Bush's 5 feet 11 inches. They
remember, all too well, the 1988 presidential debates between George
H.W. Bush and Michael S. Dukakis.
At the time, the newspaper columnist Charles Krauthammer described the
elder Bush as "tall and terrible. He whined. He stumbled. He looked
nervous and hyperactive. From the first question about drugs, he was
on the defensive." Then Krauthammer also mentioned the results of a
focus group of undecided voters convened by The Washington Post, who
ultimately leaned toward Bush. After the candidates shook hands, one
member had explicitly mentioned the six-inch gap in height.
The focus-group participants had cited other factors, of course, but
the possibly fatal handshake was added to the capital's political
lore. "Half to two-thirds of what people take away is visual rather
than verbal," a Republican pollster told The New York Times in 1996.
"It's huge." To some Democrats, that principle implies the need for a
physically imposing candidate. After the initial surge of Gov. Howard
Dean of Vermont, some supporters of rival Democrats stooped to open
heightism, deriding Dean as an example of "short man's syndrome."
How did it come to this? Why is stature now considered such a
political advantage -- or liability?
It's easy to blame the tube for fostering a flight from serious issues
into glitter, froth, and measuring tape. But taller was seen as better
in the 19th century, too, and long before. The already imposing
Lincoln may have chosen his signature stove-pipe hat to further
accentuate the strong point of his appearance. Herodotus heard that
the Ethiopians made the tallest and strongest men their kings.
Still, height was not considered destiny. James Madison's nickname,
"Little Jemmy" -- his height is usually given at 5 feet 4 inches
-- was not politically fatal. Lincoln's shorter opponents and their
fans accepted and even flaunted their stature. Stephen A. Douglas was
famous as the "little giant," and Gen. George B. McClellan, whatever
his failings as a Civil War commander, won the 1864 Democratic
nomination as "Little Mac," a phrase his troops had always used
affectionately. (A brilliant military engineer, he was also compared
admiringly with Napoleon earlier in his career.) Friend and foe spent
little time talking about height. It was a given, to be used
derisively or positively.
That attitude changed toward the end of the century. Timothy A. Judge,
a professor of management at the University of Florida, and Daniel M.
Cable, an associate professor of management and organizational
behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who study
height and success, have observed in a recent analysis of the
literature on the topic in the Journal of Applied Psychology that
William McKinley, elected in 1896, was the last president shorter than
the average man. And there were signs of the end of the good-natured
banter of the waning century. McKinley's journalistic critics
portrayed him as a "little boy" controlled by his big nursemaid, the
Republican boss Mark Hanna, and the growing big-business trusts.
Fear of the big began to mix with mockery of the small. An unpublished
University of Iowa dissertation by Michael Tavel Clarke, "These Days
of Large Things: The Culture of Size in America, 1865-1930" (2001),
suggests that the interest in personal size and strength was partly a
response to the emergence of industrial combinations and other
corporate giants that threatened to crush individuality. At the same
time, the scientific professionals of the late-19th and early-20th
centuries regarded small stature in Africa, Asia, and Europe as a
throwback to primitivism and feared its importation. Eugenic
interpretations of stature abounded.
For example, William Zebina Ripley's The Races of Europe, published in
1899, popularized the division of the Old World into distinctive
biological types, with tall Northern European blonds on top physically
and mentally as well as geographically, followed by the stockier
Alpines and the still-darker Mediterraneans. America's old racial
stock (those called "native Americans" around 1900 were mainly
Anglo-Saxon Protestants) was threatened by an influx from the shorter
nations of Eastern and Southern Europe.
With the closure of the frontier in the 1890s, medical and educational
authorities believed a new struggle would occur within the growing
cities, where high-density living and immigration seemed to be
endangering public health. They established height and weight
standards and fitness programs to help assure the stature of a
more-diverse urban population, meeting the threat of degeneration.
For their part, African-American people were starting to stand tall in
sports. In 1908 Jack Johnson, more than six feet tall, defeated the
world boxing champion, a 5-foot-7-inch white Canadian named Tommy
Burns, seeming to confirm the fears of the founder of the modern
Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, four years earlier that "black
men, red men, and yellow men" would eventually "leave the white man
behind them" in competition.
Several decades later, the stereotype of the short, simian Japanese
marked World War II-era racism in America, and the emergence of better
nourished and taller postwar generations of Japanese has not yet ended
the acrimony about height among nations and races. In 2001 the Sunday
Telegraph reported a campaign by the Chinese government to encourage
the nation's children to drink more milk (even though many are lactose
intolerant) after the humiliation of learning that Japanese average
height had overtaken Chinese stature for the first time in recorded
Height is not only a nationalist concern, of course. It can be a
revealing index of social change. For economic historians, records of
stature, whether from military data or archaeological digs, illuminate
health and living standards in a way that production and consumption
data alone never can. Contemporary changes, too, can signal the real
rise and decline of public welfare.
Consider the public-health catastrophe of North Korea. According to a
2003 report of the World Food Program and Unicef, 42 percent of North
Korean children are now classified as stunted, their growth markedly
below their age norms, and most may never recover. Thanks to
prosperity and a Western diet, 17-year-old boys near the border on the
South Korean side average 5 feet 8 inches; most teenagers on the North
Korean side stood less than five feet, even though before World War
II, Koreans in the northern part of the country had been slightly
taller. Height is thus a mirror of the isolation and decline of the
North Korean economy, with its widespread poverty and resulting
Yet the United States shows that political freedom and apparently
abundant food are not necessarily enough. In a paper published earlier
this year in the journal Economics and Human Biology, the University
of Munich economic historians John Komlos and Marieluise Baur show how
"within the course of the 20th century the American population went
through a virtual metamorphosis from being the tallest in the world,
to being among the most overweight." In the mid-19th century,
Americans were from 3 to 9 centimeters taller than Western and
Northern Europeans, and underweight. Now the Dutch and Scandinavians
(followed by the British and Germans) are from 3 to 7 centimeters
taller than Americans, who have one of the highest rates of obesity.
(Beginning in the 1970s, Uncle Sam ceased to be drawn mostly as tall
and thin and has often been cut down to size, according to the
University of Oregon journalism professor and cartoonist Thomas H.
Bivins, who has studied the figure's history.) Because their study
excludes Asian and Latino people and those born outside America, and
because black people show the same pattern as the broader population,
Komlos and Baur discount immigration as the reason why Americans have
become relatively shorter. Their hypothesis is that European welfare
state policies and greater social equality have produced better
nutrition and health care.
Two strains of social science collide, then, when stature rears it
head in politics. One historicizes height as convention and metaphor,
a symbol of dominance or otherness, a relic of imperialism and
nativism. The other takes height seriously as a yardstick of overall
fitness, as the authorities of the progressive era saw it, a
characteristic predicting intelligence and performance. In their
survey article, Judge and Cable suggest that tall people may make more
money at least partly because they actually are better at their work.
For example, being tall can generate admiration, which can promote
self-esteem, which can enhance competence. Another study in the
College Mathematics Journal by Paul M. Sommers, an economist at
Middlebury College, compares the heights of American presidents with
their ratings in two surveys of historians, and finds that a
disproportionate number of the highest-rated chief executives were
taller than average -- if only because "historians want someone they
can look up to in the highest office." Perhaps the members of the
Washington Post focus group were on to something.
Yet ultimately, height is a social as well as an anatomical fact.
While physically altering height is one of the most painful of all
surgical interventions -- limb lengthening requires cutting through
the thigh bones and having the patient turn screws in agony over
months and months to deposit new calcium -- elites have relatively
painless ways to manage impressions. In 1840 in Paris Sketch Book, the
novelist William Makepeace Thackeray depicted a magnificent wig,
sumptuous coat, and high-heeled shoes (Rex), a little bald man in his
underwear (Ludovicus), and their fusion in the fully clothed Sun King
(Ludovicus Rex) -- elevated by his footwear. More recently,
shorter-than-average male film stars -- from Alan Ladd and Humphrey
Bogart to Tom Cruise -- have been aided by costume and adroit
cinematography. But tricks like the "Ladd box" (on which the actor
stood) would not have worked if the people who used them hadn't had
their own ability to project a charismatic, dashing -- in fact,
"larger than life" -- persona. Outside show business, too, we have all
known or seen people who have managed to appear taller than they
There is thus hope for shorter candidates to cast long shadows with
the proper delivery and gestures, and not being seen to care about
stature. Howard Dean's real height problem may not have been being
under 5 feet 9 inches but in insisting he was 5 feet 8 3/4. And
whatever merits Bush's and Kerry's debating arguments might have, much
more will depend on their rhetorical prowess than on their stature.
The correlation between height and success may be significant, but the
exceptions have been as striking as the rule. Above all, we should
think twice about height as a proxy for greatness on the world stage.
At 6 feet 4 to 6 feet 6 inches, according to the FBI "wanted poster,"
Osama bin Laden would stand above both candidates.
Edward Tenner is a senior research associate at the Jerome and Dorothy
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the
Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. He is
the author of several books, most recently Our Own Devices: The Past
and Future of Body Technology (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003).
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