Edward Tenner: Kerry's Debate Advantage ... He's Taller

Roundup: Historians' Take

Edward Tenner, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 30, 2004):

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.

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