September 14, 2013

Heightism and presidential nominees

Clinton, Beavis, Perot
Thinking about the unsatisfactoriness of American presidents leads to the question of how to draw from a wider pool of talent. Short men would be an obvious underexploited source, except that nobody cares about discrimination against them. Height is not an identity politics category.

There is a widespread bit of urban folklore that the taller candidate always wins (so parties should nominate a tall man). This Wikipedia table shows that there is some truth to that, but not all that much. Over the course of American history, we see:

- 26 elections in which the taller man won (but those include three of the wheelchair-bound FDR's four victories -- I had no idea FDR was 6'-2" -- that probably helps explain how he got the VP nomination in 1920 before his polio)

- 20 elections in which the shorter man won

Wendell Wilkie, Elwood, Indiana, 1940
- 4 elections in which the candidates were the same height (including FDR v. Wendell Wilkie, both a strapping 6'2." This famous Life photograph by John D. Collins of Wilkie coming to accept the GOP nomination in his wife's hometown does't have much to do with height, but it's worth using an excuse to post it).

- 3 unopposed

- 4 in which nobody anymore remembers how tall C.C. Pinckney, Rufus King, or Horatio Seymour were

The shorter candidate has won three of the last four elections.

I was struck by how tall losing candidates have been. In recent years, Big Stiffs who lost included the following six-footer-pluses: George McGovern, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole (the height of 73-year-old Dole, who spent much of 1945-49 in military hospitals, varies in photos: he apparently could muster up the energy to stand almost as tall as Clinton at times), Al Gore, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney. And this isn't just a recent phenomenon. The two three-time losers in American history are William Jennings Bryan (5'11", which was well above average for the time) and Henry Clay (6'1"). In other words, the American political system has long been biased toward the tall, perhaps more than the small difference in election results justifies.
Ha-ha, he's short!

In recent years, the only average or below-average in height nominees have been Jimmy Carter (5'9.5"), John McCain (5'9" ... and probably substantially less when he ran at age 72), and Michael Dukakis (5'8"). Dukakis was much laughed at for his lack of height. McCain's war record and age mostly spared him. Before that, Thomas Dewey was snickered at as "the little man on the wedding cake" for being 5'8" and dressing fastidiously.

John F. Kerry on
the campaign trail
To me, Howard Dean, the Democratic frontrunner throughout 2003, looked like a Norman Rockwell illustration of a promising presidential candidate. Except, Dean was a stumpy old wrestler, which helped make his wrestling coach roar after he lost a primary seem terminally funny. So, the Democrats immediately dumped Dean for the Lurch-like John Kerry. How'd that work out for them?

No candidate in the 20th Century was shorter than Ross Perot, who was no more than 5'6". (James M. Cox, who lost to Harding, is also listed at 5'6".) Perot lost, but earning almost 19% of the vote with an improvised third party run is extraordinary. So, maybe being short isn't as much of a detriment with voters as the experts assume?

It's tautological that individual height is caused by some combination of nature and nurture. In the old days, being tall was a pretty good sign that you didn't suffer developmentally from hunger, illness, or general deprivation as a child. In the past, it was not unreasonable to assume that the imposing height of quasi-aristocrats Washington (6'2") and Jefferson (6'2.5") was a reassuring sign that they hadn't missed out on crucial nutrients and the like. 

However, over time, height has become more correlated with nature than nurture, as the average level of nurture becomes good enough for people to attain close to the full height that their genes have allotted them. We don't really know if the genes for being tall correlate with other desirable genes (I'd guess a low but positive correlation), but mostly height is just a genetic fluke these days. But, old prejudices remain.

By the way, here's an amusing Maureen Dowd article from 1992 about Perot's height, which includes the following anecdote told by extremely tall economist John Kenneth Galbraith about the very tall statesman Charles de Gaulle:
Mr. Galbraith wrote: "I said he [de Gaulle] obviously agreed with me that the world belongs to the tall men. They are more visible, therefore their behavior is better and accordingly they are to be trusted. He said that he agreed and added, 'It is important that we be merciless with those who are too small.' "

With alarming de Gaulle anecdotes like this, I can never tell if the great man was trying to be funny. They are funnier if we assume he wasn't.

To Dowd, as to many people, heightism is funny while sexism is no laughing matter.


Dave Pinsen said...

It would be interesting to expand this to countries where women have been elected president or prime minister and see height plays out there.

dearieme said...

Many of these figures are, I'll bet, mere guesswork. For a start, how many politicians wear "lifts" in their shoes? Tony Blair did, apparently. Come to that, how many politicians are notable for telling the truth?

What you need is a Federal Department of Height Mensuration, Division of In-bare-feet.

Anonymous said...

I stood next to Mike Dukakis at a funeral and he's no more than 5'5".

DJF said...

"""John F. Kerry on the campaign trail"""

OK, good work, you made me laugh.

Anonymous said...

In France, Sarkozy was much laughed because of his height, especially when journalists discovered he was wearing lifts in his shoes. However, the French elected the equally short Francois Hollande last year and nobody makes fun of his height, meaning that height does not matter here as soon as you're not showing it hurts you to be vertically challenged.

Glossy said...

OT, but not entirely:

"During an interview with KPCC that aired yesterday, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, was asked if he had ever met Vladimir Putin. It's safe to say his answer was more than a little unexpected.

Turns out, during the early 1990s, Putin, then only a local official, traveled to Washington with a Russian delegation. While there, Putin and two other Russians ended up playing a game of touch football with Rohrabacher and a few of his "right-wing" buddies. Things only got stranger after the game:

"We all ended up going to the Irish Times Pub afterwards, and we were having a little bit too much to drink I guess. But anyway, we started arguing about who won the Cold War, etcetera. And so we decided to settle it like men do when they’ve had too much to drink at the pub. So we got down to these arm-wrestling matches, and I ended up being paired off with Putin. And he’s a little guy, but boy I’ll tell you he put me down in a millisecond. He is tough ... his muscles are just unbelievable. And then his bodyguard gets up and this buddy of mine and says 'oh I’ll take him.' And my friend put his bodyguard down, so it was good."

Anonymous said...

I just relocated to the Los Angeles area. At 6'4", you've gotta be a giant here Sailer. This is the shortest place I've ever been to in the U.S. And it's not just the minorities. Even the Caucasians here seem much, much shorter on average compared to back in the Midwest, or even other places like the South or New York.

I'm 5'8" and I pass for average height around here. Back in Ohio I felt very short.

pat said...

Ron Chernow in his recent biography of Washington argues that the great man was in fact only about 6 feet even. His evidence is from the documents he sent to his tailor in Britain.

The camera adds pounds they say and fame seems to add inches. When I was in band in high school we played for Nixon. He came over and shook some of our hands. I was convinced that he was taller than I was, but that was an illusion. He was I think about 5'11". I was probably at least 6'2" by then.


pat said...

Speaking of lifts. My doctor prescribed shoe lifts to help my strained Achilles tendon. I ordered a variety of sizes. I had little ones that didn't do much for me and I had a pair of real "elevator lifts" that made me almost three inches taller.

Wearing those - just once as it happened - I was 6'7". I loved them. I towered. But my back was killing me. I gained respect for the Hollywood runts like Robert Downey Jr. who have to wear such things. They do crazy things to your posture. Those guys must be in constant pain.


Anonymous said...

The Israelis don't seem fixated with it: Ben Gurion, Begin, Barak were all short men and all were elected. All were very strong male figures, Barak being the most heavily decorated officer in the Israeli army in its history. Only Levi Eshkol was tall, but he was considered relatively weak by the Israelis. Netanyahu is of average height but again, a very strong male figure, having fought in an elite army unit.

Anonymous said...

Another thing to keep in mind. Before 1960 with the TV debates of Nixon/JFK, most presidential candidates did not directly ever have to "face" their opponents during the campaign. Also, they generally tended to campaign the most in states they assumed they could win (toss-ups were exceptions of course).

Bottom line: the height factor in presidential candidates, while obviously of some importance, neither helped nor harmed them as far as facing their opponents on the debate platform since there were no debates until 1960.

So perhaps anecdotes from the media chiding or ridiculing candidates for their lack of height (among other things) helped play a factor for undecideds forming their opinions.

Whiskey said...

Tall guys are big targets in combat, FWIW.

Alexander Irwin said...

IQ correlates with height, even in well-nourished societies.

Gord said...

How true. Minority and female disadvantages are grave injustices that demand remedial action, but "heightism" is something to be laughed off: "Ha, those short guys just can't get a break, can they? Bullied in school, spurned by women, and now we find out they get paid less! Ho ho, sure sucks to be short! Oh well, such is their lot in life!"

Anonymous said...

I'm 6'4", and have never noticed any benefits accruing to me because of my height. But maybe that's just my Height Privilege talking.

agnostic said...

Mondale, Dukakis, Perot, Kerry, and McCain all lost because they were from the Silent Generation, rather than the Greatest or Boomer generations.

Steve Sailer said...

"I just relocated to the Los Angeles area. At 6'4", you've gotta be a giant here Sailer. This is the shortest place I've ever been to in the U.S. And it's not just the minorities. Even the Caucasians here seem much, much shorter on average compared to back in the Midwest, or even other places like the South or New York."

My wife's teenage nephew from a small town in the Midwest was visiting us. Being 6'1", blonde, and square-jawed, Mexicans called him "Hollywood" because he looks like the old stereotype of a movie star. When I was in high school in the San Fernando Valley, lots of guys looked like him. Not any more, though.

RonMexico said...

Steve lists TJ at 6'2". Franklin famously said that Washington was a natural leader because he was always the tallest in the room. The John Adams miniseries had a scene depicting this. Many sources list GW at 6'2.5" to 6'3". I wouldn't take Chernow's 6' just due to one piece of evidence.

Dave Pinsen said...

"Franklin famously said that Washington was a natural leader because he was always the tallest in the room. The John Adams miniseries had a scene depicting this."

Here's the scene from that miniseries, which plays it a little differently than you might remember.

Sean said...

Michael Bloomberg is 5 ft 6 in.
Ross Perot is 5 ft 6 in.

Men of action such as self made billionaires and/or break the mold politicians (of left or right) tend to be under average height for their demographic group, while lawyers, bankers, career politicians, political theorists, pundits, film directors, humorists, commentators, TV hosts, writers and comedians, tend to be tall.

It seems to be different for women. though Janet Reno was the equivalent of 6'8'' for a man.

Celeb heights are almost invariably stealing an inch over reality barefoot height. Watch the movie Pittsburgh (1942) you will see quite clearly in two extended sequences where stars John Wayne and Randolph Scott are walking along beside each other that Randolph Scott who claimed to be 6'3½'' was taller than John Wayne. Wayne was 6'3''.

Steve Sailer said...

In that 1942 movie, the Duke was probably a victim of the wartime lift shortage.

Anonymous said...

Juan McCain 5'9"? No way, Jose! Stood next to him on level ground; now I'm a wee 5'10" yet
"towered" above him. No es alto.

Anonymous said...

Girl psychology vs Guy psychology.

Anonymous said...

> I gained respect for the Hollywood runts [...] who have to wear such things.

Spare some of that respect for the streetwalkers who have to wear even more brutal height enhancers just to get a little more attention.

Actors, hookers, pit traders... Sure they all do necessary work for society; but let's not put them on pedestals.

Edward Waverley said...

"Clinton, Beavis, Perot" awesome

Sean said...

Steve, Wayne was shorter than the 6'4'' that the whole world thinks he was.

The average height of men in Washington or Jefferson's time was no more than 5'7''. So a 6'2" Washington would have grown to be pushing 6'6'' if born 200 years later. You are in effect saying that political leaders are now much smaller. it's more likely that people just lie about stuff like height, and cherry trees.

Anonymous said...

Height brings many advantages in social and professional situations, moreso for men than women.

But short people tend to live longer. This is obvious to people who spend time among groups of the elderly.