Political Animal


August 15, 2011 3:30 PM What a president ‘looks like’

By Steve Benen

In advance of the 2008 presidential campaign, many high-profile figures in the media described Mitt Romney as someone who “looks like a president.” It was as if news outlets were thinking of central casting, and imagining who looked the part. Romney — a handsome, middle-aged white man — fit the bill. The media tended not to describe Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama the same way.

Four years later, we’re seeing the same phenomenon. This time, not only does Romney “look like a president,” but so too does Rick Perry. Here’s Richard Cohen’s column, for example, pondering what will happen with the Republicans’ top-tier presidential candidates.

I can think of no reason why anyone who, for some unaccountable reason, supports Michele Bachmann will not move over to Perry. He is her equal in social issues, which is her strength, but he is a much better campaigner — as he showed the other day in Waterloo, Iowa. He retailed a GOP dinner, going from table to table, while Bachmann made a Lady Gaga entrance — rock music, lights, phalanx of security — and just perfunctorily met with the ordinary people she claims both to be and to represent. Perry, who actually looks like a president (also the late Rory Calhoun), will raise far more money and breeze by her. Au revoir, Michele. [emphasis added]

And why does Perry “look like a president”? Presumably for the same reasons Romney does — he’s a handsome, middle-aged white man.

I realize perceptions like these become ingrained over the course of many decades, and these media observations are not intended to be racist of misogynistic. Handsome, middle-aged white men have been the presidential norm for generations. I get that.

But the larger point is this: observers accustomed to the old way are going to have to change their perceptions. I don’t know whether Barack Obama “looks like a president” by the standards of the media establishment, but I do know he is the president, which necessarily changes what it means to look like one. Hillary Clinton may not have been out of central casting, but she very easily could have been elected, too.

It took too long, but the rulebook for what a president “looks like” has been tossed aside. It’s time for some in the media to catch up.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • MCD on August 15, 2011 3:34 PM:

    See if you can spot the pattern:

    Mitt Romney (R) - looks like a president
    Barack Obama (D) - nope.
    Rick Perry (R) - yessir.
    Hillary Clinton (D) - no.
    Alfred E. Neumann (R) - totally presidential.
    John F. Kennedy (D) - pfft.

  • scott_m on August 15, 2011 3:37 PM:

    I think it was David Letterman who said "Romney doesn't look like a president-- he looks like a guy who plays the president in a Canadian made-for-TV movie."

  • SW on August 15, 2011 3:43 PM:

    Three cheer for 'Governor Good Hair'.

    I don't know. I've been to Mt. Rushmore. No beauty queens there. This modern fixation on personal appearance may have started with Jack Kennedy but the group that came after him were ugly as sin. Maybe in Hollywood but the last I heard all those people were crazy liberals or at least they are until they are over the hill and hire their ass out to the highest bidder.

    But Washington? Lincoln? FDR? Truman? And really maybe if you are an arch conservative and you worship St. Ronnie, by the time he got elected he was a few face lifts behind being a matinee idol himself. Personally, I think this whole idea is a fantasy of middle aged white guys. Who by the way are a diminishing portion of the electorate but continue to have a strangle hold on our ridiculous discourse.

  • K in VA on August 15, 2011 3:44 PM:

    Of course, most of the Villagers who talk about what presidents look like are, in fact, describing themselves: middle-aged white men.

  • Redshift on August 15, 2011 3:47 PM:

    When you decide credible presidential candidates based on looks, you get a government that's run as well as if the Miss USA finalists were in charge.

  • ckelly on August 15, 2011 3:47 PM:

    How exactly did Perry show he was a "much better campaigner" than Bachmann already? After 1 day?

  • jjm on August 15, 2011 3:48 PM:

    Well some people (I think it may have been Richard Pryor) thought wrinkled Ronnie Reagan looked like something the underside of a scrotum.

    But what, you just discovered the media is completely superficial?

  • Doctor Biobrain on August 15, 2011 3:48 PM:

    I don't know. Because I really DO think there's something about this "looks like a president" thing. I mean seriously, what does Romney have that Pawlenty didn't have? It's because Romney looks like he could be president, while Pawlenty looks like he might work for the president. In fact, all Romney has is his good looks keeping him going. Same for Perry. Were the man to be forced to rely on his brains and political instincts, he couldn't be elected dog catcher.

    And the thing is, that was a big plus for Obama too, because he ALSO looked like he could be president. He definitely looked more like presidential material than McCain or Hillary. I daresay that if Obama were less attractive, he wouldn't be president right now.

    Like it or not, life is largely a popularity contest and good looks will get you far. If you look at any presidential race in modern history, the better looking candidate almost always wins. The only real doubt would be 2000, as Gore was more presidential looking than Bush. And even then, Gore won the popular vote and should have won Florida, so that follows suit, too.

  • Trollop on August 15, 2011 3:50 PM:

    I beg to differ, neither Romney nor Perry are "handsome"..

  • DAY on August 15, 2011 3:51 PM:

    I think Morgan Freeman looked very presidential ( President Tom Beck; "Deep Impact") and as President Nelson Mandela- also, God -Like ("Evan Almighty")

    Perry reminds me of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) in "A Face in the Crowd"

  • martin on August 15, 2011 3:51 PM:

    I guess the proper question is What President do they look like?

  • linus bern on August 15, 2011 3:54 PM:

    Considering that pretty much every movie about a global catastrophe has a black actor for the president these days, I'd say Obama looks like a president.

  • g on August 15, 2011 3:55 PM:

    Perry reminds me of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) in "A Face in the Crowd"

    He reminds me of the candidate in Stephen King's "the Dead Zone."

  • Gandalf on August 15, 2011 4:00 PM:

    Whoa there! Just who thinks Bush2,Clinton,Bush1,Reagan,Carter,Ford,Nixon(Yuck)Johnson,Eisenhower,Rtruman,FDR were handsome. None of them other than Nixon wer trolls but I doubt serioudly that very many people would consider them handsome.

  • Ron Byers on August 15, 2011 4:03 PM:

    Dewey looked like a President. Truman was a little farmer who had a squeeky voice. Truman ran against the do nothing congress and won. So much for looking like a President.

  • Old Uncle Dave on August 15, 2011 4:05 PM:

    re: "Handsome, middle-aged white men have been the presidential norm for generations."

    Cancel the handsome and the middle-aged part, and you're on to something.

  • Diane Rodriguez on August 15, 2011 4:05 PM:

    I don't know, a little dab of brylcreem and Perry is a dead ringer for Powers Boothe's Jim Jones, not to mention his TV evangelist cum cult like persona.

  • MBunge on August 15, 2011 4:07 PM:

    The "looks like a President" line has nothing to do with physical appearance or being a middle-aged white male. Nobody every described Bill Clinton or Howard Dean as "looking like a President".

    As best I can tell, the "looks like a President" line is a bit of Beltway kabuki to signify that Republican Candidate X is to be considered acceptable despite certain flaws that would be normally be considered disqualifying. For Perry, it means that everyone is just supposed to forget about his neo-confederate secession talk.


  • kevo on August 15, 2011 4:13 PM:

    Richard Cohan's been collecting paychecks using too many stereotypes and cliches for far too long!

    All our pundits would do well to remember even Willy Loman thought he looked good when he believed he had it going on! -Kevo

  • Just a guy on August 15, 2011 4:17 PM:

    "Looks like a president" tends to mean "looks like a corporate douche who has no trouble wrecking other people's lives to make a buck."

  • SadOldVet on August 15, 2011 4:17 PM:

    Thank God that President Fred Thompson looks like a president!

    As the role of republican presidents is to rule the country and not to govern, it is critical that they look like a president!

  • joel hanes on August 15, 2011 4:22 PM:

    It's the same in business.

    See this Dilbert classic

    You are aware that upper management tends to be taller than average and less bald than average, right?
    That corporations use beauty-pageant standards (in part) in selecting their executives?

    They're entitled, because they chose their own parents and genome wisely.

  • ExConSean on August 15, 2011 4:24 PM:

    I think Michele Bachmann makes a good case for her "looking like a President" in her editorial in today's Onion:

    "It's just a plain and simple fact: When you close your eyes and think, "President of the United States of America," whose face immediately pops into your mind? Of course it's mine. After all, this is the face of a woman who instills confidence in the entire populace by having no understanding of basic American history and making a huge public outcry over a proposed change in lightbulbs."

  • joel hanes on August 15, 2011 4:26 PM:

    SadOldVet observes :

    the role of republican presidents is to rule the country and not to govern

    Exactly. See this classic from Fafblog's The Medium Lobster for a longer treatment of the phenomenon in historical context.

    (Where have you gone, Fafblog? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.)

  • R on August 15, 2011 4:32 PM:

    I'm with K in VA -- the people deciding what a President looks like are mostly middle-aged white guys themselves. Except that Cohen was middle-aged when I was young, so he must be old now.

    What disturbs me more is this: Perry is Bachmann's "equal in social issues, which is her strength..." When will these people notice that Bachmann gets her facts wrong every single time she opens her mouth, on any issue? And of course Perry will end up with more money -- he's starting with more, a whole bunch from oil and gas interests. Let's see, I get paid to cover politics for the Washington Post, so do I look at pictures and watch a video of a GOP dinner, or do I do actual research on candidates' records and funding sources? Silly question.

    Captcha: J

  • Jamie on August 15, 2011 4:37 PM:

    Warren Harding looked like a president and look how well that turned out.

  • steve duncan on August 15, 2011 4:44 PM:

    I thought he was auditioning for a gig in an entirely different line of work:


  • Kathryn on August 15, 2011 4:52 PM:

    Perry is pure Elmer Gantry/snake oil salesman in my opinion.

  • PTate in MN on August 15, 2011 4:53 PM:

    Among Republicans, the statement "looks like a President" means, "looks like Ronald Reagan."

    "Looking like a POTUS" works very well with low-information voters, so I welcome the day when Americans realize that the WH is not a movie set.

  • Pat In Michigan on August 15, 2011 5:10 PM:

    race-baiting ass

  • exlibra on August 15, 2011 5:32 PM:

    Granite jaw. Rough-hewn cranium and neck -- straight lines only, no bulges (which might indicate oversize brain capacity). Nose like a proud prow of a ship (or, at least, an unmodified piece of a potato). Good hair.

    You can plunk such person straight onto Mount Rushmore, without any tedious sculpting or carving. That's what it means to look "statesmanlike" and "presidential". And that's what, according to Craptcha, gives one "ininview popularity" (ie popularity in the innermost circle of DC pundicks)

  • Bonnie on August 15, 2011 5:32 PM:

    Perry needs to get out of the Texas Sun. He has way too many wrinkles. Neither Powers Boothe nor Rory Calhoun had that many wrinkles. I agree with whoever said that the people who make these statements are white men.

  • navamske on August 15, 2011 5:35 PM:

    Richard Cohen is a maroon. I thought this was common knowledge by now.

  • deanarms on August 15, 2011 5:41 PM:

    Obama looks like a president in the 21st century, as does Jimmy Smits, for that matter. Mitt and Rick more like 20th century versions. And "24" did an homage to a President Hillary when Cherry Jones played president at the end of the series. Loved the Letterman quip too.

  • johnny thunder on August 15, 2011 5:44 PM:

    In many countries, the leader wears a sash of some kind that helps them look like a President. In the movie "Idiocracy", the President wears a gold medal. Maybe we should adopt one of these methods to "look like a president".

  • ckelly on August 15, 2011 5:51 PM:

    Re: Steve Duncan @ 4:44 PM, I'd say Perry is looking VERY presidential. He always tends to his corporate masters' or wealthy elites' corndog.

  • 4jkb4ia on August 15, 2011 9:14 PM:

    If he doesn't sound like he could be president, even at one of these highly packaged GOP "debate" affairs, he is another John Edwards pretty boy. Being too handsome can hurt you.

  • Cha on August 15, 2011 9:14 PM:

    Actually, from my vantage point they're both as ugly as pig shit.

  • Mustang Bobby on August 16, 2011 4:35 AM:

    Warren G. Harding "looked like a president" in 1920. That he led the most corrupt administration until Nixon came along and had several adulterous affairs are lost to history unless you Google "Teapot Dome."

    Mr. Harding had the good sense to die three years into his term and left us with Calvin Coolidge.

  • Scott Free on August 16, 2011 8:04 AM:

    And let's not forget that the disgraced and recently convicted Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois had absolutely great hair...

  • Varecia on August 16, 2011 9:24 AM:

    Exactly how many Presidents have actually looked like this stereotype? It's an invented image that seems to have a life of its own in a parallel universe.