Head and Shoulders Above the Rest
He may not have been the smoothest or most comfortable debater. He may not, as he joked, even have been the best actor on stage. But in making his debut alongside other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination this week, Fred Thompson certainly won the Height Primary.
Turn down the volume on the Michigan debate Tuesday and the most striking thing a voter would notice is how Thompson seemed to tower over the other contenders. Instead of becoming the latest of Nine Dwarfs, the former Tennessee senator and "Law & Order" star brought a physical bearing that left him looking in command, even if not necessarily sounding like it. The contrast was most noticeable when the camera focused on him and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to his left.
A candidate's physical presence can be an important advantage in modern American politics. Rightly or wrongly, height lends stature to a candidate's image. A taller candidate may be seen subconsciously as more presidential. Campaigns often go to great lengths to shroud a shorter candidate's height and avoid side-by-side comparisons with larger rivals, just as Hollywood moviemakers use visual tricks to disguise the real size of some of their biggest -- or, that is, smallest -- stars. America, it seems, likes its leading men tall.
In fact, history seems to bear out the height advantage. Since television started bringing candidates into voters' homes for the first time roughly six decades ago, the taller candidate has won more popular votes in 12 of the last 15 presidential general elections. (The exceptions were Richard M. Nixon in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and George W. Bush in 2004; wikipedia's entry on this misstates Bill Clinton's height, which was measured during official medical exams at 6-foot-2-1/2, making him just a tad taller than George H.W. Bush.) Some have studied senatorial races and found similar trends. My Washington Post colleague, Jay Mathews, has long argued that size matters. "We are a species that equates larger size with maturity, leadership and sex appeal," he once wrote.
But obviously that is not always the determining factor. After all, at 6-foot 4, Sen. John F. Kerry loomed over the 5-foot-11 Bush in 2004 and despite some predictions that he would win because of the differential, the Massachusetts Democrat ended up conceding to the shorter man. (Vice President Al Gore also had 1-1/2 inches on Bush but he actually did win the popular vote in 2000, even if not the electoral vote.) And having a woman on the other side of the debate stage could scramble the equation. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign puts her at 5-foot-5, although many public reports have her at 5-foot-6, and she doesn't seem to be having much trouble in the Democratic primary contest at the moment with 6-foot-1 Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, let alone 5-foot-7 Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
Still, Thompson towers in a way that is hard to ignore. His campaign puts him at 6-foot-5, although he is often reported to be 6-foot-6. Either way, if he were to go on to win the White House, he would be the tallest president in American history, edging out 6-foot-4 Abraham Lincoln. Many observers were struck by Thompson's stature during the debate. "Quick first impressions after watching all 9 candidates come on stage, Fred Thompson is TALL!" NBC News political director Chuck Todd wrote on the network's political blog, First Read. "And so is Mitt Romney. More importantly, Rudy Giuliani, standing next to Fred Thompson is quite the site [sic]. Thompson's height advantage is striking on the TV screen."
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, at 6-foot-2 comes closest to Thompson among the major Republican candidates, but the two other top-tier contenders fall short -- and even shorter depending on who you believe. Giuliani's campaign maintains he is 6 feet tall, even though he is regularly reported to be 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-10. Jessica Kowal wrote in Newsday in 2001 that Giuliani challenged such estimates by whipping out his driver's license, which reportedly listed him as 6 feet. Of course, driver's licenses simply list what the applicants write down.
A bio of Giuliani at Internet Movie Database lists him as 5-foot-9-1/2, as did the Economist magazine in a graphic on candidate heights earlier this year. In response to the question, "How Tall is Rudy Giuliani,"
Men have fudged their heights for years and why should it matter? Maybe because the candidates realize that only one president in the last half century has been shorter than 5-foot-10, and that was Carter, who fell short of that by a half-inch.
Of course, from the perspective of a 5-foot-6 reporter, everyone looks tall.
-- Peter Baker
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