Profound Questions: Does Sexy Matter?
Originally published April 29, 2010
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
Science has a lot of great practical applications, which is why I decided to use it in determining the sexiest president.
Six sexy men and six sexy women met at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. They had no advance knowledge of the experiment and were lured only by the promise of free beer at its conclusion. They were turned loose in the America's Presidents exhibit -- "the nation's only complete collection of presidential portraits" outside the White House, which callously ignored all requests to participate in serious scientific research. They had 30 minutes to mark down the three "sexiest" men on display, and also the three "least sexy."
The data (note that Obama is not in the exhibit): Thirteen presidents appeared on the "sexiest" ballots, led by Kennedy (8), Grant (6) and Pierce (4).
Fifteen men split the "least sexy" vote, led by Arthur (6), Cleveland (5) and Buchanan (4). It should be noted that two people independently commented that Buchanan looks a lot like 2010 Bill Murray.
Adjust these numbers by historical sexiness quotients, allow for standard deviation and multiply by C-SPAN 2009 Presidential Leadership Rankings, and it becomes stunningly obvious: this is sucky science. Astronaut ice cream looks like a triumph in comparison.
Still, we may have gleaned some insight into a profound question. When it comes to presidents, does sexy matter?
First, a sensual grain of salt: Sexy has evolved. In a July 1880 rundown of executive hotness, the Boston Traveller reported that "the handsomest of all our presidents was unquestionably President Fillmore .. he was a most striking specimen of masculine beauty." Yes, Millard "The Chinless Sex Bomb" Fillmore. FDR was considered handsome, because the Depression dragged down global hotness standards along with the economy. Arthur's facial hair wasn't frightening in 1881, and Cleveland's corpulence was more endearing in the era before stirrup stretch pants.
But we have to start somewhere, and going by the Gallery numbers, it seems presidents can be too sexy. Consider our top three.
Though Kennedy was hot and inspirational, his time in office was a slog -- near disasters in foreign policy and a social agenda he couldn't push forward. He might have straightened things out by cutting down to just two or three mistresses -- thereby freeing up some work time -- but his rising tide of sex appeal surged him higher than he was ready to go. It's because of the assassination that we remember the sizzle over the steak.
Grant? According to the Traveller, "a plain, short man, but in regarding him, so great are his deeds, men are affected much as poor Desdemona was when she listened to Othello's tough yarns." Unfortunately, he had a horde of Iagos in his administration, the kind of guys who used Grant as a sexy, befuddled figurehead while they did some unethical things, like corner the gold market and tank the economy. Decent general, mediocre president.
Pierce was nominated in 1852 because he was so pretty. Back when party conventions were fun (no adjournment until at least one trampling death), "Handsome Frank" was a compromise to satisfy warring Democratic factions. Pierce was an empty, sexy vessel -- he didn't have enough of a record to run against, he was young, and his Flock of Seagulls haircut was going to look sassy on the broadsheets. But good looks couldn't make up for a complete lack of gravitas, or solve slavery. He's the only elected president whose own party denied him a second nomination.
So it seems that the White House has some of the same natural laws as your office: while sexiness can help you land a job, it can be tough to accomplish things when it defines you. There are too many jealous ugly people waiting to spite you -- true in politics or on the late shift at McDonald's. Some people will never respect you, staring always at your metaphorical cleavage and believing that's how you got the job.
Or you'll have coasted. Things are easier for beautiful people -- they get better seats at restaurants, they rarely pay for sex -- and easy living sometimes begets arrogance. Rely on your sexiness, and you won't be ready for the struggles to come.
The uggos will be. Lincoln didn't win the White House in a beauty pageant, but the Civil War was going to be nasty. In a time of great social upheaval, Lyndon Johnson -- whose childhood home had "All is Vanity" hanging in the living room (Google it) -- was as effective as he was hideous. Sometimes it takes ugly men to do ugly jobs.
Still, sexiness must have some value. Walk through the Portrait Gallery in chronological order. James Madison looks like a personified prune, and John Quincy Adams looks like his diet is 90 percent bran, 10 percent raw lemon. But as you walk toward the 20th century, the average hotness increases, and even the ugly people are better looking. That's because the president is a pitchman of ideas, and in the media age, sex sells. We're more attentive to attractive people, or more willing to help them move, if they ask us while wearing a halter top. Used modestly, sexiness is a powerful tool.
The key is attainability. Presidents should strive for the Jennifer Garner model of hotness, where the sexiness isn't so intimidating that you're scared away. For example, sleeping with Marilyn Monroe is too sexy. It puts you on a level where you can no longer relate to the plebes. But if you have that foundation of good looks and you seem to be approachable -- if you're Garneresque -- doesn't that make all your arguments a little more persuasive? Won't people at least hear you out?
Tallying a surprising three votes in the "hot" column: Calvin Coolidge. Raised on a Vermont dairy farm, simple in manner and features, yet able to wear a suit. His portrait radiates confidence, but he doesn't look like he's planning on groping your wife. In his own way, the deliberate, quiet Coolidge made small-government conservatism ... a little bit sexy. In 1924, he won by 25 percent.