Heightism And Presidential Nominees: Are Short Men An Underexploited Resource?
September 14, 2013, 03:31 PM
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Clinton, Bush, 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

- 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

Wendell Wilkie, Elwood, Indiana, 1940

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.