The Cutest Little Baby Face

Sen John Edwards, D-N.C., speaks to the media, Thursday, Jan 2, 2003, in front of his Raleigh, N.C. home. Edwards announced that he has formed an exploratory committee for a presidential run.
AP
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This commentary from The New Republic was written by Michael Crowley.



In politics, as in romance, looks matter. Fancying themselves deeper than they are, people like to deny this. But the evidence isn't very persuasive. So why hasn't John Edwards, possibly the most heartthrobby man ever to be on a ballot, already been installed in the Oval Office through a popular coup led by packs of giggling young women? Here's the problem: He looks too young to be president.

If you don't believe me, consider a scene captured by a C-SPAN camera tailing Edwards in New Hampshire earlier this year. The fair-haired senator bounded eagerly into a small diner to shake hands and, before long, came upon a huge grizzly bear of a man with a cartoonishly bushy white beard. "I'm John Edwards," he said. Slowly rising from his seat, the man shook Edwards's hand and then announced in a booming voice, "I know. I seen you on television. You don't look old enough to vote! Jeez, what a young guy!" Edwards cringed. "Fifty!" he snapped, jabbing his finger at the man. "I'm almost fifty!" As he resumed his handshaking, the candidate's winning smile looked more like a wince.

The episode is a microcosm of the flagging Edwards campaign. No matter how much he talks about his law career, his family, or his economic plan, people see Edwards and think he should be sipping a malted after high school basketball practice. Earlier this year, an Associated Press headline announced that Edwards was "battling his boyish image." A recent overview of his campaign in The New York Times reported that Edwards "repeatedly, and at times heatedly, dismissed suggestions ... that he looked too young or did not have enough experience to defeat President Bush." But such rebuttals haven't defused the issue. "He looks almost too young to be president," James Vawn, a retired Iowa farmer, told the Times. Conscious of this, Edwards's campaign took great care to publicize his fiftieth birthday in June. For many people, turning 50 is an occasion of profound existential meaning. For Edwards, it was an opportunity to say, I am so a grownup! Hence, his campaign staged at least four different birthday events over several days.

According to Dr. Leslie Zebrowitz, a professor of psychology at Brandeis University, Edwards is probably cursed by something she calls the "baby-face overgeneralization effect." Her theory holds that adults project childlike traits onto people whose faces share characteristics with those of infants -- such as roundness, wide eyes, and small chins. "At all ages, more baby-faced people are seen to have more childlike traits," Zebrowitz told me. "More baby-faced people are seen as physically weaker, more submissive, naïve." Not quite the masculine ideal, needless to say. Along with his delicately sculpted hair, this probably helps explain why Edwards is often teased in feminine terms -- as "pretty," for instance, or, most famously, when Bush operatives dubbed him "the Breck girl." On the brighter side, Zebrowitz says, people like Edwards are seen as "more trustworthy, warmer, and more honest." Her research has found that juries are likelier to acquit baby-faced defendants of charges involving criminal intent -- though more inclined to convict them in cases of alleged negligence. So, might Edwards's face be an asset after all? Not so fast. Zebrowitz warns that other research specifically indicates that, "in times of social and economic threat, people have a preference for more mature features." Bad news for a Breck girl during all-out war with maniacal terrorists.

But it is surely good news for the Democratic candidate with what Zebrowitz calls the most "mature" face: John Kerry. Not that the Massachusetts senator hasn't blamed his looks for some of his troubles. Kerry often suggests his mug is partly responsible for the sense that he's cold and pretentious. "I've got this angular, sort of Yankeeish-looking face," Kerry told me last year in response to a question about his reputation. Speaking recently to Vogue magazine, Kerry again fingered "this craggy, angular face that's too serious sometimes." Lately, he seems to be smiling more, perhaps to brighten up those facial ravines. But, if Zebrowitz is right, Kerry should stop dissing his face and learn to love it.

There is one thing Kerry loves about his appearance, though: his height. At six-foot-four, he lords over a relatively puny primary field. That's meaningful if you consider that the taller candidate has won ten of the 13 presidential elections since World War II (and that's if you call five-foot-eleven-inch George W. Bush the "winner" over six-foot-one-inch Al Gore, who got more votes). Unfortunately for Kerry, however, this rule seems less applicable to primaries. Bill Bradley towered over Gore in vain, and both Michael Dukakis and Jimmy Carter were dwarfed by several rivals. Still, Kerry's aides are confident that height makes right. "John towers over the field, literally and figuratively," boasts his campaign manager, Jim Jordan. "A big man for a big job."

Fortunately for Kerry, his two main rivals, Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, are not tall men. (Edwards is sub-six feet as well.) Don't think they don't know it, either. Chatting with reporters on his campaign jet recently, Dean complained about a New York Times story that had described him as "diminutive." Dean first noted that the Times reporter, Adam Nagourney, is "about five-three." Then he added, "I don't know that I'm so short." Well, a reporter asked, how tall are you? "I'm five-eight," Dean replied. "Almost five-nine." Dean probably should have stopped here, but he didn't. "Five-eight and three-quarters," he continued. "The reason I don't tell anybody about the three-quarters is that it sounds like I'm very sensitive about my height. And I'm not." Where would anyone get that impression?

Clark, meanwhile, is described as a man of enormous "stature." But, at five-foot-ten, according to Esquire magazine, he's hardly a giant. His inevitable showdown with Kerry over who is the mightiest soldier in the field will be a fine test of the height effect. Unfortunately, these dueling machismos will probably make Edwards appear even more conspicuously boyish. Poor guy. He's one of America's most handsome men, and, yet, like some homely bachelor, he must be wishing people weren't so hung up on looks.

MICHAEL CROWLEY is an associate editor at TNR.

By Michael Crowley
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