The Chronicle Review

Political Timber: Glitter, Froth, and Measuring Tape

October 01, 2004

As the presidential debates approach, some anxious Democrats are taking comfort in the five-inch height advantage of their candidate, who stands 6 feet 4 inches to George W. Bush's 5 feet 11 inches. They remember, all too well, the 1988 presidential debates between George H.W. Bush and Michael S. Dukakis.

At the time, the newspaper columnist Charles Krauthammer described the elder Bush as "tall and terrible. He whined. He stumbled. He looked nervous and hyperactive. From the first question about drugs, he was on the defensive." Then Krauthammer also mentioned the results of a focus group of undecided voters convened by The Washington Post, who ultimately leaned toward Bush. After the candidates shook hands, one member had explicitly mentioned the six-inch gap in height.

The focus-group participants had cited other factors, of course, but the possibly fatal handshake was added to the capital's political lore. "Half to two-thirds of what people take away is visual rather than verbal," a Republican pollster told The New York Times in 1996. "It's huge." To some Democrats, that principle implies the need for a physically imposing candidate. After the initial surge of Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, some supporters of rival Democrats stooped to open heightism, deriding Dean as an example of "short man's syndrome."

How did it come to this? Why is stature now considered such a political advantage -- or liability?

It's easy to blame the tube for fostering a flight from serious issues into glitter, froth, and measuring tape. But taller was seen as better in the 19th century, too, and long before. The already imposing Lincoln may have chosen his signature stove-pipe hat to further accentuate the strong point of his appearance. Herodotus heard that the Ethiopians made the tallest and strongest men their kings.

Still, height was not considered destiny. James Madison's nickname, "Little Jemmy" -- his height is usually given at 5 feet 4 inches -- was not politically fatal. Lincoln's shorter opponents and their fans accepted and even flaunted their stature. Stephen A. Douglas was famous as the "little giant," and Gen. George B. McClellan, whatever his failings as a Civil War commander, won the 1864 Democratic nomination as "Little Mac," a phrase his troops had always used affectionately. (A brilliant military engineer, he was also compared admiringly with Napoleon earlier in his career.) Friend and foe spent little time talking about height. It was a given, to be used derisively or positively.

That attitude changed toward the end of the century. Timothy A. Judge, a professor of management at the University of Florida, and Daniel M. Cable, an associate professor of management and organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who study height and success, have observed in a recent analysis of the literature on the topic in the Journal of Applied Psychology that William McKinley, elected in 1896, was the last president shorter than the average man. And there were signs of the end of the good-natured banter of the waning century. McKinley's journalistic critics portrayed him as a "little boy" controlled by his big nursemaid, the Republican boss Mark Hanna, and the growing big-business trusts.

Fear of the big began to mix with mockery of the small. An unpublished University of Iowa dissertation by Michael Tavel Clarke, "These Days of Large Things: The Culture of Size in America, 1865-1930" (2001), suggests that the interest in personal size and strength was partly a response to the emergence of industrial combinations and other corporate giants that threatened to crush individuality. At the same time, the scientific professionals of the late-19th and early-20th centuries regarded small stature in Africa, Asia, and Europe as a throwback to primitivism and feared its importation. Eugenic interpretations of stature abounded.

For example, William Zebina Ripley's The Races of Europe, published in 1899, popularized the division of the Old World into distinctive biological types, with tall Northern European blonds on top physically and mentally as well as geographically, followed by the stockier Alpines and the still-darker Mediterraneans. America's old racial stock (those called "native Americans" around 1900 were mainly Anglo-Saxon Protestants) was threatened by an influx from the shorter nations of Eastern and Southern Europe.

With the closure of the frontier in the 1890s, medical and educational authorities believed a new struggle would occur within the growing cities, where high-density living and immigration seemed to be endangering public health. They established height and weight standards and fitness programs to help assure the stature of a more-diverse urban population, meeting the threat of degeneration.

For their part, African-American people were starting to stand tall in sports. In 1908 Jack Johnson, more than six feet tall, defeated the world boxing champion, a 5-foot-7-inch white Canadian named Tommy Burns, seeming to confirm the fears of the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, four years earlier that "black men, red men, and yellow men" would eventually "leave the white man behind them" in competition.

Several decades later, the stereotype of the short, simian Japanese marked World War II-era racism in America, and the emergence of better nourished and taller postwar generations of Japanese has not yet ended the acrimony about height among nations and races. In 2001 the Sunday Telegraph reported a campaign by the Chinese government to encourage the nation's children to drink more milk (even though many are lactose intolerant) after the humiliation of learning that Japanese average height had overtaken Chinese stature for the first time in recorded history.

Height is not only a nationalist concern, of course. It can be a revealing index of social change. For economic historians, records of stature, whether from military data or archaeological digs, illuminate health and living standards in a way that production and consumption data alone never can. Contemporary changes, too, can signal the real rise and decline of public welfare.

Consider the public-health catastrophe of North Korea. According to a 2003 report of the World Food Program and Unicef, 42 percent of North Korean children are now classified as stunted, their growth markedly below their age norms, and most may never recover. Thanks to prosperity and a Western diet, 17-year-old boys near the border on the South Korean side average 5 feet 8 inches; most teenagers on the North Korean side stood less than five feet, even though before World War II, Koreans in the northern part of the country had been slightly taller. Height is thus a mirror of the isolation and decline of the North Korean economy, with its widespread poverty and resulting malnourishment.

Yet the United States shows that political freedom and apparently abundant food are not necessarily enough. In a paper published earlier this year in the journal Economics and Human Biology, the University of Munich economic historians John Komlos and Marieluise Baur show how "within the course of the 20th century the American population went through a virtual metamorphosis from being the tallest in the world, to being among the most overweight." In the mid-19th century, Americans were from 3 to 9 centimeters taller than Western and Northern Europeans, and underweight. Now the Dutch and Scandinavians (followed by the British and Germans) are from 3 to 7 centimeters taller than Americans, who have one of the highest rates of obesity. (Beginning in the 1970s, Uncle Sam ceased to be drawn mostly as tall and thin and has often been cut down to size, according to the University of Oregon journalism professor and cartoonist Thomas H. Bivins, who has studied the figure's history.) Because their study excludes Asian and Latino people and those born outside America, and because black people show the same pattern as the broader population, Komlos and Baur discount immigration as the reason why Americans have become relatively shorter. Their hypothesis is that European welfare state policies and greater social equality have produced better nutrition and health care.

Two strains of social science collide, then, when stature rears it head in politics. One historicizes height as convention and metaphor, a symbol of dominance or otherness, a relic of imperialism and nativism. The other takes height seriously as a yardstick of overall fitness, as the authorities of the progressive era saw it, a characteristic predicting intelligence and performance. In their survey article, Judge and Cable suggest that tall people may make more money at least partly because they actually are better at their work. For example, being tall can generate admiration, which can promote self-esteem, which can enhance competence. Another study in the College Mathematics Journal by Paul M. Sommers, an economist at Middlebury College, compares the heights of American presidents with their ratings in two surveys of historians, and finds that a disproportionate number of the highest-rated chief executives were taller than average -- if only because "historians want someone they can look up to in the highest office." Perhaps the members of the Washington Post focus group were on to something.

Yet ultimately, height is a social as well as an anatomical fact. While physically altering height is one of the most painful of all surgical interventions -- limb lengthening requires cutting through the thigh bones and having the patient turn screws in agony over months and months to deposit new calcium -- elites have relatively painless ways to manage impressions. In 1840 in Paris Sketch Book, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray depicted a magnificent wig, sumptuous coat, and high-heeled shoes (Rex), a little bald man in his underwear (Ludovicus), and their fusion in the fully clothed Sun King (Ludovicus Rex) -- elevated by his footwear. More recently, shorter-than-average male film stars -- from Alan Ladd and Humphrey Bogart to Tom Cruise -- have been aided by costume and adroit cinematography. But tricks like the "Ladd box" (on which the actor stood) would not have worked if the people who used them hadn't had their own ability to project a charismatic, dashing -- in fact, "larger than life" -- persona. Outside show business, too, we have all known or seen people who have managed to appear taller than they actually were.

There is thus hope for shorter candidates to cast long shadows with the proper delivery and gestures, and not being seen to care about stature. Howard Dean's real height problem may not have been being under 5 feet 9 inches but in insisting he was 5 feet 8 3/4. And whatever merits Bush's and Kerry's debating arguments might have, much more will depend on their rhetorical prowess than on their stature. The correlation between height and success may be significant, but the exceptions have been as striking as the rule. Above all, we should think twice about height as a proxy for greatness on the world stage. At 6 feet 4 to 6 feet 6 inches, according to the FBI "wanted poster," Osama bin Laden would stand above both candidates.

Edward Tenner is a senior research associate at the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. He is the author of several books, most recently Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003). Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 51, Issue 6, Page B12