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Silver Threads: When did politicians start having to be beautiful?

On a morning in 1962,  I stood on the neutral ground on St. Charles at Louisiana, infant daughter in my arms, and watched President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade pass by. Laughing and with thick, reddish-brown hair blowing in the wind, he waved to the Orleanians along the route from an open convertible like the one that would leave him vulnerable to a bullet the next year in Dallas.

I got to thinking about that the other day when some celebrity or other was quoted as saying he’d been around during the terms of 13 U.S. chiefs of state. My goodness, I thought, he must be ancient; there haven’t been that many in my lifetime.  But then I counted up 13, too, starting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom I once thought had been president of the country forever. When I was about 8 and asked my mother about it ,  she said, “No, it just seems that way,“ letting you know right there what side of the aisle she was on.

But I digress; my point is that as I watched JFK pass by that day, I thought he looked like a movie star. Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower hadn’t been young and good looking, and the personal appearances of Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower weren’t remarked on by the media. Public attention to how the presidents and other politicians looked and how hot their wives were and what they wore hadn’t yet developed, mainly because there had been no television cameras focused almost on their every movement.

When the Kennedys came along, the world was besotted. Certainly Jacqueline Kennedy was younger and far more attractive than the other women who’d been first ladies during my youth. Her sleeveless, form-fitting sheaths and pill-box hats were different, and people reacted; remember her trip to Europe? I am the man who came to Paris with Jackie Kennedy, said the president to the cheering crowd.

This being an election year, those who watched the extensive TV coverage of  candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have been treated to a parade of hot governors, senators and congressmen and their blonde wives, all sporting hairdos inaugurated by Jennifer Anniston and, sadly, still in fashion. To be sure, not all of them have been in the Kennedy class,  but attention has been paid to the modern demand for a spotlight filled with  beautiful people.

Me, I think Hilary Rodham Clinton looks just fine and find no fault with First Lady Michelle Obama, despite an ugly internet comparison of her physique and style with that of women such as the late Princess Diana. And who cares whether or not former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has had “work” done or not?

The fact that everybody of any prominence has been grist for television’s mill since the ’60s is the explanation for this focus on beauty, certainly driven primarily by women. Did the guys really care anything about Nancy Reagan’s red outfits and which fashion designer was her favorite? While the male is hardwired to respond to beauty on a personal level, he doesn’t require it of his elected officials or their wives. I’m sure none of the men watching JFK ride down St. Charles Avenue had the same reaction that I did.

It’s the female populace — maybe even its older members  since it‘s known that people aged 18 to 34 don‘t watch nearly as much television — that notices and pays attention to the glamorizing of the candidates; I don’t think the fact that Mitt Romney is undoubtedly handsomer than Newt Gingrich has ever been noted by the average man. After all, according to a gag I heard recently, this is the guy who can walk down the street bald and potbellied, and still think he’s sexy.

Will good looks make a difference on Election Day? We’ll see; it certainly wouldn’t have before July 1920.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of The Times Picayune Living section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at


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