8 October 2008

Hair today, win tomorrow: baldness and charisma?

My past attempts to analyse charisma have concentrated on the speech-making and communication skills of politicians. But there are clearly other more subtle and elusive factors that are more difficult to pin down. This was highlighted by a study of US politicians, from presidents down to the lowest levels of local government, that identified the two most powerful predictors of electoral success in American politics as being the candidate’s height (the taller the better) and record of athletic achievement (the sportier the better).

But there’s some evidence that another, even more trivial, physical attribute has become a key component of charisma since the age of mass television began – namely that successful male politicians need a good head of hair. When radio was still the main form of broadcast media, how much or how little hair you had was not as visible to the public. And, even if you were out and about, it was a time when men routinely wore hats in public, which kept baldness conveniently concealed from any passing press or film cameras.

Wigs and career success
It was a consultant dermatologist who first got me thinking seriously about baldness. He claimed to have transformed some of his patients’ careers by the simple device of prescribing a wig. Bald men, who had been repeatedly rejected at interviews for jobs as diverse as head chef and leader of an orchestra, enjoyed immediate success as soon as they appeared at an interview with a good head of hair.

Shortly after being told about this, I appeared on a television programme about the problems former Labour leader Neil Kinnock was then having with his public image. I had no qualms about discussing how his theatrical style of oratory tended to come over as too manic when transmitted to the small screens in people’s living rooms. But I also confessed to the producer that there was another possible cause of his difficulties that was far too delicate to mention on air, namely that he was bald.

The fate of bald Tories
Since then, we saw the leadership ambitions of Conservative party leaders William Hague and Ian Duncan Smith come to grief in double quick time. And, even if you never joined in the chorus yourself, it’s a sure fire bet that you heard others making snide remarks about their lack of hair.

In fact, if you want to find the last British prime ministers who were bald, you have to go back more than fifty years to Atlee and Churchill, both of whom were elected to office before the age of mass television. After them, the only ones with even slightly thinning hair were Sir Alec Douglas Home and James Callaghan -- but both of them only became P.M. when their predecessors resigned in mid-term, and both of them went on to lose the first general elections they fought as party leaders.

Transatlantic similiarities
It’s much the same story on the other side of the Atlantic, where the last really bald president was Eisenhower. After that, the long succession of presidents with plenty of hair was only interrupted by Lyndon Johnston and Gerald Ford. And, like Home and Callaghan, they were far from being completely bald, they too came to power without winning an election for the job and neither of them survived much longer than Home and Callaghan: Johnston declined to run for a second term, and Ford lost to Jimmy Carter.

Baldness and electability
Two intriguing patterns emerge from this. The first is that, apart from Churchill, Atlee and Eisenhower, the only bald or balding leaders who got to the top in Britain or America since then did so because of the death or resignation of their predecessor, rather than by the popular vote of their parties or the electorate at large. The second is that those who did fight a general election were promptly defeated.

If voters really do prefer candidates with a good head of hair, the main political parties in the UK have made all made safe choices for the next election. But in the USA, the Republicans have arguably taken quite a risk by pitting John McCain’s receding hairline against Barack Obama’s full head of hair. When it comes to sport, there may not be much to chose between them: McCain apparently excelled at wrestling and boxing and Obama still plays basketball. But the other big risk the Republicans have taken is to have selected a candidate who is a good six inches shorter than his rival.

No comments: