Hail, Hail to the (Tall, Hairy) Chief

At first, I thought nightly Presidential debates were a good thing. But now that we’ve got them, I’m not so sure. I knew things had gone too far when I started thinking that Orrin Hatch had a sense of humor. So in an effort to put the race in some sort of larger perspective than whether George W. Bush managed a spontaneous thought or Steve Forbes didn’t scare anybody, and perhaps even to assess the success of Naomi Wolf’s efforts to remake Al Gore into a man, I contacted some of America’s leading anthropologists.

My first call was to Roger Masters, a scholar at Dartmouth College and an expert on nonverbal communication in politics. Professor Masters was either uncharacteristically humble for an Ivy League professor or pissed off that I was bothering him at his Cape Cod weekend home during January break, because he insisted that my instincts were as good as his, honed by 4 to 10 million years of human evolution.

“Are you going to be surprised if I tell you there’s an element of rigidity to Gore’s nonverbal behavior?”

I confessed I wasn’t.

“There’s a powerful cue in Gore’s nonverbal behavior that persists,” the professor went on.

He waited for me to tell him what it was. “His head remains rigidly straight up and down,” he said, answering his own question.

I wasn’t sure what effect this would have on the results of the New York primary, but in the next breath the scholar launched into a lecture about an academic colleague who altered images of the Virgin Mary to make her body language more like Al Gore’s-not that he had the candidate in mind specifically-and then studied people’s reactions to her. Apparently, the results don’t bode well for the Vice President’s chances of moving into the Oval Office next January.

“If the Madonna’s head is straight up and down, she looks cold,” Professor Masters explained. “If she looks away, it looks like the Christ child has just filled his diaper.”

The professor said he had to get off the phone-I suspect his lunch was ready-so I called Lionel Tiger, the anthropologist perhaps best known for his seminal work on male bonding. He told me he’s placing his chips on Bill Bradley.

“Size in primates is always important,” he explained. “So long as you’re big but not a klutz, it’s an advantage. As a matter of fact, partly because of his physical stature, he has the best chance going in, independently of his character, to become President.”

While Professor Tiger respects Vice President Gore’s intelligence and experience, he has grave reservations about his relationship with Ms. Wolf. “If he was actually President, would she advise him on things?” he wondered. However, the anthropologist wasn’t especially concerned about the Vice President’s ability to transform himself from a beta male into an alpha, even without tutoring. “We call that growing into the job,” he stated. “There’s a lot of neurophysiology, too, which is too technical to go into.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I had an ulterior motive in calling these experts. I used to feel, as do most Americans, I suspect, that if called upon in a crunch I could fulfill the Constitutional obligations of the Presidency and might even come to enjoy creating gridlock in midtown Manhattan while my motorcade passes. However, lately I’ve started to have my doubts. It has less to do with my mixed feelings about the Confederacy or my flirtation with certain controlled substances back in college than with the fact that I’m losing my hair.

Think of it. Every President from Ronald Reagan on has been positively angora.

Lionel Tiger thought I was overreacting. Lack of hair is less of a liability in our current political climate than freaky hair, he asserted. “You can’t get too far away from the mean,” he explained. “That’s a kind of feature of centrist politics. If any of the candidates had a spiked haircut, they’d be doomed.”

I remained unconvinced-I mean Professor Tiger thought John McCain’s gray hair made him look “puckish”-so I phoned Jeffrey Plaut, a political consultant who worked on New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s campaign and still advises the politician. For those who are unfamiliar with Attorney General Spitzer, he suffers from male pattern baldness.

“I don’t want to be quoted on his hair,” Mr. Plaut stated emphatically. “We never talked about it and we never talked about talking about it.”

I observed that Al Gore miraculously seemed to have lost his bald spot and wondered whether he might be using that hair-in-a-can stuff. Mr. Plaut refused to be drawn into the discussion and changed the subject to exercise.

“Al Gore looks like he’s been locked in a gym,” he observed.

I found the insight blinding. Could the political consultant have just framed a new paradigm in American politics? Could a candidate perhaps get away with being bald, or even not knowing his state capitals, if he was buff? I decided to test the hypothesis on Lionel Tiger, but he wasn’t buying it.

“There’s a line which could be easily crossed which reveals narcissism rather than health,” he noted. “Men and women respond equally negatively to a narcissistic body builder. The difference between Bradley and Gore is that Bradley’s athleticism was in the service of getting a job done rather than in the service of looking in the mirror.”

The anthropologist Helen Fisher noted that handsome male primates tend to have more copulatory opportunities with females. “Women tend to have more orgasms with extremely symmetrical men,” she explained. But she added that in the long run women are more interested in men with resources than pretty boys. “This is known in 37 societies around the world,” she explained. “Good-looking men are a little worrisome.”

Like Mr. Tiger, Ms. Fisher wasn’t happy with Naomi Wolf’s role in the Presidential race. “Naomi Wolf doesn’t know what an alpha male is,” she sniffed. “Generally, the alpha male is extremely cooperative and very good at negotiating fights between underlings. They also tend to have some charisma. Gore would have done well as a beta.”

But can a beta get elected President of the United States?

“I think we’ve had nothing but betas for some time,” she stated. What about Bill Clinton? “A lot of people have called him the first woman President: ‘I feel your pain,’ that’s very beta.”

For her part, Professor Fisher is supporting Bill Bradley, who, by the way, she considers not only the most substantive but also the cutest candidate in the race.

“You think so?” I asked, raising the issue of his receding chins.

“Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, you’re the second man who was amazed that I thought Bill Bradley was good-looking. I think he’s the best looking of the crowd.”

So where does that leave Al Gore? Should he stop working on his abs? “The point in life is to be appropriate,” Professor Fisher said. “Be alpha when the world wants you to be alpha and beta when the world wants you to be beta. Timing and lighting. That’s all it is. And of course making the right decision at the right time under the right lighting.”

Hail, Hail to the (Tall, Hairy) Chief