When the American people go to the polls to vote in the presidential primaries and caucuses in 2016, and then again in the general election, they will take into account many substantive considerations: political affiliation, experience, voting record, campaign promises, and the like. Let us hope they do this in a reasoned and thoughtful manner, and not let their passions have undue sway over their final decision.
There is no denying, however, that aesthetic considerations will play a role. For one thing, we want a president who is good natured. As a Democrat, I am most pleased that Obama is mild-mannered and polite. It would be nice if we elected a Democrat next time as well, but if we do end up with another Republican for president, it is my fervent hope that he will have an agreeable disposition. I may not have liked the policies of Ronald Reagan, but he did have a pleasant personality and a good sense of humor. George W. Bush was often funny too, though not always intentionally so, and I was comfortable with his manner, if not his policies. Not everyone will agree with my assessment, of course. De gustibus non est disputandum. But when it comes to winning elections, generalizations need not be absolute, but only true enough to ensure a majority of electoral votes.
In any event, I used to dread the possibility of Chris Christie’s being president. The idea of having someone that rude and obnoxious in the White House for four years was worrisome. If he is that arrogant now, I used to think to myself, what’s he going to be like as president! I tried to take heart in the fact that many Republican analysts said there was no way he could win the nomination, but I am relieved that Bridgegate has foreclosed that possibility for good. Another Republican that disturbs my aesthetic sensitivities is Bobby Jindal. He is a motor mouth. I once saw him on Morning Joe, and he wore me out. I seldom heard a comma, and rarely a period. He got into one run-on sentence that lasted two paragraphs. I certainly don’t want to listen to him for four years. Fortunately, there are other aesthetic features that also work against him. While he is not short per se, he is so for the presidency, and he does seem to have a small head. So I think we are safe from him. Rick Perry, on the other hand, would be good for laughs. He might ruin the environment and wreck the economy, but at least he won’t spoil my good mood.
With Hillary Clinton’s ascendency, there is the definite possibility of her securing the nomination and maybe even the presidency, and this means special aesthetic considerations must be taken into account. In general, we want a female candidate to be reasonably attractive. In this regard, the Republicans have it all over the Democrats, for they definitely have the better-looking women. However, it is essential that a female candidate for president be just a little matronly. A sexy woman in a position of power is scary (though not without erotic value). For example, in the movie Disclosure (1994), Demi Moore becomes CEO of a large company. She is sexy, single, and childless. So naturally she wreaks sexual havoc. When this wicked woman is finally ousted from the firm, there is the possibility that Michael Douglas will get her position, but that would have been unthinkable. In that case, the movie would have been sending the message that only men should be allowed to occupy positions of power, because women cannot be trusted on account of their feelings and hormones. The solution was to replace Demi Moore with a middle-aged married woman who is nice looking but not sexy. And just to make sure she is squarely placed in the maternal category, during the meeting where her promotion is announced, her college age son makes an appearance. There will be no sexual shenanigans from this woman.
Speaking of children, there is a rule in Hollywood that in a nice family, the mother and daughter will not both be sexually attractive: either the mother must be matronly, or the daughter must be a child. Where both mother and daughter are sexually exciting females, one of them always turns out to be evil: in Mildred Pierce (1945), it is the daughter; in Double Indemnity (1944), the mother. We find it disturbing when female sexual rivalry between the generations is a possibility, leading to a kind of “Snow White” situation. Therefore, once Chelsea became nubile, it was fortunate that Hillary’s advanced age became apparent around that time, or else we would have found the sexual tension disturbing.
Another aesthetic consideration is that of dynasty aversion. Hillary is the wife of a former president, of whom much of the country is weary. For some people, this is important. Bill Maher once admitted that he and many others made a mistake voting for Ralph Nader in 2000, which may have cost Al Gore the election. He chastised himself for voting on principle rather than being pragmatic and voting for the best candidate with a chance of winning. He vowed he would never do anything so foolish again. And yet, in 2008, he said he would not vote for Hillary should she win the nomination. Never mind that he would rather have a Democrat in the White House than a Republican. He just could not stand the idea of another Clinton president. Therefore, notwithstanding the lesson he supposedly learned in 2000, he said he would just sit out the election—as a matter of principle. Despite Bill Maher’s regrets and resolve, the aesthetics of having another president with the last name of Clinton proved to be just too much for him to stand. Perhaps if she had never changed her last name, and simply ran as Hillary Rodham, he would have found that acceptable. But then, she could never have become First Lady. What man could ever get to be president whose wife had a different last name? We might someday become like France, allowing a president to have a mistress or two instead of a wife, because that would not reflect poorly on his manhood. But we will never elect a man whose wife kept her maiden name, for there are a lot of people (not me, I assure you) who would think less of him for permitting it, and wonder just who wore the pants in that family. As for the Republicans, they have their own prejudices in this area to contend with. When a man’s own mother turns against him, as in the case of Jeb Bush, we realize just how strong the sentiment of dynasty aversion really is.
The issue of dynasty is made acute by the fact that in Hillary’s case, a former president would be back in the White House as First Gentleman. And this possibility has occasioned a veiled threat by Rand Paul and others that Bill Clinton’s past will be a problem for Hillary. As far as substance is concerned, there is plenty for Republicans to criticize regarding Hillary, from her preternatural skill at trading in cattle futures to her responsibility for Benghazi. But aesthetically speaking, there is the queasy feeling one gets thinking about the return of Bill Clinton, cigar and all. This is not a weapon the Republicans are likely to neglect.
In To Be or Not to Be (1942), which is set in German-occupied Poland early in World War II, Jack Benny, with good reason, suspects that his wife has been carrying on with a young lieutenant. As Benny leaves to go on a dangerous mission as a spy, he says to her, “I just want you to know that if I don’t come back, regardless of whatever happened between you and that lieutenant, I forgive you.” He opens the door, starts to leave, and then turns to her once more, saying, “But if I do come back, that is another thing altogether.”
It is easy to forgive people you think you will never see again. But when they threaten to cross your threshold and become a part of your life once more, the old wound opens up, as raw as it was when first inflicted. It may not be fair, but as 2016 approaches, and people begin to contemplate another four years of Bill Clinton, there may well be a revulsion that trumps whatever positive qualities Hillary may have to offer.