Loop21.com Talks With Political Powerhouse Michael Goldman
The Campaign Veteran goes on the record about the Obamas, Afros and the Politics of Hair
Michael Goldman is a political consultant who has advised hundreds of candidates and campaigns among them, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (the state’s first African-American governor), Senators Ted Kennedy, Bill Bradley and legendary House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill.
Below is an edited version of his conversation with Loop21.com about the role of appearance, racial politics and the politics of hair in the 2012 election and beyond. (Click here to read the rest of Loop21.com's coverage of the Politics of Appearance in the presidential campaign.)
[Also Read: The Moment Obama Became Black]
Loop 21: How would you say the coverage of female candidates has changed since you first started working in politics?
Michael Goldman: Well we’re talking 40 years so the change has been monumental. That said women are still treated differently by reporters than men, particularly the further you get up the food chain electorally.
Loop 21: Can you elaborate?
Goldman: Sure. Reporters like all individuals come with their own biases. Voters also put on women candidates expectations that they don’t put on male candidates. For instance you never hear of a male candidate called “shrill” or “too aggressive” or “not aggressive enough” or frankly, hints that they are too quote “gay looking.”
It’s like there’s always a reason people are looking for to not vote for the woman.
You still don’t have many blue-collar women running as you do blue-collar men. A male plumber or carpenter or local baseball coach can run but females always have to be much better educated to be taken seriously.
I think we saw some of these differences play out in Obama versus Hillary…I mean remember the coverage about Hillary not being emotional enough for voters? Then she cried and there was coverage about her crying. [Rep. John] Boehner [Speaker of the House] cries every ten minutes and no one says anything. Can you imagine if [Rep. Nancy] Pelosi [Boehner’s predecessor] did that? People would have made comments about her hormones or something.
Loop 21: Can you talk about the role of a female candidate’s physical appearance in her efforts to be elected?
Goldman: How many times did people make comments about Hillary’s legs or her hairdo? Same thing with Condi Rice. I would argue that if a candidate is too attractive that for some voters that is a negative. If they are not attractive enough that is a negative for some voters. The point is the hardest thing for a woman candidate still is how do I best get taken seriously and if my appearance is going to deter me being taken seriously then I’ve got a problem. Barbara Mikulski used her shorter stature the same way Barney did with his somewhat sloppy appearance. Barney once had a campaign poster in which his hair was messed up and his tie askew and it read, “Neatness isn’t everything.” Barbara also turned her height into an advantage by addressing it.
But the biggest example of the double standard...You tell me one female elected who has ever appeared in Playboy, yet Scott Brown has appeared in Playgirl and is a Senator.
Can you even imagine if it even turned out that Michelle Obama or Ann Romney had been a socialite, model, or quote “party girl” like [former French President Nicholas] Sarkozy’s wife?
Also, no one ever said John Edwards was too good looking to be president but you can be a female candidate and be considered too good-looking.
[Also Read: Michelle Obama On The View]
Loop 21: How much of role does the appearance of a candidate’s spouse play?
Goldman: It depends on the role of the candidate and the wife. Clearly back in the day Mamie Eisenhower was not going to compete with Jackie Kennedy. Betty Ford was a very attractive woman and in her own way moved us forward when she talked publicly about what she’d say to her own daughter about premarital sex.
Loop 21: What if someone like Michelle Obama wore her hair natural and not straightened?
Goldman: I don’t know what her hair looks like “natural…” but as long as it was attractive...There are many black women who wear their hair natural, cut short, neat and attractive…if you’re saying to me “what if Michelle Obama wore her hair like Angela Davis in the 1960’s” then I would say that would be unacceptable to voters. But I would say in balance if Romney’s wife came out in a beehive with a tattoo on her shoulder that she showed off in short sleeved shirts that would be unacceptable too. It’s about what would be considered out of the norm from the general public’s perspective and for the general public, which remains majority white, an Angela Davis afro would be out of the norm because it would send a statement, just like a beehive. Do I believe the public will accept any look? No. But every job has expectations regarding dress. I mean if you are a greeter at a strip joint and wear a Hillary Clinton pantsuit people will look at you funny too.
Loop 21: Does hair actually have any impact on whether a candidate wins? It seems to be one of those urban legends I keep coming across.
Goldman: It is an urban legend. Having quote “good hair” is like being the tallest candidate. But I’ve been dieting myself so I can say this. When I look at Chris Christie when he has his jacket off, I see his weight. Without his jacket on he looks sloppy and slovenly. And most people don’t have confidence in a person who can’t control their weight, fairly or unfairly, and we’re not talking 30 pounds overweight but more like 130 pounds overweight. When [former Massachusetts Congressman] Barney Frank lost his weight, started working out, and looked terrific people did react to him differently even though his ideology didn’t change at all. But it’s not just politics. We do it in all walks of life. Why don’t we see more bald or overweight people on tv? And when we do they’re usually bad guys so we learn that big or bald means dangerous or scary. And older women are often depicted as mean or bitter.
Loop 21: When you’re advising people do you counsel them on wardrobe?
Goldman: Certainly any consultant will advise a client whether it is male or female on how to look best given who they are. There are clients I have told “do not remove your jacket no matter how hot you are.” I’ve had clients that ask “why can’t I wear short sleeve shirts with ties?” not realizing some voters associate that with the attire of a boy stocking shelves in a store.
I’ve advised women candidates to be conscientious of shoe choices if you’re going to march in a parade. I’ve had some clients who are just great with clothes and always look great but yes I have worked with female clients on dressing in a way that is more flattering to their figure, particularly if there are concerns about weight being a distracting issue. But I’ve also done the same thing for men.
But when it comes to this whole appearance issue if you go to the Congress of the United States and look down from the gallery you will see old people and young people, thin people and heavy people, attractive people, and not so attractive people, bald men, men with hair, men with mustaches, men without. They don’t all look like John Edwards or Robert Redford or Audrey Hepburne or Sigourney Weaver. They do look like the people they represent. So at some point that person was able to convince their community to elect them.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what office you’re running for, dog-catcher or president. There are only three questions that matter to voters in an election.
1) Does the candidate understand the problems of people like me?
2) Does the candidate care?
3) And can they actually do anything to help me?
Ultimately politics is a lot like the Olympics. You may start out rooting for an athlete from your home state — because you feel a connection to them — but when things get to the Olympics you just want someone from your country to win because you feel more of a connection to them than the guy from Spain. Voting is similar. A lot of people vote for the person they feel they can relate to most. That means some predominantly Jewish neighborhoods tend to elect Jewish elected officials and predominantly black neighborhoods tend to have black elected officials and predominantly Irish neighborhoods have elected officials of Irish descent and so on. It doesn’t make those voters anti-anybody. They just believe someone who grew up in their community and comes from a similar background is more likely to understand the problems of people like them. This means that sometimes female candidates have a tougher hill to climb because they have to convince a lot of men that though they are not men they can understand, care and help get the job done despite looking different from what some of those men may be used to seeing in a leader. But plenty of women have done it and more will continue to.