Prosopolepsy: now that’s a word you just don’t hear enough. It means forming a positive or negative opinion about a person based on their outward appearance. This happens a lot in social affairs, where you see a man or woman who is so good-looking you immediately assign to them a list of virtues and character traits befitting a minor saint.
Sometimes you can shake the spell in a fairly short time, as was the case with innumerable women I fell in love with growing up in Brooklyn… until they opened their mouths and sounded like Brooklyn. Even though Rebecca in Ivanhoe was Jewish, I don’t think you want to see someone in that role who speaks like Jackie Mason.
One area where this phenomenon is basic to the transaction is in the voting booth. A candidate who looks good is automatically light years ahead of one who looks ordinary. No serious person has ever contested that simple fact of human nature.
Take a look at the Bible, the classic source for dead-honest insight into life as it really is. When Joseph is promoted to viceroy of Egypt, second in authority to Pharaoh himself, the verse lyricizes (Genesis 49:22): “A winsome young man was Joseph, a winsome young man to the eye; the girls climbed up on the walls [to see his parade].” You cast Cary Grant as a President, not Bela Lugosi.
The Scripture makes this point again many generations later, when King David’s son, Absalom, gets the idea to do door-to-door campaigning to pick up voters one by one in an effort to unseat his own father. The verse (Samuel II 14:25) enlightens us as to his primary asset: “There was no man in Israel as beautiful as Absalom, evoking much admiration; from the sole of his foot to the top of his head he was without flaw.”
This subject has now come front and center in the Presidential race, kick-started by a comment from Rush Limbaugh. He was referring to a picture on the Drudge report of Hillary Clinton looking worn after a long day of campaigning, and he wondered if a culture obsessed with physical perfection could bear to watch a woman aging from 61 to 65 in the Oval Office. Forget the American culture: this syndrome, as we have shown, is as old as mankind itself.
Actually, Hillary Clinton has a face that most photographers can present favorably. She will not lose on looks, nor will she win on them. The main player on the Democrat side who is cashing in on exterior impressions is John Edwards. Almost every woman I know who is into her own looks, or works in a looks-related field like makeup or modeling, tells me she is voting for Edwards. Nor are they proceeding to rattle off a litany of policy positions that his campaign is promoting. How many percentage points do looks buy a candidate? That is anyone’s guess.
My very first memory of an election was the New York City mayoral race in 1965. I was just seven at the time but I remember hearing from my parents and others that John V. Lindsay would defeat Abraham Beame because Lindsay was tall and handsome while Beame was short and owlish. Sure enough, Lindsay won that time and the time after as well. By the time Beame finally got in, he arrived to announce that the coffers he inherited were bankrupt. How is that for a high-school prank? The good-looking guy depletes the kitty, then hands off to the nerd just as the walls start crashing down.
As a political consultant who has worked on a number of campaigns, local and national, I can tell you the rule of thumb concerning candidate posters. If he or she looks like Bella Abzug or Henry Waxman, the posters include only words, no pictures. If the candidate is good-looking, put up a picture of him or her. If their spouse also looks good, put up the photo of the happy couple. If the kids are cute, add them to the shot as well. Heck, even the dog goes in if it is one of the more visually appealing breeds.
Our teachers would rib us when we were kids if we came up with something we thought new that was really standard and obvious: “You think you discovered America?” In elections as in dating, job interviews, auditions, sales calls and TV interviews, looks count. But don’t count on looks to do it all. At the end of the day, you need some substance to accompany your style across the finish line.