20 AUGUST 1988, Page 6


The resistible charm of the bodies politic


The wimp factor' ever present in his calculations, Mr George Bush demanded an emergency summit meeting with the top Republican Mr Fixit, Tom Ellingwood, before his party's convention got under way this week.

Mr Ellingwood is the Vice-President's make-up man. Ellingwood's former em- ployer was the Hollywood actor, Burt Reynolds, whose face he burnished for film-shoots. As the New York Times cor- respondent in New Orleans explained:

The party spends millions of dollars every four years to make sure that just the right shade of background lighting, just the right texture for the podium surface and just the right tint of skin foundation will endow its candidate with the healthy confident glow of a born leader.

The run-up to the American national party conventions is aptly called 'a beauty con- test'. Diverting examples abound. Despite featuring in a list of America's ten most sexy men, Mr Dukakis is still said to be worried by his disproportionately large head and will in future compensate by being photographed from below. One of the unsuccessful Democratic seven dwarves, Mr Richard Gephardt, bowed out of the race when the media no longer concentrated on his policy to keep out Japanese goods but focused instead on his efforts to give his wispy, blond eyebrows more definition by colouring them brown. As for Mr Bruce Babbit, the Democratic candidate most popular with journalists, he went to pieces when television audiences observed that 'it looked like a thousand people in his mouth were trying to get out'. The bespectacled, bow-tied Mr Paul Simon was damned from the start as a 'nerd'. And it seems that the main qualification of Mr Dan Quayle to be George Bush's running mate is his apparent resemblance to the actor Robert Redford.

It is fashionable for the British to jeer at Americans for taking a presidential candi- date's looks on television into account. Perhaps the Americans are obsessed with image. But are we any different? It has become commonplace in recent years that British party conferences and general elec- tion campaigns should be staged American-style by advertising men — even Mrs Thatcher seemed to share the general delusion on 'Wobbly Thursday' during the last election campaign that the influence of `the hidden persuaders' was crucial. But although a pretty face is helpful on the box in this country its possession is not an essential asset as in America. Indeed its possession can be a mixed blessing. In our parliamentary system jealous, ugly MPs will tend to gang up on them.

The Conservatives think that politicians who could pass for pin-ups are not up to the mark. They get very resentful when Mrs Thatcher, in the manner of Good Queen Bess, advances the career of some shapely courtier. Ordinary Tory lobby fodder dislikes being condescended to by beautiful young men who won't stand a round in the bar. The backbenchers' pre- judices were vindicated when, as vice- chairman of the party, the supposedly good-looking Mr Jeffrey Archer began making such odd pronouncements such as that the Ulster problem would be solved if only Dr Ian Paisley would become Prime Minister of All Ireland. But it was hardly fair to tar Mr Cecil Parkinson and Mr John Moore with the same brush.

The telegenic Mr Moore was doomed as soon as he moved to the DHSS and became tipped as a future leader. His American style, acquired as a Democratic precinct captain in Chicago, his boyish looks, teetotalism, workaholism and general yuppiness gave Moore's rivals in Cabinet the perfect weapon against him. The sheer hatred inspired by these attri- butes among the rank and file at the last party conference had to be heard to be believed. Later, when pneumonia struck down the then Health Secretary during one of those periodic NHS crises, all his pre- vious service as the salesman of the Gov- ernment's privatisation policy was forgot- ten and the knives of the uglies went home.

Like Julius Caesar, the Tories generally prefer men about them 'that are fat; Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights.' But like Cassius, Michael Hesel- tine is isolated from his colleagues because he 'has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.' When he eventually deigns to return from holiday well-fed, cigarette-puffing Kenneth Clarke will be far more popular at Health than Moore. Buddha-like Sir Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson also exude a sense of reassuring prosperity with every pound they gain in weight. It is therefore no accident that the quality most attractive to Tory MPs in a politician is not his beauty, but something magical called 'bottom'. The Centre parties, with their tiny repre- sentation in Parliament, naturally prefer beauty to the beast because they are dependent on television for support. David Steel's neat clerical shirts and woolly jum- pers made him a firm favourite with spinsters everywhere, David Owen's appeal to otherwise true blue Tory ladies is legendary, while poor Alan Beith never stood a chance against Paddy Ashdown for the leadership of the SLD despite the good opinion of many of his parliamentary colleagues. His nerdiness painfully con- trasted with Ashdown's supposed resembl- ance to Arnold Schwarzenegger. When journalists wish to insult the Liberal Party, however, they unkindly tag it with the `beard and sandals' epithet.

In the Labour Party, 'bottom' is not tops. Roy Hattersley is in serious trouble for looking like a bloated capitalist. Although his challenger is the not incon- siderable John Prescott, the suspicion is that thin, Jacobin-style sea-green incor- ruptibles are now in favour on the Left, especially among the young. Tony Benn and Michael Meacher conform to this type while Eric Heifer may find his weight a drawback. Arthur Scargill will never again be taken so seriously after the revelations about his hairspray. Fatness is also associ- ated with large trade union leaders who ruthlessly wield block votes in the mould of Ernest Bevin and are unloved by every section of the party. Robert Kilroy-Silk's matinee idol features ensured that he was never taken seriously in Parliament. In contrast Robin Cook may have the appear- ance of a garden gnome but his skinniness and shrewd wit will see him triumph. The same rules, however, do not apply to women. Virginia Bottomley is said to be vastly popular with fellow Conservative MPs because of her good looks as well as her charm. Anna McCurley, until she lost her seat to Labour, cast a similar spell on the backbenchers, while Mrs Thatcher has become better looking — a sort of political Catherine Deneuve.

The ptiblic, however, are never jealous of good-looking politicians because unlike MPs they are not in competition with them. As far as voters are concerned, in the kingdom of the uglies even a plain man is a king.

Martin Ivens is foreign editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Noel Malcolm is on holiday.