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U.S. Elections – Grin and Win

          The meaning of a winning smile

September/November 2004

What does it take to attract voters? The answer is no surprise to serious students of con-artistry. The secret revealed.
"President of the United States" – perhaps the most powerful and influential political position in the world. Surely the free and democratic election to this position will demand the highest possible job qualification of the candidates. Eh?

Well, no. When we look at the presidential elections during the television age – say, since Franklin Roosevelt – one can make a good case that the decisive point that has brought victory in every election has been ... a smile.

Do I mean that the candidates' smiles will have an effect on this year's election? The best way to answer that is to look at previous elections.

(First, as parenthetical background: In the US we elect individuals, not parties. We elect individuals whom we like and who look trustworthy, in whom we have confidence. The aim for the political candidate becomes to gain our confidence. We have a word for operatives of that type: "Con man", which has become synonymous with "politician", as "con game" is synonymous with politics in the TV age.)

Let's start with FDR vs Hoover in 1932: Roosevelt Hoover This was really no contest. Herbert Hoover, who never learned to smile on cue, was up against a master pol with one of the century's prime grins. Slam bang.

Landon, Willkie, and Dewey fared no better against FDR over the next twelve years:

Landon Willkie Dewey These lame efforts at smiles just could not unseat the king whose grin had come to symbolize the country.


TrumanAgain in '48, the Dewey smirk couldn't match Truman's warm and homey smile:


Eisenhower Stevenson And in '52 and '56 Eisenhower's fatherly ear-to-ear grin was an easy winner over Stevenson's cautious intellectualized half-smile.


Kennedy Nixon1960 brought another champion grinner to the fore. Though Nixon had spent eight years studying under Ike, he was still only smiling half-face – his eyes and brows just weren't along – a fatal flaw for a con man. JKF, on the other hand, brought a warm, boyish grin to the contest, which has been much aped but not matched by later politicians. Kennedy was the first presidential candidate who actually marketed his youth as an asset, and his well-trained and convincing smile was decisive in his appeal.

Johnson Goldwater The election of '64 was anomalous because Johnson got the benefit of the Kennedy sympathy vote, and is hard to judge as a smile contest because neither candidate was an frequent grinner. Nevertheless, the intellectualized smile of Goldwater – an even worse flaw for a pol than the half-face (see the '68 election) – paled before Johnson's occasional full guffaw. Johnson showed the possibilities of the guffaw, a dangerous laugh for a pol, difficult to master because you're on the edge of losing control, and a con man must always remain in control. (This technique was fully mastered by Reagan, who had studied Johnson's application of the guffaw to the western ranch setting.)

And what can we say of the 1968 election? We look at Nixon with his lower half grin; his eyes just aren't smiling, and this had lost him the election eight years earlier. (This flaw – the half-face grin – appears again, unaccountably, in the 1980's and '90's, when both the Democrats - with Dukakis - and the Republicans - with Dole - nominate half-face smilers. Don't pols learn from history? Has there been no progress in con-artistry??) Humphrey But this time - 1968 - the Dems foolishly nominate the only kind of smile that can lose to a half-face: they choose Humphrey, possessor of an intellectualized smile in the tradition of Stevenson. Voters simply do not warm to someone whom they suspect of thinking while he's smiling. It's just not natural. He's seen as not giving himself over to his smile, not letting it capture all of him. This was a contest of two potential losers, but as they couldn't both lose the least objectionable grin won: Nixon, the only successful half-face smile since the advent of TV.

I don't even want to talk about 1972. McGovern Here the Democrats are facing the same opponent, with the same loser's grin, and what do they do? They nominate another intellectual. They learned nothing from '68. An intellectual smile hasn't won the presidency since Woodrow Wilson, long before the TV age. And won't. Nice man, McGovern; too nice to be in that game, and it's probably just as well he didn't succeed. But the notion that the party has not studied the basics of smilology is nearly too fantastic to be believed. However, more evidence of this lies ahead.

Carter FordThe election of '76 initiated an unbroken twelve year period of victory for really great smiles. 1976 was of course no contest, as the stone-faced Ford found himself up against a genuine smiling master. No one who understood the true nature of presidential elections could doubt that Carter's 32-tooth grin would make short work of Ford's unpracticed and half-hearted efforts at smiles.

But it wasn't long before even Carter met his master. The master: Reagan. Reagan Students of political smiles say the name in a hushed voice. Reagan Here was political genius: a smile that could melt away opposition, awkward facts, policy error ... and collect voters from all over the spectrum. It was an inspired election, pitting master against master. Grinning teeth whenever you turned on the TV. In the end, Carter could only acknowledge that he had been out-grinned by this master California grin-slinger. A new standard in politigrins had been set which may not be matched in our lifetimes.

1984 was, of course, a disappointment as a contest, as there was no contest.Mondale The Dems realized they just had to wait out the two-term presidency of this grin with legs in the White House, and nominated a nice Scandinavian, Mr. Mondale. Now we Scandinavians are nice and level-headed, we distrust anyone who smiles without a very good reason and we don't respond well to salesmen at the door. So we liked Mr. Mondale: polite, non-descript and bland, without the tedious indelible smiles of other politicians. Of winning politicians. Mondale collected some Scandinavian votes, but little else. Reagan's Smile Of The Century made the election look like a N-Korean walkover.

After the Great Master's exit, 1988 was full of opportunity for the Democrats.GWH Bush They only had to beat an uninspiring career bureaucrat, Reagan's VP, Bush. No sitting Vice President had won the presidency in over 150 years; this should be easy. Dukakis So what do they do? They reach back to the Nixon model and come up with the man who has become the poster boy for half-face grins, Dukakis of Massachusetts, an otherwise admirable pol who, however, could not warm the voters with his seemingly smiling lips and uninvolved Groucho brows. It's just not a genuine smile, and Mr. Bush, for all his blandness, seemed at least open and friendly by comparison. Most voters would rather sit with him than Dukakis at a bar, and that, as usual, made the difference.

1992 brought the Democrats to their senses, when they realized they had a born huckster in their midst. Clinton Bill Clinton's in-depth study of winning grins has made him a master, on a par with Roosevelt and Kennedy; perhaps second only to Reagan in this century. Dole More obviously slick and studied than Reagan, of course, and without his warmth. Yet, his skill at the ingratiating smile can only be admired, and he will serve as a model for later pols and other con-men. Clinton appears to smile with the entire face, and smiles readily, nearly constantly. He has brought the best of winning pols from the past into his face, and has been rewarded with victory. We need only add that the colorless Mr. Bush and (in 1996) the half-faced Dole were predictably without chances against Mr. Clinton and his winning – if unctuous – smile.

The election of 2000 brought two new actors on the scene; GW Bush two sons of high level politicians who should have learned a thing or two about grinning, Gore which is really what it's all about. George W. Bush's smile is indifferent and eminently beatable; he tries in the manner of his father, and gets about the same result: pleasant but not ingratiating. The Dems needed only to run a candidate with a smile in 2000, almost any kind of smile. Instead they found the most wooden candidate available in Al Gore, who they say is charming in person but hasn't a clue about transmitting that to the voters via something as simple as a genuine smile. He seemed to feel pain when expected to smile in public. So in 2000, as in every presidential election for at least the past 70-odd years, the better smile – such as it was – won the prize.

GW Bush Kerry GW Bush Kerry GW Bush Kerry GW Bush Kerry

And now we're here, in 2004, and the presidential contestants are slugging it out again. What they have to say is largely meaningless. Both because they just don't deal with anything meaningful, and because the election apparently will not be decided by what they say, but by how they smile. So what can we say about that? Neither is a champ. Bush smiles more readily and easily; he occasionally seems to get more of the face involved. Is there something about Kerry's brows that gets left out of the smile? Is he on the brink of being a half-face grinner, like his compatriot Mr. Dukakis? The American voter is very particular about such things. If the full face isn't involved in the smile, the candidate is not presidential timber. So we'll see. We have two months left at this writing; I would counsel both these gentlemen to get to work on a winning smile. Time's a-wasting.

The take-home lesson from all this for political parties and candidates must be that nothing assures success in the presidential election like a well-trained, high quality smile. Politics being what it is, the smile is not expected to be genuine, but it is expected to look genuine. The whole face must participate, and even small traces of intellectualism can ruin the entire construct. If it seems from this recitation that the Democrats have foundered more often than expected by not nominating better smilers, my theory – just a gut feeling, really – is that they routinely get distracted by "issues." They seem to think that discussing "issues" is the essence of campaigning, but we've seen what a shallow view that is. I must, however, admit that in drawing my conclusions from this ... ahem ... study, I have not controlled for certain possibly confounding factors, such as hairdo. Could be almost as important as smiles, but that's another study.


(Post-election postscript: So, we know what happened. Mr.Kerry went the way of Mr.Dukakis. Those of us who have studied this subject deeply had our doubts about Mr.Kerry's eyebrows. That's all it takes, really. But it was a close election. To get beat by an eyebrow or two is after all a decent showing.)

© 2004 H. Paul Lillebo

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