One of my male colleagues was explaining why men age better than women.
"It's evolutionary," he said. "As we wear out our wives, who are running around taking care of the kids, we know we're going to have to get another, younger wife, so we stay good-looking."
He was kidding. (I think.) We were discussing Hillary's latest hurdle: the Old Hag routine.
When men want to put down a powerful woman in a sexist way, they will say she's a hag or a nag or a witch or angry or hysterical.
First, the Republicans tried to paint Hillary as angry, but that didn't work because she has shown a steady composure and laughed a lot (even if the laughter isn't always connected to people saying anything funny). She has kept her sense of humor — which has a tart side — mostly under wraps, so she won't be accused of being witchy.
But some conservative pundits who disagree with a woman on matters of policy jump straight into an attack on the woman's looks or personal life.
And so the inevitable came to pass this week when Rush Limbaugh began riffing about an unflattering picture of Hillary in New Hampshire that Matt Drudge put up on his Web site with the caption, "The Toll of a Campaign."
"So the question is this," the radio personality said. "Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?"
Observing that Hillary is stuck with a looks-obsessed culture and that the presidency ages its occupants, including W., Limbaugh observed that "men aging makes them look more authoritative, accomplished, distinguished. Sadly, it's not that way for women, and they will tell you."
And Hillary, he noted, "is not going to want to look like she's getting older, because it will impact poll numbers, it will impact perceptions." So, he added, "there will have to be steps taken to avoid the appearance of aging."
He said that voters lean toward attractive men, too, and that since TV, it's less likely that a bloated "fat-guy" president would get elected — recalling that some were gauging whether Al Gore would run by checking his weight.
Limbaugh finished up with this: "Let me give you a picture, just to think about. The campaign is Mitt Romney vs. Hillary Clinton in our quest in this country for visual perfection, hmm?"
Paul Costello, who was an aide to Rosalynn Carter and Kitty Dukakis, calls this "the snake belly of the campaign," and notes drily: "We've been staring at aging white men from the beginning of the democracy."
Yet it's true that looks matter in politics, even though Abe Lincoln still ranks as our favorite president. JFK's tan and Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow helped turn that 1960 debate in Kennedy's favor, just as Gore's waxy orange makeup and condescending mien hurt him in a debate with W.
It is also true that perfecting the outer shell has become an obsession in this country. We're a nation of Frankensteins and the monster is us. Jennifer Love Hewitt was on the cover of People last week and ended up defending her less svelte pictures with her new fiance in Hawaii, writing on her Web site: "A size 2 is not fat!"
Women are still scrutinized more critically on their looks, which seem to fluctuate more on camera, depending on lighting, bloating and wardrobe.
Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and John Edwards almost always look good, and pretty much the same, in dark suits or casual wear. Fred Thompson always looks crepuscular and droopy. Often Hillary looks great, and sometimes she looks tired, heavier or puffier. Jim Cole, The Associated Press photographer who took the offending shot, said that there were several other pictures that day where she looked "radiant."
An older Iowa man, who saw her this week in Le Mars, was impressed. "Hillary is much more handsome — or beautiful — live," he told The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny. "She doesn't photograph very well."
Since this is the first time we've had a woman who was a serious contender for president, it's been an adjustment to watch her more changeable looks, and to see the lengths she goes to get the right lighting and to make the right wardrobe choices. She has a much more consistent look than she did as first lady, when she made a dizzying — and disconcerting — array of changes in her hair and style.
Hillary doesn't have to worry about her face. She has to worry about her mask. Back in the '92 race, Clinton pollsters devised strategies to humanize her and make her seem more warm and maternal. Fifteen years later, her campaign is devising strategies to humanize her and make her seem more warm and maternal.
The public still has no idea of what part of her is stage-managed and focus-grouped, and what part is legit. It's pretty pathetic, at this stage of her career, that she has to wage a major offensive, by helicopter and Web testimonials, to make herself appear warm-blooded.
c.2007 New York Times News Service