In 1974, Ronald Reagan made the best purchase of his political career: he bought a ranch. Rancho Del Cielo – the “Ranch in the Sky” – was nestled in the hills near Santa Barbara, California. Reagan said the ranch was “a sanctuary … like no other … at Rancho del Cielo, Nancy and I could put on our boots and old clothes, recharge our batteries, and be reminded of where we had come from.”
When Reagan ran for president in 1976 and 1980, he made sure that photographers caught him chopping wood, mending fences, and riding horses. “This,” said Reagan, “is who I really am.”
In 1999, George W. Bush made the best purchase of his political career: he bought a ranch. Prairie Chapel Ranch, located in Crawford, Texas, quickly became the site of many of Bush’s photo ops, cementing Bush’s rustic persona in the public mind. When Bush announced his 2000 run for the presidency, he wore a cowboy hat and boots – and he used the ranch, his “little slice of heaven,” as his campaign headquarters.
Americans love cowboys. No presidential candidate since Richard Nixon has emerged victorious without a substantially “boots” feel. Bill Clinton ran as a hick-from-the-sticks, a country boy with a big heart; Jimmy Carter ran as an honest farmer.
Americans have always loved wilderness candidates. Thomas Jefferson routinely cited his status as a Virginia farmer. William Henry Harrison ran as a backwoodsman, bred in a small log cabin – his actual childhood home was actually rather large – and fond of hard cider. Abraham Lincoln ran as a log cabin rail-splitter.
By contrast, Americans dislike suits – men and women who feel like big-city bureaucrats. America’s biggest electoral losers have almost universally been suits: John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Horace Greeley, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, among others, have met with crushing defeat largely because they seemed like urban slicksters.
Adlai Stevenson said during the 1952 campaign, “My life has been hopelessly undramatic. I wasn’t born in a log cabin. I didn’t work my way through school nor did I rise from rags to riches, and there’s no use trying to pretend I did.” No wonder Eisenhower crushed Stevenson twice.
Why do Americans care whether their presidents wear boots? Because presidential politics is all about image-making. According to scientists, people judge each other within less than one-tenth of a second – and they rarely change those judgments.
We use images as shortcuts. Rather than investigating whether a candidate is healthy, we check his hair: if he’s bald, we often assume he’s decrepit. Rather than investigating whether a candidate is tough, we check his chest: if he’s got military ribbons, we assume he’s a rough-and-tumble fellow. Rather than investigating whether a candidate is an elitist, we check his shoes: if he’s wearing Bostonians rather than boots, we assume he’d rather play polo than get together for a beer.
This isn’t a bad thing. We have to judge candidates as people rather than lists of policy positions. After all, politicians promise us the world. The question is: whom can we trust? We should use all the tools at our disposal to determine authenticity.
And we are surprisingly good at spotting phonies. John Kerry couldn’t have slapped on a Stetson and faked a drawl – Americans would have seen through him. George W. Bush couldn’t play a professorial policy wonk – Americans would have seen through him.
Who, then, is the most authentically likable and trustworthy candidate in 2008? On the Republican side, there are three candidates with truly authentic images: John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee. Huckabee’s down-home style and easy humor make him a formidable personality politician in the Republican primaries, but his specifically Christian rhetoric and foreign policy ignorance make him seem backwards to a broader audience. Giuliani’s obvious backstreet toughness and 9/11 reputation elevate him above the usual “suit” stereotype, but his social values are the values of the city. McCain is a typical boots candidate, and the “maverick” label pinned to him by the media doesn’t hurt.
On the Democratic side, there is a dearth of authenticity. Hillary Clinton has been searching wildly for an authentic image – with her victimization routine in New Hampshire, she may have found it. Unfortunately, that image appeals to a select few. Barack Obama has an authentic image – he’s young and starry-eyed – but his broad-based appeal may be undercut once he is forced to talk policy rather than platitudes. John Edwards has perhaps the best boots image – but his obsession with his hair has added a distinctly metrosexual feel to his campaign.