On Fatigue and the Presidency: 'Backwards and in High Heels'

Have I mentioned recently that Samuel Popkin's book The Candidate is a very useful guide as the presidential debates draw near and as the campaign enters its final stage? Yes I have, and yes it is. And no, although we're friends, he hasn't actually been paying me royalties. Yet.

I bring it up now because the book touches on the underpublicized reality of presidential politics I described recently in response to Ann Romney's "this is hard" remark. The reality is that in national politics everyone, all the time, is tired and running on fumes. Popkin gives us this scene of candidate Jimmy Carter, who had just turned 52 years old (a year older than Barack Obama is now), in October 1976, a few days before his election victory over Gerald Ford:

"Carter was so exhausted from nonstop campaigning that he read memos and speech drafts lying on his side, with the pages on the floor so he could read them without moving."*

Four years later, Popkin was chosen to play the surrogate Ronald Reagan in Carter's preparations for the 1980 presidential debate. He reminded me recently in an email that he was struck

how people do not ever chit chat when going to Oval Office. When POTUS looks up you say the subject and he either answers or says when to return. When done he looks down and you leave. No wasted emotional energy.

fred_ginger.jpgAnother reader writes in to say there is an angle of the presidential fatigue story that I missed. I had said that one of Michael Lewis's quotes from Barack Obama, in which Obama said he had to make time for exercise if he hoped to survive, and that he always wore either a gray or a blue suit so as to spare himself needless decision making, rang completely true to me. This reader, a woman who is a lawyer, says:

Clearly true on the incredible physical demands of running for President and serving if elected.  I also remember a great guys-on-the-bus story about Hilary Clinton from the 2008 campaign attesting to her cast-iron constitution.  She was giving a massively fact-filled, one-on-one interview in the campaign plane as it approached a landing, and just kept right on talking, standing up, no friggin' seatbelt for her, as she had been for the previous 20 hours or something.  The reporter was in awe. 

On that note, as to the Obama quote -- Obama, and probably Lewis, pretty clearly don't remember what Hilary said during the 2007-08 nomination race, when he [Obama] made similar remarks about having to exercise.  She said: he has time to exercise, because he doesn't have to spend two hours, every single day, getting his make-up and hair done. 

Backwards and in high heels, indeed.   A female candidate -- even one who would clearly personally prefer to go sans make-up -- will not be accepted without super-careful, professional appearance grooming.  Same with the clothes.  Hilary must dream of just being able to roll into a blue or gray suit.  Instead, she's obliged to have a constantly-rotating wardrobe, with accessories, purely because she's a woman.  In addition, it took her a long time to find a sort of uniform -- those pantsuits -- that would conceal her figure appropriately but also look "fashionable," which no man has to do.  She learned very early, the hard way, that bucking these conventions would get her nowhere-- the no make-up, hippie-glasses, frumpy Wellesley head-of-class look got her called a lesbian, communist, you name it.

Men don't understand that a huge reason professional women rallied to Hilary is that WE get it, and, I really believe, Obama does not.  He truly does not comprehend how much harder it is for a woman in so many ways, let alone just on this one physical issue.  If he did, he wouldn't have approved the quote about exercise and wardrobe.  (All Lewis article quotes were approved.) 

Of course it rings true to you.  Rings true to me, also, but very differently.  I see it as callous, unless he went on to say that's one reason he has it easier than any woman facing similar challenges in her job.  I mean, heck, didn't he see Michelle struggle with this when she was working?  Is he so selfish he missed that?  It may seem trivial, but anything which takes even 30 extra minutes out of every day adds up to a major disadvantage. 

* Forgive me for quoting the very next sentence in Popkin's book:

"The speechwriters were so close to the breaking point that James Fallows said sardonically that the real threat for their Secret Service detail was not assassins but the possibility a crazed speechwriter would throw Carter out a window."
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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