The political costs of primping.

Policy made plain.
March 26 2008 4:45 PM

Lost Time Making Up

The political costs of primping.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama 

The conversation was about how tiring it must be to run for president, and someone—a woman—said that on top of everything else, Hillary Clinton has to spend an hour and a half getting ready for each day's campaigning. She didn't mean studying her notes and making sure she knows the name of the mayor of McKeesport, Pa. She meant doing her hair, putting on her makeup, deciding what to wear—or at least thinking about it, even if she has someone else to decide for her. And so on. Other women ridiculed the notion of an hour and a half, but the bottom offer was 40 minutes. And that's just in the morning. Shorter versions of the morning ritual go on throughout the day.

And how long does it take Barack Obama—or even John McCain, with his war injuries—to shower, shave, and put on one of a dozen identical dark-blue suits, a white shirt, and a red tie? Ten minutes? Fifteen? Let's not be completely naive, and let's posit that these men also take a dab of makeup here and there. So let's say 20 minutes.

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Any man who has twiddled his thumbs waiting for his wife or opposite-sex partner to get ready to go out should not have been surprised by this. But all the men in this particular conversation were taken aback—and so were the women, as the reality sunk in. Every day, seven days a week, for almost two years, the candidates campaign. The average day is probably 15 to 20 hours. The average amount of sleep could be four hours. And yet every day the male candidates can sleep an extra precious half-hour or more—or spend the time cramming for the day—simply because our culture doesn't impose the same rules on them about their appearances.

And these really are rules. Sure, there are women who take no more trouble about their appearance than most men do and men who take more than the average woman. But a middle-aged woman who is the first of her sex to make a serious run for the presidency is not going to be a pioneer in indifference to looks. One revolution at a time. She has got to look put-together, all day, every day. Hillary Clinton is not especially vain about looks, whereas Barack Obama has dropped hints that he may well be. Nevertheless, if it ever came out that Obama was spending an hour primping every morning, it would hurt him, not help. Whereas if Hillary Clinton were known to spend an hour dressing and primping, no one would be surprised. And if she looked as if she had spent much less than that, it would hurt her.

A year ago, the big dinner-table question was whether it is a bigger disadvantage in running for president to be an African-American or a woman. It seemed for a while as if neither one was a particular disadvantage. In fact, the prize for biggest burden of prejudice to be lugging around the primaries went to Mitt Romney for being a Mormon. Cautiously, we were starting to congratulate ourselves on having moved beyond race and sex. Then came the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Geraldine Ferraro, and we were plunged into a "conversation about race." Ferraro said that Obama's race might actually be an advantage.

This is implausible. But let's go back to sex: What about his advantage in being a man? And I don't mean anything fancy and psychological. I don't even mean the double standard that allows the press to report on how a woman candidate dresses while ignoring this crucial issue regarding male candidates. We'll get past that someday. But even then, it will take a woman candidate longer to get ready to campaign than it will take a man. In most occupations, this 20 minutes doesn't make much difference—especially compared with the disproportionate time that women still spend housekeeping and child-rearing. It will make no difference after the election: No one will care whether the president is well-coiffed when answering that 3 a.m. phone call. But in a close-fought election campaign, every minute counts. If you figure 20 minutes a day over a year and a half of 14-hour days and six-day weeks, it comes out to an extra two weeks of campaigning or sleep for a male candidate.

This issue goes back to the early days of "women's lib," of course, when opponents talked about "bra burners" and made crude jokes about unshaved legs. It was considered an advance when it became established that a woman could dress like a woman and still be a business executive or lawyer. And Hillary Clinton, even if she loses, has established beyond all doubt that a woman can be a credible candidate for president. But she'll have to be one who needs even less sleep than her opponent.

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