Candidates With Great Teeth, And The Voters Who Elect Them

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George Washington had wooden teeth.

It seems logical that with the advent of television and modern media, the appearance of political candidates has become increasingly important in determining who will be successfully elected to public office. We tend to make instant judgments when we meet any person, with much of these first impressions made by what we see. We take in a candidate’s height, fashion, size, and even how mature his or her face appears.

And, of course, we notice teeth.

Wooden Teeth And A Photograph

Our first president, George Washington, would seem to have avoided this public visual scrutiny, since there were no televisions or mass media as we know it today. Indeed, he was known for having a “regal bearing”, and he was also known for having…a not-so-great set of wooden teeth.

Doug Weade, a presidential historian, has suggested that Washington’s regal bearing may have been directly connected to his bad teeth, which made him reluctant to speak. Washington was careful to hide his teeth and by doing so, came off as the strong, silent type.

Abraham Lincoln didn’t have it quite as easy. It isn’t clear if he had anything similar to Washington’s wooden teeth; photographs of him always show him with his mouth closed. But newspapers were more prolific during his time than in Washington’s, and the public wasn’t concerned with pointing out the teeth he didn’t reveal. Instead, they said insulting things about Lincoln’s overall appearance, even likening him to a giant ape. This continued until Civil War photographer Mathew Brady took that famous — and distinguishing — photo of him in a suit. It changed the public’s perception completely, and Lincoln later said that Brady helped him win the election.

What We See, We See

Lincoln credited Mathew Brady, a photographer, for the election win.

Being strong and silent in this era, like Washington, is no longer possible. A simple still photograph, like Lincoln, might not save an election. In fact, a candidate’s opinions and ideas may take a backseat to how he or she looks more now than ever.

Consider the infamous debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Television was new, and seeing the candidates in that format was new to the public. While many who listen to the debate without seeing the television footage believe the match was equal, or even that Nixon won the debate, his physical appearance during the debate was displeasing. He appeared nervous and sweaty under the hot lights. He hadn’t worn any makeup, and so his skin looked pallid on screen. Kennedy, on the other hand, appeared calm and collected. While Nixon had strong ideas, Kennedy had the better appearance. People chose Kennedy.

Teeth And Getting The Vote

It is nearly impossible to hide poor teeth while talking, like Washington and possibly Lincoln. Efforts to conceal them tend to draw attention to them. It would seem that political candidates with poor teeth have a difficult time ahead of them. Difficult, but not impossible.

In 2008, an informal survey of dentists gave Mitt Romney the edge over all other candidates, but the public was less swayed when it came time to vote, and Barack Obama won the election. It seems we might be able to get past the physical imperfections of a candidate (even President Obama seems self-conscious of his ears) and make a choice based on other factors.

Technology And Media, 2.0

Perhaps authenticity and validity of ideas still trump unsightly teeth or less-than-perfect skin. Or maybe, technology and media, in progressing beyond the simple photo and televised formats, have allowed people find out about their candidates in social media, RSS feeds, and blogs. In other words, our first impression, sometimes, are the words and content of ideas and opinions, and not a simple photograph or televised debate.

Would George Washington, with his poor set of teeth, or Abraham Lincoln, with his unusual physical characteristics, be able to win an election in this modern era of Internet and television?