Gail Collins on John Boehner's Tan, Van Buren's Girdle

Congress is set to go into recess soon and that means we’re entering the final stretch of the midterm campaign. House Minority Leader John Boehner may have been hitting the press circuit, but he’s also made it clear to the Wall Street Journal he hasn’t been hitting the tanning salon, telling the paper last week that  "I have never been in a tanning bed or used a tanning product." Collins picked up there in the Leonard Lopate Show's latest installment ofHow Did Politics in America Get So Weird?

While skin care tips are not typical Lopate Show fare, we did have to ask Collins: What do you think Boehner’s secret might be?

For Boehner, it’s been so fascinating that he’s always consistently that kind of orange color. He comes from exactly the same place that I do and even if you’re out in the sun a lot, you do not turn that color normally if you’re in Ohio. So, it does look to me like there is some kind of tanning lotion or something being used, but if he says no, who am I to disagree with him?

Real or not, Boehner’s tan has even been the subject of polling questions this election cycle. In early September, Public Policy Polling released 

a survey of Ohioans’ attitudes towards John Boehner. It found that only 8% of respondents had a “favorable view” of John Boehner’s tan (64% of respondents said there were “undecided” about the Minority Leader’s complexion.) According to Collins the more important thing revealed by poll was that most respondents seemed by saying “Who is John Boehner?” 

The Boehner episode raises some questions about the role attractiveness plays in American politics, something that Collins notes is in no way new.

This goes way back in US history, that when all else fails you speculate about the physical appearance of your candidates. It goes back at least to Martin Van Buren, who was famously attacked by the other side for allegedly wearing a girdle. I don’t think that was true. Maybe it is, who knows?

There isn’t much physical evidence left to help up check into that whisper campaign, but after the show, we called up Patricia West, Curator of Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, NY. She couldn’t confirm the rumor about girdles, but noted that claims about Van Buren fancying corsets had a lot do with hi

s opponents in the 1840 Presidential trying to make him look “effete” and “elitist” to the common man. Sound familiar?

Still, Van Buren is probably lucky he didn’t have to contend with the girdle accusations in today’s 24-hour television news cycle which, as Collins' notes, focuses on the weight of candidates and their sartorial choices. Remember the ads attacking Chris Christie's weight and the endless scrutiny of Hillary Clinton’s outfits?

It’s normally been presumed that it’s harder on women than men, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Certainly overweight men get as much grief I think as overweight women do when it comes to being a candidate…And I always loved Hillary Clinton’s moment when she ran for Senate the first time when she decided she was going to wear the same thing every day throughout the entire campaign. She had that black pantsuit and the pink blouse on forever and it ended all discussion of what she was wearing. I was always sorry she gave that up.

But, by looking at these parts of a candidate do we really learn anything about their competence of office? Much has been made of the fact that this weekend was the 50th anniversary of the famous Nixon-Kennedy televised debates. While the importance of physical appearance in American politics may have been amplified by TV (and now the internet), Collins notes the way a candidates look or carries herself on the screen may (in some cases) say something about just who that person really is.

It goes beyond, ‘are you an attractive person?’ Richard Nixon looked uncomfortable. And that’s kind of worrisome for voters. He’s not a guy who was normally very comfortable in his own skin and that came through in any number of different ways. So sometimes this stuff has some meaning and sometimes it’s totally ridiculous.

And how does Collins think the President Obama is looking these days?

He’s looking really thin lately and you do want to sit him down and say, ‘Have a brownie or something, Mr. President.'

Gail Collins returns to the show next week!