Ever since 1960, when the youthful John Kennedy clinched his presidential victory by debating with a sweaty, pallid Richard Nixon on national television, candidates for the US presidency have known that if the camera doesn't love them, the voters won't either. There was a time when Americans thought this might be a bad, even superficial, turn in political priorities.
As recently as 1972, Hollywood made a movie called The Candidate in which Robert Redford plays a handsome golden boy with hardly a political thought in his head, whose looks propel him into the senate. In 1972, this behaviour was portrayed as regrettable; but lately Redford's senate bid simply looks like a blueprint for a successful campaign - whether Democrat or Republican.
Last spring, the Republican primaries looked more like Olympic trials than a political contest. Senator Richard "Marathon Man" Lugar of Indiana jogged frenziedly for the cameras distributing tediously detailed personal health records to anyone who could lift them; Lamar Alexander split logs and dressed as a lumberjack, while Bob Dole sunned himself (as usual) on the balcony of his senate office that is nicknamed "the beach," because he spent three-and-a-half hours a week there, acquiring a healthy glow.
In the other camp, President Clinton has a glow of his own. His ruddy complexion comes in part from jogging and from golf - a sport in which he has made great advances in the last four years, since the presidency has allowed him to practise it at will. But his look of extreme vigour also comes from a product called Guerlain Terracotta Blusher Pour Homme, which is a brick-coloured brush-on face powder used by Warren Beatty, George Harrison, Harrison Ford and other film, media and rock personalities.
Julie Kofman, a spokeswoman for Guerlain in New York, explains that the manly blusher is "the big seller" and that it "contains absolutely no sparkle" which is reassuring. The blusher comes in a specially styled clay pot so that male pride need not suffer and democracy may be upheld. (After all, who could rule the free world without roses in his cheeks?)
You might find something distasteful, something a little Death in Venice about painted officials who court the vote with artful tans, painted cheeks and (one guesses) coloured hair. In America today, though, the baby boomers who will be doing most of the voting share their candidates' obsession with physical appearance. They want to look younger than their age, and they want to elect a president who looks younger than his age, using the logic that, even if no one is fooled, if everyone's in on the same secret, then no one has any incentive to spill the beans. "The culture is imbued with a fear of ageing," an American election watcher explains. "As long as you look good, you're okay. If you look decrepit, you scare people." The president, he explains, has come to be a totem of the body politic; if he's not in shape, people assume the country won't be.
The preoccupation with youth and fear of decay has historically been a female preserve, but in the 1990s, more and more American men are showing themselves just as ready to suffer to be beautiful. Turn on MTV's House of Fashion, and you will see strong, handsome, well-muscled men patting themselves with hydrating lotions and suntans-in-a-bottle, and speculating on what their "girlfriends" will think of their ensembles. Some wear light lip colour and eyeliner. In the men's fashion shows in July, male models purred and strutted about in "body conscious" clothing, tight, Lycra pants and satiny button-popping shirts that revealed every muscle, every wen. New York gossips shrieked that at the spring/summer 1997 collections, Calvin Klein provided leather padding for his models to wear under their runway trousers to provide a more ... prominent profile.
But even the most fashionable dressers know that beauty comes from within (speaking in electron-level subcutaneous terms), so many of today's young men have learned to exfoliate and moisturise themselves every time they clean their teeth. Older men who have matured in less enlightened times hasten to snap up products that sand off wrinkles and restore skin elasticity, and several cosmetics companies have created male beauty lines to serve the virile new market. Once, dewlaps and crow's feet symbolised manly gravitas; now they simply point to the grave. And yet, all is not quite vanity; the presidential candidate's health and mien will most definitely affect whether he wins, keeps, or loses the job, just as for many middle-aged American men, looking young and vital will determine whether they stay employed and employable. Through corporate downsizing, the rise of computers, and decreased job security generally, hundreds of thousands of American mid-level male executives and other workers find themselves unemployed at the age of 42 or 45, with mortgages to pay, and families to support. In a society that equates ageing with defeat, a man who does not appear youthful cannot get rehired very easily, and sometimes can lose the job he has. This has always been more or less true for women, of course, but now that it's happening to men, too, it has taken on the drama of a classical agon.
A word has arisen to describe the men who struggle to keep themselves in racing form to clear the job market hurdles: "Bionic Executives". These bionic executives take special crash spa courses to slim down and bulk up, transplant their hair when it recedes, dye it when it greys, tan fading skin, eat joyless food, jog and lift weights. Walk into any co-ed gym in the US, and you will be told that far more men than women attend.
The Crunch gym on Lafayette Street in Manhattan is open 24 hours a day, and the passer-by who gapes in through the picture windows will see men labouring up interminable treadmill hills, or lifting excruciating weights at all hours, vying with Sisyphus. Mark, aged 42, a music video producer, goes to Crunch six days a week, two hours a day, is typical. "If I didn't do this every day, I probably would lose my mind," he says as he stands outside the door of the club, panting, cooling off. He is short and barrel- chested, red from a combination of exertion and tanning beds. "This is such a competitive city," he complains, as he catches his breath. "People are interested in bodies. Sometimes they'll tell me I look good, but this is a very competitive city
Those who cannot or will not achieve their Titanic dream frame through exercise or surgery have taken to wearing a variety of ego-saving, subtle but unrelenting body shapers, known in their female guise as girdles.
Last summer, Nancy Ganz, the founder of Bodyslimmers, a line of sporty girdles with teasing names such as Butt Boosters and Hipslips (meant for women who have a problem buying a product that has the word "girdle" on the label, but want to wear clingy, sexy dresses), found herself inundated with calls from shop assistants asking her to send more large and extra- large Butt Boosters; men were buying them up, they explained, leaving none for the female customers.
Ganz immediately sniffed a virgin market for male neurosis and set her looms spinning. By early this year, she had come up with a line of male "undercover" garments, with flirty names of their own: the Man Band (for love handles), the Ab Fab (Abdominally Fabulous), Cincher Tank (an ultra-tight vest that looks like a work-out shirt) and the 006 Double Agent Brief. Before you think that the last bastion of maleness has crumbled entirely, be reassured; men will wear these things to look better; but unlike women, they will not wear them if they hurt. "Men won't take the pain that women will," Ganz explains "so their stuff is mostly cotton Lycra, with little bits of nylon Lycra sneaked in."
No one knows for sure if Bill Clinton or Bob Dole is wearing the Double Agent Brief, or the Ab Fab Cincher Tank. What everyone does know, though, is that if they know about them, they are. In a country where politics, public relations, acting, and journalism grow increasingly less distinguishable from one other, appearances increasingly are all that matter - to secure that vote at least. Voters who want to deny the effects of time on themselves will not elect an administration that seems a little battle-scarred.
The night after the election, both voter and candidate will collapse uncorseted and unrouged. God knows, they'll need their beauty rest.