Leonard Steinhorn: Pre-Palin, a VP pick judged on looks





An indignant Republican vice presidential candidate, troubled that the media focused a disproportionate amount of attention on her looks, pleaded with reporters to start covering the important news: “I’d rather talk about what I stand for than what I look like.” But even then, The Associated Press story reporting her plea prefaced the quote by saying that she “brushed her sandy blond hair with an impatient sweep of her hand.”

Sexism in the media? Very possibly, yet it wasn’t a female candidate, like Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who received this treatment. It was Dan Quayle, right after he was nominated by George H.W. Bush for the second spot on the 1988 GOP ticket.

Looking back 20 years, the pundits, reporters and commentators were rather ruthless in describing the then-Indiana senator’s “handsome features and blow-dried hair,” his “movie-star good looks,” his resemblance to Robert Redford, his “youth and movie star looks,” his “golden good looks.” As a headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune put it, “Do Ya Think He’s Sexy?”

To then-freshman GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Quayle’s looks mattered. “I can't believe a guy that handsome wouldn't have some impact,' McCain said back then. Asked if Quayle would help the Republican ticket gain more appeal with women voters, McCain replied: “He comes across very well on the tube.”

To his defenders on Capitol Hill, Quayle had established himself as a credible and thoughtful authority on defense and national security policy. But every reference to his good looks made him seem like a superficial lightweight. It was hard, as one writer put it, for him to be “taken seriously.”

No one cried sexism back then. But if anyone made these comments today when discussing Alaska Gov. Palin, the chattering class and expedient feminists in the GOP would be all over it.

Quayle understood that his surprising nomination would generate intense public scrutiny. As he put it, for every vice presidential nominee, but especially for an unexpected nominee like himself, "there are 15,000 journalists who want to grab him by the ankles, turn him upside down and shake him until something bad comes out."

So to those who decry the media’s similar treatment of Sarah Palin, to those who say it’s singularly sexist, it’s important to look back and see that the media did the very same thing to Dan Quayle.

Yes, the questions about whether Palin should run for vice president given her family responsibilities might not be asked of a male candidate.

But complaints that she has been trivialized by references to her appearance and looks may have less to do with her gender than with a media culture obsessed with celebrity, sex appeal and Hollywood star qualities — and these yardsticks apply to both women and men. Even news networks, which we trust to inform us, often place a higher priority on their reporters’ looks than their knowledge of culture and history.

Ironically, once in office Quayle would presage another bit of media attention over Palin's candidacy when he attacked the fictional television character Murphy Brown for setting a bad example for young people by having a child out of wedlock.

The Palin frenzy may seem more intense today than the Quayle frenzy did 20 years ago, but that may stem from the explosion of media outlets on cable and the Internet. But the impulse behind the frenzy remains the same. Superficialities capture media attention. Ideas don’t.

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