I have always wondered who actually reads Tiger Beat magazine. I know I never did, nor did anyone I knew growing up. Yet it’s always there in supermarkets and drug stores, garishly advertising the hot new teen heart throbs.
Although I like to pretend I have superior taste, I get excited to go to the laundromat just so I can read some gossip rags. Because I am a massive nerd, my secret dream has been to have a gossip magazine for historical figures.
Maybe it’s just the inherent silliness of judging historical figures on such superficial grounds. Maybe it’s the strange bit of cognitive dissonance that occurs when you find a dictator strangely attractive. Maybe it’s the understanding that as much as we like to think we’re able to see past the outer shells of people, looks are, and to some extent always have been, a factor in the relationships people have with others, and by extension, leaders with the people they lead. We may mock John Edwards for his $300 haircut, but Queen Elizabeth wore heavy makeup to hide her small pox scars, and Louis XIV like to show off his shapely legs. It may be frivolous, but historical gossip is also revealing in a way that reading about economic policy can never be.
When compared to their counterparts in the European monarchies, American presidents are a boring group. As far as I know, nobody swam in fountains with dolphins or delighted in gifts of tall men in uniform. But if I had my way and was running the historical version of People, my first act would be a ranking of presidents, not by greatness or popular acclaim, but purely by sex appeal.
I have given this ranking more thought than I should have. My first few attempts were difficult, because I tried a top down approach, which is tricky when dealing with a beauty contest. So instead I tried to rule out the presidents who just couldn’t make the cut, starting with a personal favorite, James Madison, who was both too slight and too sour-faced to ever be misconstrued as handsome. Also in this category are John Adams, who was both short and stout, and Martin Van Buren, who was known as something of a dandy despite his goblin-like face. Rounding out the category is James Buchanan, who looks like a rooster about to peck out your eye in just about every picture of him.
I rest my case.
The next category I refer to as “meh.” Neither decidedly ugly nor attractive, they’re just pretty average. The vast bulk of presidents fall in this category, including James Monroe, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.
Perhaps the most distressing category is the handsome-when-young crowd. I was walking through the American Wing of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, when I came across a Copley portrait of a young John Quincy Adams. I was surprised to note he not only did not look like a Komodo dragon, he was actually shockingly handsome.
How did this happen?
I had a similar moment with Gerald Ford, who played football and modeled as a young man. Also in this category were William McKinley and James Garfield, who were teen heartthrobs if their old daguerreotypes were any indication. Without his beard, Rutherford B. Hayes bears a strong resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis, disproving the Abraham Lincoln Rule of “chicks dig the beard.”
William McKinley in Civil War Uniform
Rutherford B. Hayes, pre-beard
Then there’s the category of weirdly appealing. In this category is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who I don’t think of as being actually handsome, but had an aristocratic air that pushes him out of “meh”. He is joined in his category by Millard Fillmore, also known as the president most likely to win an Alec Baldwin look-alike contest.
Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.
There’s also Calvin Coolidge, whose stoic manners and lean figure both originated from his roots as a farm boy in Vermont. According to the fine people of the Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site, Coolidge was stronger than he looked if his skill at hay pitching was any indication, an activity that required superior upper body strength (aka biceps).
My smallest category is the intellectual types, consisting of Thomas Jefferson and Barack Obama. They both have the tall, slim, elegance that complements their cerebral styles.
Next up is the ruggedly masculine crowd, those guys who weren’t really handsome, but have appeal nonetheless. Leading off this group is Ulysses S. Grant, whose military credentials give him that aura of manliness necessary to belong to this group. George W. Bush also squeaks into this category thanks to his famously intense running sessions thatmade him one of our most physically fit presidents. Also in this group is the Great Emancipator himself, who even at the age of 55 could still wield an axe like nobody’s business. That kind of strength can make up for a lot.
6 foot 4 inches of pure muscle.
Without a doubt the master of this group is Andrew Jackson. Although he had a face so long and narrow it makes John Kerry look like Jack Black, Jackson has a record of ultra-masculinity that more than compensates for his undeniably strange face.
Would you date this man?
However, Jackson is not the ultimate presidential man’s man. That distinction goes to the granddaddy of them all: George Washington. The father of our country was a man who could command a room; at 6’3” and 210 pounds, he towered above his contemporaries. He was an avid foxhunter and known for his bruising rides across his estate (read: strong thighs). These attributes cancel out his notoriously awful teeth.
The final category is where the real contenders are: the actually handsome men. While I cannot deny other presidents have appeal, the remaining men are undeniably attractive people (if such a thing really exists). Ronald Reagan kept his movie star good looks well into his 70s. Not only did his toned physique make the older ladies swoon, it most likely saved his life. As my 10th grade history teacher creepily loved to point out, Reagan’s highly developed pectoral muscles helped slow the assassin’s bullet that very easily could have claimed his life.
Man of steel.
Another obvious choice for the best looking president is John F. Kennedy. His youth alone marks him as a prime candidate, a fact further reinforced by his womanizing reputation. However, several factors prevent him from becoming an instant winner. Firstly, as my brother is always quick to point out, his face looks like a handsome face that was squashed to 2/3 its original size. Another mitigating factor to Kennedy’s sex appeal is not widely known: Kennedy was a very sick man. He suffered from a kidney disease in addition to a bad back that required braces and an incredible cocktail of drugs.
The F stands for Foxy.
Other than Kennedy, the man who is generally regarded as the most handsome president is Franklin Pierce. With his cascade of dark curly hair and square jaw, Pierce makes quite the impression. He was also well known for his gregarious personality that made him popular in Washington, although later in life he suffered from depression and alcoholism.
However, the top of my personal list is the under-represented William Henry Harrison, based mostly on a portrait of him at Grouseland in Vincennes, Indiana. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from my attempt at ranking presidential sex appeal, it’s that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
William Henry Harrison: General. President. Heartthrob.
Except for Martin Van Buren. Nobody finds that attractive.