The Candidate's Closet | An image consultant rates what Obama and Romney are rockin'.
It may be cynical to view politics—especially the ongoing presidential variety—as primarily a marketing exercise. But it’s also irrefutable that today’s candidates are sold much like soap or toothpaste. The trend toward the superficial started with the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. For TV viewers, Kennedy, with his matinee-idol good looks, clearly beat the sweaty, sinister-looking Nixon. On the other hand, those listening to radio broadcasts of the debate thought Nixon won. But the real winner may have been the army of image handlers who followed. For a clearer sense of how Barack and Mitt stack up style-wise, I turned to Florida-based image consultant Wendy Phillips, author and publisher of this year’s Naked to Knockout: Beauty From the Inside Out.
Paul Kilduff: Presidential candidates—should they adjust their clothing to where they are? If they’re going to come to Berkeley, should they wear Birkenstocks and torn-up jeans?
Wendy Phillips: Well, they might not be willing to put their Toms on, but maybe they should. I have a saying that I use [with] my clients: “In business you want to dress to the home you’re going to.”
PK: I can’t imagine Mitt Romney showing up in Berkeley in a tie-dyed T-shirt.
WP: Well, it [would] certainly be a way to get some PR.
PK: George W. Bush was elected in large part, I think, because people felt, at least compared to John Kerry, that he was a guy you could have a beer with.
WP: He’s a man’s man.
PK: Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama seems like the kind of guy that you could have a beer with. First of all, with Mitt you physically cannot have a beer with a devout Mormon. What are you going to have—a strawberry waffle? How do you hang out with him? I don’t have a clear picture.
WP: He isn’t someone I would [care] to hang out with. An element I have often noticed is that Barack actually does a lot of interviews in his golf shirts, and we rarely have seen that in any other president. I’ve seen him live in the Oval Office without a tie and jacket on.
PK: In the history of the United States, you might be able to credit Obama with national health care—and the “air tie.”
WP: I don’t know that that’s good or bad, but let’s point out he’s made some strides in that arena, and because of his interest in basketball he appears sporty. With Mitt, we’re still trying to get to know him. I just saw him, and interestingly enough, Mitt had jeans on.
PK: Were they mom jeans?
WP: Well, they were okay for him. He wasn’t styling and profiling. I hope his adviser was doing that on purpose, and if so, I commend him for that. It clearly got my attention.
PK: We’ve all witnessed Barack’s tendency toward the casual side. But Romney—he seems like he’s stepped out of an L.L. Bean or Land’s End catalogue.
WP: Land’s End, that’s what I was going to say, yes. It’s just laissez-faire. It doesn’t make a statement either way. And I like to see that. I think women love to see a well-dressed man.
PK: So, you think women care more about this kind of stuff than men?
PK: Romney seems like he rolls out of bed in a suit with his hair perfectly coiffed.
WP: That’s true. He’s got some good gel.
PK: It does seem to point out that our presidential candidates are having the same conundrum that a lot of guys have—the whole casual Friday problem. Because you don’t really know what casual Friday is. Can I just go all Mark Zuckerberg on you with a hoodie?
WP: Please, no! Can I wear all my vintage from head to toe, and my thrift store finds? It’s fine to mix and match. It’s fine to express yourself. And yet again, without trying to sound too political myself, the truth is, Paul, it depends. It depends on what line of work you’re in.
PK: Zuckerberg’s running the world.
WP: Exactly. This is another fashion image, must-follow principle: You follow the rule, not the exception to the rule. He’s an exception to the rule.
PK: John Edwards—if you were casting the president in a movie, you would pick this guy. And yet he’s a suit-and-tie kind of guy. There’s nothing about him that’s necessarily cutting-edge, fashion-wise. So is it just his great looks he’s coasting on?
WP: The word I think we’re looking for is charisma. He had it. He had that element that Bush had, where we can relate. He seemed fun . . . down to earth and bright and brilliant. We need to get back to that with the president of the United States. Barack had it a lot through his campaign and evidently to some degree he still has it.
PK: I wonder who you’re going to vote for, Wendy.
WP: Well, I don’t know yet. I’ve got a lot to determine. The truth is, maybe we shouldn’t be thinking of the president as someone I want to hang out with. I mean, there’s got to be an element of respect.
PK: But the thing is, their handlers are always trying to make them just a regular guy. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Remember Obama trying to bowl four years ago? It was embarrassing. And now Mitt Romney—what are they going to have this guy do?
WP: Let’s get him on the tennis court.
PK: What does Mitt Romney do for a good time? Drink milk?
WP: He’s just from that area where you think they do croquet and have cookouts or something.
PK: When the sun goes down they break out the Parcheesi board and have some . . .
WP: Root beer floats?
PK: Looking in your crystal ball, who do you think is going to win the style battle—and ultimately the presidency?
WP: So far, the style winner I do really think is going to go to Barack. [As for the presidency] I’m going to pick the underdog in a possible belief that people still—with the job situation the way it is—that they just want something different.
Birthplace: Richmond, Va.
Astrological Sign: Aquarius
Book on Nightstand: The Purpose Driven Life
Motto: Love people, use things.