TORONTO — Try to imagine the reaction if House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi were constantly referred to as "pretty." The California congresswoman herself would probably be upset - though perhaps not as upset as she would be if she were referred to as "not so pretty." Either way, feminists, politicians, and pundits - and the frightening overlap of the three - would chime the chorus of "sexism."
John Edwards, we are told by fan and foe, is "sexy," "pretty," and "handsome." Even his running mate, John Kerry - himself a rumored slave to beauty - commented that the two of them have "better hair" than their competition. While I don't know about that, I agree that Senator Edwards is pretty. He looks, to me, exactly like 1970s semicelebrity John Davidson. And Senator Kerry looks smitten.
So far, Edwards hasn't been silly enough to whinge about the adjectives thrust upon his fine-looking self. This may be because he knows full well that the received wisdom that says only women are judged by their appearance is not true. Nor has it ever been - not even before TV debate coverage brought us the painful truth about Richard Nixon's sweaty upper lip and Al Gore's bald spot and overly rouged cheeks.
Shortly before he was elected president in 1860, a then free-of-facial-hair Abraham Lincoln received a letter from 11-year-old Grace Bedell suggesting that "if you will let your whiskers grow," she might be able to convince family members to vote for him. All the ladies, she wrote, "like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you." With whiskers, she noted, "you would look a good deal better for your face is so thin." Everyone's a critic. Lincoln obliged and later met Bedell, showing her up close that he was a smart enough politician to know looks can make a difference.
It's true that there's less to discuss vis-à-vis men. They don't wear makeup, or the variety of apparel women do. You can't make much hay out of suits and ties.
But at the same time John F. Kennedy's "long" hair was shockingly not covered by a hat, Canadians had a prime minister named John Diefenbaker with formidable jowls. "He had the most appalling jowls," my mother still says, with rare passion. She didn't dislike "Dief" for his jowls so much as for his policies.
But looks are what we appreciate and comment on, with politicians, celebrities, friends, and people on the street. Looks are immediate: If they're particularly good (Benjamin Netanyahu) or not so good (Yasser Arafat) they're the visual equivalent of a soundbite. Hence, Canadians call former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney "the jaw that walked like a man"; former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris will always be remembered for her Tammy Faye-esque makeup; and one can only hope Leonid Brezhnev's eyebrows didn't spawn, or there may be an alien race somewhere planning another Russian Revolution.
It's normal to like looking at attractive people. And no one should read more into it than that. If I wrote that I think Paul Wolfowitz has a dreamy voice and excellent dimples, or that I think Vladimir Putin is flat-out hot, I doubt either would be offended. So why should women be bothered by similar appraisals? Why should John Edwards? Conversely, why should any public figure care whether people find them unattractive? Beauty is - often - in the beholder's eye, as votes are in the beholder's hand. And think of all the unattractive people who have held the world's highest offices. Looks are good conversation fodder and may sway a few. But I'm sure even Grace Bedell knew Lincoln's whiskers weren't what made him great.
• Rondi Adamson is a Canadian writer.