Two of the central figures in the ongoing Eurozone debt crisis saga -- French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- are, to put it gently, height-challenged; or, in a more politically incorrect way, they’re short.
Lest you think that a prominent politician’s height is a trivial matter, their height (or lack thereof) have often been discussed in European media and has even caused some diplomatic woes.
A recent column in Britain’s Daily telegraph newspaper described Sarkozy and Berlusconi as “pygmies.”
Sarkozy’s midget-like height has long been discussed in European media. Reportedly, he is extremely sensitive about his small stature and reacts angrily to any aspersions about his tiny frame.
What makes things worse for him is that his supermodel wife Carla Bruni towers over the president by at least four inches (even without high heels).
To augment his stature, Sarkozy has stood on boxes, foot-stools, even on his tippy-toes and reportedly even demanded to be photographed only among other short (or shorter) people. (His wife Carla supposedly wears flats to try to diminish the height difference between them).
Sarkozy was embarrassed when during an event at the D-Day beach in Normandy, he stood next to the much taller American President Barack Obama (6-foot-1) and Prime Minister Gordon Brown (5-foot-11) of Britain.
David Cameron, the current strapping 6-foot-1 Prime Minister of Great Britain, has frequently made fun of Sarkozy’s small stature. While Cameron’s jibes were largely gentle, they were no laughing matter for the little Frenchman.
In March of 2010, Cameron allegedly made a remark about “hidden dwarfs” when discussing a photograph of himself and Sarkozy.
The British Chancellor of the Exchange, George Osborne (who is 5-foot-11), added fuel to the fire during an appearance at a conference when he removed a stool behind him and called it the “Sarkozy box” (a direct reference to Sarkozy’s practice of standing on stools while making speeches in public).
Sarkozy and his aides reportedly formally protested to the British government for what they perceived to be an unconscionable insult to him as a head of state of a major western country.
Moreover, the Paris newspaper LeMonde responded by calling Osborne an intellectual lightweight and said he had a lack of courtesy.
Cameron’s “dwarf” comment was never definitively confirmed (some claim the British Labour Party dreamed it up to embarrass the Conservative leader).
However, just last week, during the Eurozone debt crisis, Cameron renewed the spat by telling reporters that while making a joint appearance in Libya he was forced to kneel at a lectern that had been set up for the much shorter Sarkozy so the French president could easily reach the microphone.
“I realized that the microphone and the lectern had been set up for Nicolas Sarkozy and not for me,” the PM said. “It was the only time in my life I addressed a crowd of 5,000 cheering [people] on my knees, so I could reach into the microphone.”
In April 2010, the German–based car rental company, Sixt, placed an advertisement which explicitly made fun of Sarkozy’s height.
Under a picture of a French hatchback, the slogan read (translated into English from German):Do the same as Madame Bruni, choose a small French model.”
Jean-Philippe Doyen, the president of Sixt in France, defended the ad at the time by saying: These advertisements are entitled to be funny and we need to inject a little fun into our business after such a difficult period experienced by many of our clients.
Not surprisingly, the opposition Socialist Party in France has also attacked Sarkozy for his shortness and accused him of suffering from the small man syndrome (a direct reference to the most famous short Frenchman ever, Napoleon Bonaparte).
Meanwhile, in Italy, Berlusconi’s true height has long been a controversial subject – among a plethora of travails and scandals that have dogged him for decades.
Reportedly, Berlusconi is only6 5-foot-4, but he has claimed to be taller. The platform shoe-wearing Paisan once boasted to Italian media: I am taller than Putin and Sarkozy, I'm tall like [Romano] Prodi [the former Italian premier]. I'm 1.71 meters tall (5-foot-6). I don't understand why all the caricaturists portray me as a dwarf, whereas the others are allowed a normal height.”
Berlusconi’s vanity, narcissism and insecurity makes Sarkozy seem emotionally mature and stable. As a billionaire and self-styled playboy, Berlusconi is obsessed with his looks and has reportedly undergone hair transplants and cosmetic surgery, in addition to wearing lifts to appear taller.
However, Sarkozy and Berlusconi are veritable “redwoods” compared to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is charitably listed at 5-foot4, but reportedly clocks in at a microscopic 5-foot-2.
Russian media reportedly are pressured by Moscow officials to make Medvedev look taller than he really is – by, among other tricks, asking photographers to shoot the diminutive president from a low angle. He also supposedly wears shoes with 2.5-inch heels.
Russia has a long history of “doctoring” the facts and engaging in wild propaganda to embellish the truth of its leaders going at least all the way back to Josef Stalin – who, by the way, was so short (reportedly anywhere between 5-foot-4 and 5-foot-6) that US President Harry Truman allegedly described the psychotic Georgian as a “shrimp.” (Truman was extremely fortunate he was not a citizen of the Soviet Union, lest he be imprisoned, exiled or even murdered).
Indeed, the “image” of a Russian political leader is intimately connected with notions of size, physical power and height. Despite Stalin’s short stature, he was invariably depicted in paintings, photos, posters and sculpture as having great strength and a towering physique.
Interestingly, Medvedev’s partner in power, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is also short – reportedly, about 5-foot-6 -- but the Kremlin propaganda machine repeatedly depicts him as a physically powerful, athletic, agile and macho “he-man” (Putin is, in fact, widely admired by Russian women).
However, in the United States, at least among the highest levels of politics, being short appears to be a distinct disadvantage – from long before the age of television.
According to a book published in 1982 by a psychologist named John Gillis called “Too Small, Too Tall,” the taller candidate won 80 percent of the time in the 20th century.
Reportedly, during the 1976 election between Jimmy Carter (5-foot-9) and the incumbent Gerald Ford (6-foot-1), Carter’s aides stopped at nothing to prevent their man from being photographed next to his opponent. (Carter won the election).
In recent elections since 1984, the favoritism toward height is not quite so pronounced.
In the nine presidential elections since 1976, the taller candidate has won five times, the shorter won three times. (In the 1992 election between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, both men were exactly 6-foot-2).
In the 1988 election between Bush and Michael Dukakis, the height difference was a staggering six inches (Bush easily won).
However, Bush’s son, George W. Bush won twice against taller challengers, Al Gore and John Kerry.
Kerry, in fact, who stands an impressive 6-foot-4, was four and one-half inches taller than his opponent (and still lost).
And in case you wondering, Barack Obama (6-foot-1) was much taller than the man he defeated in 2008, John McCain (5-foot-9) -- however the likely Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, is 6-foot-2.
Imagine if Sarkozy or Berlusconi ran in U.S. elections?