The issue of the height of male political leaders emerged again when the new president of France, Francois Hollande, was mocked by his own French media for looking like a “dwarf” while standing amongst Her Majesty’s Coldstream Guards regiment during his first official visit to London.
Comments written by French readers on websites that published photos of the diminutive Hollande standing next to the tall strapping Guards suggested the juxtaposition might have been intentional in order to make the Socialist president look ridiculous.
The appearance of the French leader with the Coldstream Guards had another humiliating element for France – it was this same regiment that played a key role in the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s military at the Battle of Waterloo almost two hundred years ago. The Guards subsequently occupied the city of Paris.
However, Hollande, who stands 5-foot-7, towers above his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose height has been reported as anywhere between 5-foot-2 and 5-foot-4. Unlike Hollande, Sarkozy is highly sensitive about his diminutive stature and went to extreme lengths (i.e., standing on boxes, standing behind lecterns, stretching on his tippy toes, wearing lifts, etc.) to either conceal or disguise his embarrassing lack of height.
But the height of high-profile political leaders is not a trivial subject – it has, in fact, caused a lot of controversy.
For example, the British media took delight in mocking the short stature of both Sarkozy as well as the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, referring to both as “pygmies” (in stark contrast, to the regal, handsome 6-foot-1 British Prime Minister, David Cameron).
Indeed, Cameron himself as well as his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was officially reprimanded by Paris authorities for publicly joking about Sarkozy’s lack of height (and his desperate efforts to hide same).
In March 2010, Cameron allegedly made a remark about “hidden dwarfs” when discussing a photograph of himself and Sarkozy.
While discussing during a joint appearance he made in Libya last year with Sarkozy, Cameron said he was forced to kneel at a lectern that had been set up for the much shorter French president so he could easily reach the microphone.
“I realized that the microphone and the lectern had been set up for Nicolas Sarkozy and not for me,” Cameron 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.”
Osborne (who is a respectable 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).
What made things worse for Sarkozy is that his supermodel wife Carla Bruni towers over him by at least four inches (even without high heels) – making the couple’s portraits an exercise in derision and absurdity.
To augment his stature, Sarkozy reportedly even demanded to be photographed only among other short (or shorter) people. (His wife Carla supposedly wears flats to try to diminish the dramatic height difference between them).
Sarkozy was particularly embarrassed during an event at the D-Day beach in Normandy when he stood next to the much taller American President Barack Obama (6-foot-1) and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown (5-foot-11).
In Italy, meanwhile, Berlusconi’s true height has long been a subject of conversation, debate and malice.
Reportedly, Berlusconi is only 5-foot-4, but he has claimed to be taller. The platform shoe-wearing ‘bunga-bunga’ man once boasted to Italian media: I am taller than [Vladimir] Putin and Sarkozy, I'm tall like [Romano] Prodi [the former Italian premier]… 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 giants compared to Russian Prime Minister (and former 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 tiny 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 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 U.S. President Harry Truman allegedly described the psychotic Georgian as a “shrimp.” (Truman himself was only about 5-foot-8).
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.
As Berlusconi has pointed out, Medvedev’s partner in power, President (and ex-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 pose 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 has won 80 percent of the time in the 20th century presidential elections.
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. (It apparently worked, since 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).
In addition, Obama was taller than the man he defeated in 2008, John McCain (5-foot-9).
Now in 2012, Obama faces a daunting threat from Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, who is 6-foot-2.
American voters seem to place a greater emphasis on a politician’s height – much more so than continental Europeans.
Nic Fleming wrote in the Guardian newspaper: “Voters see tall politicians as better suited for leadership, according to a survey of how people visualize their leaders. Psychologists believe the bias may stem from an evolved preference for physically imposing chiefs who could dominate enemies.”
Perhaps in the U.S. tallness is associated with the 19th century pioneer and cowboy spirit which was based upon physical strength and domination as well as independent self-reliance.
Interestingly, despite having historically famous short men as leaders (Hollande, Sarkozy, Napoleon, Francois Mitterand), some French leaders of the past have actually been exceptionally tall.
George Pompidou was just under 6 foot, Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing were 6-foot-2; while the most iconic Frenchman of the 20th century ad revered military hero, Charles DeGaulle, stood an impressive 6-foot-5 (soaring more than one whole foot over Sarkozy).
The situation for females heads of state is an entirely different kettle of fish – women are, on average, shorter than men and they are still nettling men for equality in the sphere of politics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (perhaps the most powerful woman on earth) is 5-foot-5, about average for the fairer sex; while Australia’s Julia Gillard and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner are roughly the same height.
Women political chiefs, especially in the western world, likely do not have to worry about how tall they are – although they must contend with prejudices about beauty and age, more so than their male counterparts.