No matter who wins, the next US president will be like none before
Published 14/09/2016 | 02:30
If Hilary Clinton's "overheating" episode at a 9/11 commemoration and pneumonia diagnosis shows anything, it's the gruelling nature of the American presidential race. Candidates must go through two years of crisscrossing the country by bus, train and campaign plane, dozens of televised debates, hundreds of rallies, and thousands of opinion polls while raising hundreds of millions of dollars just for the privilege of taking part.
On top of this, nominees are expected to be 'presidential'. Before they ever set foot in the Oval Office, hopefuls must possess the aura of someone capable of great things. According to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton doesn't fit the presidential ideal. "I just don't think she has a presidential look," he recently said, "and you need a presidential look."
Mr Trump is correct in one sense. His opponent looks unlike any American president in history because, "Duh, Donald", she's a woman, a wife, a mother and grandmother. She's one of those female thingamabobs that America has not yet had for a leader. Like Barack Obama, who didn't look sufficiently presidential throughout swathes of America in 2008 and 2012 - too black, too foreign, too skinny; Mrs Clinton is too short, too shrill, and too prone to high heels.
Her Republican opponent, however, believes he himself possesses the presidential look. The 70-year-old Donald Trump has likened himself to Robert Redford, who played 'The Candidate' in the satirical American film in 1972. So that probably counts. Trump also travels on a plane that looks a bit like Air Force One - so he's cool with presidential accessories. Most importantly, Trump wears a suit and tie. If you can ignore the orange skin tone, and the dead animal on his head, Mr Trump is really quite the presidential package.
Hillary's style of the moment - wide jackets with cropped sleeves and high collars - sends out a mixed message. Comfort is clearly as critical to her as it is to Angela Merkel, but these coveralls give the impression that Clinton may be hiding something under there - lost emails, Clinton Foundation donations, even old White House furniture. For a candidate so often pilloried for secrecy and covering things up, that particular look may be working against her.
It's only my opinion, but Mrs Clinton comes across most effectively when she appears in a tailored navy jacket with a brightly coloured top underneath. Steely on the outside, warm on the inside. That's not to imply Hillary shouldn't be feminine. In this election, that would be to deny her best asset - her womanhood. But there will be plenty of time for dressing up, if and when she becomes the president.
Perhaps due to exhaustion, Clinton can also sound hoarse or droning on the stump. Her smiles sometimes appear feigned, and she nods excessively when listening to others. Clinton's mannerisms shouldn't matter a whit; but her opponent is obsessed with people's physical and personal attributes. So when he calls her "Crooked Hillary" or "low energy" - as he did before her New York stumble - it sticks and it hurts her.
Getting back to Trump's own presidential look, the golf cap - according to American humorist Garrison Keillor - makes him look like "the warm-up guy". Of course, Trump's cap plays a more vital role than any campaign aide - it keeps his hair from blowing away. So if he manages to win in November, Trump's ball cap will be going with him to the White House.
Thanks to Trump, what's presidential today is not what was presidential a year ago. The reality TV star's candidacy was initially treated with such guffaws of incredulity that only Scots-Irish visionaries hiding in the Appalachian Mountains could picture him in the role. Now, with less than two months to go, Trump's raw, straight-talking manner is a job requirement and many Americans have grown accustomed to his look.
This new presidential style has little use for facts or truths. Candidates of yesteryear employed facts and figures to convince voters of a particular policy point. Nowadays, Trump's inaccuracies and flip-flops are excused, even ignored, on the basis that he is connecting directly with the voters' gut - not their head.
Win or lose in November, Trump has changed the definition of what an American presidential contender looks and sounds like - Tough-talking, flamboyant outsider: "Good"; Policy-driven insider: "Bad". And just as Barack Obama's election eight years ago was a reaction to the good old boy network of the Bush-Halliburton era, a Trump presidency would be a repudiation of everything Obama.
Clinton has had decades to hone her presidential look. She's spent a huge chunk of her life chasing the White House on behalf of husband Bill, eight years living in it as First Lady, and the last 16 years campaigning for the top spot. She's kept the company of presidents and prime ministers, male and female, across the world. So she should have cracked it by now.
But with current polls so close, Clinton risks never achieving the look. You can only really be presidential once you have gained the office. And what decides this race may not be family connections, or political experience, or even vast sums of money. This time it may turn out to be anger on a grand scale, or outside events that neither candidate can control.
The debates beginning on September 26 will show two very different people striving for their best presidential look. Only one of them can win in November. Let's hope the next few weeks are more about the substance than the style.
Carole Coleman is a former RTÉ Washington Correspondent