How A Political Leader’s Looks Help Determine How They’re Remembered

As I’ve been studying history I can’t help wonder why some leaders are reviled intensely, while others elicit little emotion, despite similarly appalling actions. American history also has this phenomenon, where some presidents are hated for doing the same thing beloved presidents did as well.

I have a little theory of mine: their physical appearance is a huge factor in determining how they are viewed in posterity. If their physical appearance or demeanor is seen as attractive or appealing to a person, then it will create a bias in their favor, causing the said person to overlook certain facts about the leader which doesn’t mesh well with the image. Vice versa with leaders whose appearances are repulsive or unattractive. And the less access we have to their actual appearance, the greater the reliance on statues or paintings, the less emotion involved.

Let’s take an easy one, Adolf Hitler.

It’s easy to see why people immediately revile him. You wouldn’t have to know a single fact about him to realize he is evil. When I was a child and watched World War II movies, I instinctively knew Nazis like him were the bad guys. Those hardened eyes offered a full glimpse of the brutality he was capable of.

My theory explains why, on the other hand, men like Stalin, who murdered millions more than Hitler, are not as easily despised, even though the facts surrounding him in particular as well known. He doesn’t have the same amount of palpable evil emanating from him as Hitler. He has a stern countenance that exhibits the harshness and brutality of his regime, but much of it is concealed behind his visage, giving him the air of an amused, but somber elderly relative.

The theory gains even greater traction as we move to Mao, the worst mass murderer of the 20th Century and perhaps of all time. The Great Leap Forward starved tens of millions, more then Stalin and Hitler combined. The trouble, however, is that he doesn’t have the face to go with the fields of corpses. There’s no hate or anger coming from his gaze. It’s the same stoic, reserved face one might see on an ordinary Chinese businessman that betrays none of the emotions lurking within him. One doesn’t look at him and sense the blood of millions of innocent people spilled at his hands.

You may not think of someone like Churchill to have innocent blood on his hands, either (just ask the Irish about his Black and Tan idea). That’s because it’s difficult to see in a man with such a soft, baby-like face and smile. Couldn’t imagine him eager for violence and warfare (currently reading a book about World War I; he was gung-ho to the point of annoyance). It’s hard to not admire him, as well, all part of his persona.  I’m not equating him with Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, but merely pointing out that the atrocities he committed and his eagerness for wars which have ultimately led to the undoing of Great Britain are not as well known. One can’t help but think people would be more inclined to recall them if he looked the part.

If you’re wondering why Americans struggle with getting over their adoration for Father Abraham, look no further. It is not the face of a man who trampled on the Constitution like no other president before him. It is not the look of a man who instigated a war that killed more Americans than any prior or ever since. One looks at him and sees the deeply-etched wrinkles of a humble, wearied man who has suffered greatly for a cause he holds dearly. His gaze is that which produces compassion and sympathy, not indignation.

Had he looked like Nixon, on the other hand, people would more readily admit to his crookedness, whereas Tricky Dick couldn’t fool anyone when he proclaimed, “I am not a crook.”

A sense of peace and serenity pervades this picture, even though Gengis Khan was a vicious conqueror and butcher of entire regions. Bloodthirsty and cruel as they come. Once more, the face does not fit the deeds. I bet you half of the population would confuse his picture with that of Confucius.

Then we get to Julius Caesar. No photos or realistic depictions of his face gives us a glimpse into his soul. Great orator and speaker. Also a cold-blooded (and brilliant) killer who conquered Gaul at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Gothic tribesmen. Today, he is known more for his fictional depiction in the form of a Shakespeare literary character than the carnage he wreaked on parts of Western Europe.

Any other leaders you can think of whom this theory might apply to? Post their photo down below and describe your response to their image.

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2 Responses to How A Political Leader’s Looks Help Determine How They’re Remembered

  1. D says:

    Che might be a good example. Would millions of T shirts of his likeness still be worn on college campuses around the world if he had looked like Hitler?


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