To be comfortable in one’s skin sounds good in English but even better in French. Etre bien dans sa peau is somehow more ensconced in its own skin as a phrase than the English version, and conjures up one of those wonderfully weather-beaten but still good-looking senior French actors with gravelly voices and a devilish twinkle, such as Yves Montand in Garçon! or Montand’s wife Simone Signoret in Madame Rosa; characters who have lived and got through a mountain of Gauloises, uncountable lovers and bottles of good red wine.
Who would not want to be comfortable in his or her skin? Who would want to rub around uncomfortably in an epidermis either too loose or too tightly stretched? For politicians in our media-centric age, being comfortable in one’s skin is almost the Holy Grail. The televised debates that have become increasingly important in elections both in the US and the UK are, I guess, far more about which candidate can come across as comfortable in his or her skin, and issue well-meaning platitudes, than about nitty-gritty policy issues.
On those criteria I have a feeling that Mitt Romney may have left Barack Obama in the shade. Certainly, that is so if your definition of being comfortable in one’s skin has to do with rounded glossy cheeks, sleek hair and the flash of white teeth through a cheesy grin. Those were part of the formula of Ronald Reagan, who sometimes didn’t know which country he was speaking from but who bathed the American people in the warm glow of his confidence and optimism. Though politically far removed from Reagan, Bill Clinton also managed that rounded, glossy, grinning look.
Let’s take the rounded part first. Somehow being comfortable in one’s skin seems synonymous with a certain fleshiness, and is incompatible with excessive leanness. “Let me have men about me that are fat,/ Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights,” says Shakespeare’s Caesar: “yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,/ He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.”
David Cameron is not exactly fat but he is not lean either; his hair is sleek and his rounded pink cheeks have a healthy glow. One of the advantages the British prime minister has over his rivals, as his government is embroiled in what has become known as “omnishambles”, is that he still looks like a man who sleeps well, supremely comfortable in his skin. Among the many qualities he possesses, it has been reported that intellectual curiosity does not feature.
You would not say that about Obama. He is on the lean side and looks to me leaner and possibly less comfortable in his skin than when he first stood for election in 2008. He doesn’t do the sleek glossy thing as well as Romney, or Cameron, or Reagan – though he can certainly impart more historical and philosophical gravitas to a debate than any of those. But are rounded sleekness and limited intellectual curiosity the prime requisites of a candidate for high office? Mightn’t there be certain advantages in not being too comfortable in one’s skin?
Abraham Lincoln, whose actions in launching federal initiatives during the American civil war were invoked by Obama in one of the televised debates, didn’t look comfortable in his skin with his sunken eyes and his warty, craggy countenance. I doubt he could have been elected president in the media age, with looks comparable to those of the intellectually brilliant but gnome-like British Labour politician Robin Cook.
I suspect that Lincoln wasn’t the easiest of sleepers. There has been much speculation recently over his sexuality, exhaustively if erratically discussed in CA Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln does seem to have had notably warm and close relationships with a number of men, and rather more strained ones with women, including his wife. He often shared a bed with men, which was not uncommon at the time. But I suspect his greatest discomforts concerned the awesome responsibilities of fighting a civil war to preserve the founding principles of his country.
Another politician with deep-set eyes and pallid complexion, and possibly conflicted sexual desires, was William Ewart Gladstone. Queen Victoria famously complained that “he always addresses me as if I were a public meeting”, and infinitely preferred the charming Benjamin Disraeli. But Gladstone was the man of bigger intellectual and moral reach. Gladstone’s Two Letters to the Earl of Aberdeen, about political repression in Naples in 1851, are thought to have helped spark off the Risorgimento. His championing of limited home rule for Ireland was kiboshed by the House of Lords but might have avoided much blood-letting and bitterness.
President Obama’s discomfiture stems, in my view, from having serious thoughts and things to say about, for example, climate change – not mentioned at all in the televised debates – but being so constrained by political realities that he is frequently unable to articulate them. Even more important than being, or looking, comfortable in one’s skin, is being able to voice the courage of one’s convictions.
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