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10.28.08

The Heat Quotient

How Obama and Palin redefined political sex appeal.

There was a photograph in The Times Sunday that showed a rumpled David Axelrod slouched wearily in a chair wearing an old green sweater—with Barack Obama perched in the background, checking the display of his PDA. The room reeked of the pizza box weariness of a campaign in its last days—except for the candidate. For the millionth time the picture served to show how mesmerizingly crisp Obama always looks.

I can’t say if those hand-pressed looking shirts are made of the finest Egyptian cotton or not—maybe they're from Costco—but the point is they suggest it. The simplicity of Obama’s lean, monochrome suits and solid blue ties makes every other pol appear porky and plebeian, old school glad-handers in oversize watches. It’s not just the clothes, of course. It’s the wearer—his carriage, the loping grace of his walk to the stage.

Palin is more likely to trade in Todd than give up her new A-list look for long. She fought too hard for it.

It’s also that the way he’s put together works simultaneously south of the Mason-Dixon line and south of 14th Street. When Obama works a rope line to most people he just looks neatly dressed. But to others he looks as stylishly minimalist as one of those Meatpacking District boutiques where a few shirts are piled artfully on otherwise empty shelves. It’s a little like the Republicans’ dog-whistle rhetoric, in which routine-sounding words like “worldview” and “wonder-working” convey a special, coded meaning to Christian conservatives. Obama's look conveys the message of a new world order to the young.

It must be hell for John McCain and Bill Clinton, both alpha males who were always the sexiest guys in the room and have now been outpaced by this new kind of charisma. McCain was a heartthrob when he came back from Vietnam, with his hell-raiser smile and hair turned fetchingly white. One sentence of his backstory and the job was done: he had you at “my plane got shot down.” On the Straight Talk Express he was still an irresistible charmer. And Bill? Well, I’ve been in rooms when every woman he passed in the line was left with a deep burning blush of surprised conquest.

Hence the rage on both Clinton and McCain’s parts. McCain hates being deprived of his flyboy glamour as much as he hates being bested by a cool political novice who hasn’t paid his dues. He wasn’t looking old until Obama came on the scene. He was craggy, he was devil-may-care. He could still get the girls. As for Bill Clinton, Joe Klein’s biography was rightly titled The Natural. Bill always knew there was one phrase set aside for him in political retrospectives. The words “preternaturally gifted” belonged only to him. Until now. And that doesn't even take in the galling fact that the younger man stole his wife's exceptionalism. Obama's glamour didn't just eclipse Bill it made the first serious woman running for president look passé too.

What's interesting is the androgynous quality of the Obama appeal. He’s almost like an avatar sent out dressed as himself to turn red states into blue. There are no “jumpers” at his rallies like the girls who jumped up and down at Kennedy rallies in the sixties. It’s significant that the Obama girl who lipsynched about "having a crush on Obama" in the YouTube clip during the primaries was immediately assumed to be a viral Internet plant. Obama is too contained to have the kind of sex appeal we are used to in public men whose drive to seduce sometimes becomes literal when it comes to the opposite sex.

Sarah Palin is now almost as large a celebrity as Obama but her appeal is as tactile as Obama’s is abstract, as Dionysian as his is Apollonian. She is genuinely gorgeous, with that thick, cascading soap opera hair, generous mouth, and beauty pageant legs. (If the Republicans really wanted Joe the Plumber’s vote, they should have blown some of that 150 grand at Victoria’s Secret.) The notion that after the campaign they’ll make her give the new wardrobe back, by the way, is palpably ridiculous. Don’t we want Sarah Palin to look hot?

Besides, no woman who has worn a $2,500 dollar silk Valentino jacket is ever going to return to wearing bargains from Out of the Closet, or desert the glossy standards of the new hairdresser who travels on the campaign plane for the Beehive in Wasilla. Palin may fish out a few old outfits for spin control to show she’s still real on the trail but she is more likely to trade in Todd than give up her new A-list look for long. She fought too hard for it. Her raw, striving quality is one of the qualities that makes her so compelling to watch. Are we now surprised that she's campaigning for her future rather than the ticket?

She’s tasted the big time now. Go, Sarah! Obama versus Palin in 2012 sounds like a pretty incendiary reality show. The two stars from the same generation have redefined charisma and sex appeal for the multimedia age. Meanwhile, when the governor of Alaska returns to Anchorage after the election she is going to be about as content with her old life as Madame Bovary in Yonville. That’s the movie I really want to see.