“Shorty” “Pootie Poot” “Li’l Mike”
These may sound like schoolyard taunts against the smallest, weakest kids in class, but today, they are appellations that inspire fear and awe among even the most powerful figures in American life. Those shrimps you once mocked? They now rule the world.
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Elena Kagan, President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, dubbed “Shorty” by her mentor Thurgood Marshall, is the latest triumph in the upward march of the vertically challenged. If confirmed, she will join a legion of fellow shorties who have come to dominate government in the last few years, from Rahm “Rahmbo” Emanuel—whose height is estimated to be around 5’7”— to petite Nancy Pelosi to itty bitty Barbara “Ali” Boxer, the 4’11” firebrand senator from California, who carts around her own “Boxer Box” to stand on while making speeches.
Conventional wisdom (and plenty of science) holds that politics favors the tall. The president himself is 6’1” and, with the exception of George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, the shorter candidate has lost every presidential election of the modern era. But look down the ranks of the Obama administration and you’ll have to look way down: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stands around 5’5". Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are also on the petite end of things. Perhaps the smallest of the bunch is presidential economic advisor Robert Reich at 4’10.5”.
“Heads of state usually select very large men as their bodymen, for obvious reasons” says Zach Kanin, author of The Short Book: Tall Stories, Freakish Facts and the Long and Short of Being Small in a Great Big World. “One of the reasons Napoleon—who was average height for a Frenchman of his day—is remembered as short, is because he surrounded himself with tall guards. However, being dwarfed by huge guys all the time makes leaders nervous and insecure, so they choose advisors who are smaller than themselves.”
It’s not just the executive branch that hangs low. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is just north of five feet tall.
Obama has done this with methodical precision, assembling his cabinet as if he were forming a team of gymnasts. But it’s not just the executive branch that hangs low. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is just north of five feet tall. On the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas comes in at 5’8.5” by his own estimation, Antonin Scalia is 5’7”, and at barely five-feet-tall, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to sit on a cushion to reach the microphone at her confirmation hearings.
Short candidates have typically been marginalized in American political life—Michael Dukakis, Ross Perot, Dennis Kucinich, and many, many others have suffered jibes for their height—but in the rest of the world, shorter politicians thrive. French president Nicholas Sarkozy is 5’6.5”. Former Russian president Vladimir Putin--nicknamed “Pootie Poot” by 5’11.5” George W. Bush--stood at 5’7.5”, and his successor, Dmitri Medvedev, is a mere 5’5”. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is believed to be around the same height as Elena Kagan, but he rarely steps out without lifts in his shoes.
In the sweep of human history, height has often been indirectly proportional to cruelty in leaders. Francisco Franco was 5’4”, Joseph Stalin 5’5”, Benito Mussolini, 5’6”, and Adolf Hitler 5’8”—line them up and it’s like a xylophone of tyranny. For the common man, the effects are reversed—studies show shorter men fare worse romantically, consider themselves less happy, and earn less, on average, than their taller peers. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average height for an American man is 5’10” and for a woman it’s 5’4”.
“It is true that taller people on average earn more,” says Angus Deaton, a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Government. Deaton, who is 6’4”, co-authored a recent study that found short people are, on average, likelier to identify themselves as having a range of negative feelings, including sadness and physical pain. “The ‘on average’ is the important thing,” he says, “because there are lots of people, at any given height, who do very well—there are lots of short people who have great success, like Elena Kagan, or Napoleon for that matter.”
Or Michael Bloomberg, nicknamed “Li’l Mike” (and worse), the billionaire founder of Bloomberg LLP and now in his third term as mayor of New York City. Estimates have Bloomberg at around 5’6”—although his driver’s license lists him as 5’10”. Traditionally, media and business have been more hospitable to the politically minded, welcoming George Stephanopoulos, Anderson Cooper, Steve Schwarzman, Lloyd Blankfein and many others.
Height-wise, the legal world in general is quite diverse, particularly the Supreme Court. “O’Connor and Sotomayor are pretty tall,” says Jeffrey Toobin, legal analyst for The New Yorker and CNN and author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. “Ginsburg is short. Kennedy is tall; Scalia is short. The rest of them are fairly average. Go figure.” It’s anyone’s guess how Kagan would influence the other jurists politically, but, if confirmed, she would certainly swing the court decisively closer to the ground.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.