Henry Kissinger was looking into my eyes as he talked about AI and the future of US-China relations. I had no choice: I nodded thoughtfully and kept my gaze on him, ignoring my salad.
He was talking directly across the table to me for a simple reason: he couldn’t see anyone else. The room was dim, and the dining table was crowded with flower arrangements. He needed an audience, and I was it.
I confess: I practiced the kind of vivacious listening that women through the ages have done. It would have been rude to do otherwise, I thought, even though it was nonsensical to have him talking about AI. He was an old man – 95 at that point – and had been enticed to dinner in order to entertain a bunch of billionaires. (I wondered where his bodyguards were until I heard that he lived in the same building.) Perhaps I was too polite, again. I had once seen Kissinger, with his bodyguards, moving across a crowded reception room in New York, nodding to people and shaking hands. As they passed, he thrust his hand out to me. I hesitated, remembering the colleague who’d muttered “war criminal” when we were listening to him speak on an earlier occasion. “Not my fight, not now,” I thought, and took his hand.
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I thought about that New York dinner party when I read last month that Kissinger had died. At that time I was reviewing a chapter on “The Strongman Problem” I’d commissioned for a new edition of our Women & Leadership, and it led me to my shelves for a book called Power: The Ultimate Aphrodisiac by Dr Ruth Westheimer, the celebrity sex therapist¹. Neither Kissinger or his boss Richard Nixon fits our current “strongman” profile precisely, but they were both very much concerned about power.
. . . [Kissinger] was often found in the company of beautiful women. Asked to explain the unlikely pairing of a portly middle-aged diplomat with heavily accented English and starlets such as Jill St. John and Marlo Thomas, Kissinger quipped, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”²
That was in the early 1970s when he was often in the news, a divorced secretary of state who clearly realized that dating beautiful, desirable women enhanced his status as well as public perception of his personal power. From all accounts, he was not a swinger at all and was ready at a moment’s notice to dash off to the White House. In fact, he married again in 1974 and stayed married till his death.
Heads of state used to be able to signal their potency in ways no longer acceptable. Harems and mistresses were important symbols of power and wealth. But conspicuous polygamy doesn’t play well these days. I have, however, wondered if that seemingly universal way of demonstrating male status explains why certain “strongman” type leaders get away with personal lives that are otherwise out of step with current political conventions. Does having many ex-wives and girlfriends and even facing accusations of sexual harassment signal political strength and power to some voters, including evangelical Christians?
Trophy wives, writes Dr Ruth, “have become particularly noticeable among senior businessmen . . . often seen as a confirmation of the man’s potency in all senses of the word.” But political leaders have a different script. Current conventions require them to be married and faithful with a devoted spouse at their side. If they also want to be populist strongmen, they need other ways to display primal strength and potency.
Cut, coiffure, barnet, or do
My hypothesis is that it’s all about the hair, and not just because wild hair is visually striking. Hair has symbolic value. There’s an Old Testament story about a warrior named Samson who is helpless after his lover cuts off his long hair, the source of his strength. (He gets revenge when it grows back.)
Wild hair has primal, visceral appeal: it seems to signal “king of the jungle” to a lot of human beings. Populist far-right leaders are increasingly adept at this kind of primal signaling.³
In China, it’s not the cut but the color that does the signaling. Chinese officials have been dying their hair for years, to a uniform shoe-polish black. White or gray hair would mean a loss of vigor and potency: perhaps suitable for a scholar or spiritual leader but not for someone in wielding political power. Admittedly, in recent years there have been a few silver streaks in President Xi’s coiffure – perhaps a nod to international conventions.
It’s also possible that Xi’s gray streaks are a signal to the outside world, where grayness is associated not so much with loss of vigour and energy as with wisdom, experience and restraint. When China is trying to rival America in global influence, Xi appearing in gray-streaked hair is understandable if you consider US President Joe Biden’s totally white hair.⁴
China scholar Daniel Bell writes in The Dean of Shandong about the absolute conformity about hair color amongst his colleagues at a Chinese university, and told this story:
Former Chinese president Hu Jintao was perhaps the most boring leader in modern times. His only recorded joke came when he was visiting the U.S. in 2007. The then-governor of New Jersey, James McGreevey, told Mr. Hu—whose hair was jet-black—that he did not look his 59 years. Mr. Hu replied: “China would be happy to share its technology in this area.”
Why does this matter?
Thoughtful, knowledgeable candidates who weigh issues and believe in democracy, multilateralism, and global cooperation don’t always make people feel safe. We may want freedom and opportunity but we also don’t like what we’re hearing about climate tipping points and AI, not to mention war and wildfires.
It’s not rational, no, to turn to far-right, illiberal, authoritarian types. They are dangerous, and they are generally incompetent because they are narcissists, fanatics, or worse. The chapter on “The Strongman Problem” in Women and Leadership goes into the research about the psychological characteristics of these people (mostly but not all men), and it isn’t pretty.
But that may not be the point. If they are able to trigger enough voters’ primal safety and comfort sensors, we may all be stuck with them, at least now and then. And that is immensely dangerous. “Make America Great Again” is harking to an imagined past while we are hurtling into the future.
There’s been a lot written of late about how voters as a whole think the US economy is bad and the future gloomy, even while the numbers say otherwise. This is, to my mind, evidence of the argument I’m making: people are deeply apprehensive about the big issues we face, even if they are doing just fine in the present. Buying boats and big cars may be a way to “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” I’m not suggesting that democratic leaders turn out with untamed hair or start stomping and shouting. But they – and this includes anyone with influence – need to be more concerned with voters’ anxieties about the future and the pace of change, and respond to anxieties in tangible ways.
PS: Speaking of visual signaling, how about the over-sized eyeglasses we’ve been seeing of late? There’s lying congressman George Santos, mild-mannered but ultra-conservative Speaker Mike Johnson, and equivocating Harvard president Claudine Gay. Is there a common denominator?