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The True Measure of a Man
Robert Reich Rises Above the Height Issue in His Run for Governor

Robert Reich Gubernatorial candidate Robert Reich greets voters in Milford, Mass. The former Clinton administration labor secretary is no long shot for the Democratic nomination, running about even with the Massachusetts treasurer and Senate president. (C.J. Gunther - For The Washington Post)


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By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 14, 2002; Page C01

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.

There is, right off, the issue of the candidate's height.

Robert Reich is eating his oatmeal and his shoes don't touch the kitchen floor. His tie hangs an inch and a half beneath his belt buckle, or just above his knees. His two sons were taller than he is by the time they were 10.

Reich, 55, is running for governor of Massachusetts. He is 4 feet 10 1/2.

Should we feel guilt in noting this, to harp on this most shallow aspect of a substantial man? Reich -- former labor secretary, author of eight books, professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University -- has long suffered for his height: When he was a first-grader in Upstate New York, third-grade bullies would dunk his head into the boys'-room toilet. It prepared Reich for a life in politics, a cesspool of heightism.

While candidates must appeal to the little people to get votes, it's called "higher office" for a reason -- the taller pol has won 21 of the past 25 presidential elections. Thomas Dewey (5 feet 8) was dubbed "the little man on a wedding cake," Michael Dukakis (5 feet 8) a "dwarf." Only four U.S. presidents have been under 5-6. Washington Irving dismissed the shortest president -- 5-4 James Madison -- as "a withered little apple-john." Madison often wore a hat to make himself look taller.

Now comes Reich, turning the notion of political stature on its head. His campaign has determined that Reich's height can be a vehicle for attention and, in some ways, distinction. So far, it's working, with Reich drawing big crowds and good poll numbers.

"The classic assumption with people who are short is that they're compensating, particularly if they do anything that is even slightly ambitious," says Reich. The prototype is Napoleon, he of the little man's complex. But the list of short and embattled leaders is long, from Hun (Attila The, about 5 feet) to Perot (Ross, 5-5).

"Now, who knows?" Reich says, continuing on the theme of whether short people compensate behaviorally for their stature. "At some psychological level that might be absolutely right. But I don't know where that gets you."

If nothing else, it gets him laughs. "When I started in Washington I was 6 foot 2," he tells a group of voters in Milford. "It wore me down."

"I'm used to taking on giants," he says to a group in Salem. "To me everyone is a giant."

"They told me to be short," he says at a speech in Peabody.

Reich is hardly the first pol to win affability points from a perceived shortcoming.

George W. Bush tells jokes about his malapropisms, Al Gore about his stiffness. But Reich's height is a hoo-baby feature, and he is well accustomed to double takes. He leads with a height-related statement for recognition and finesse. (Message: "I'm short, I know I'm short, now listen up!") "I feel I need to say something that makes it okay for people to notice that I'm short," Reich says in his deep, NPR-ready voice.

He is not a dwarf. A dwarf is someone whose adult height is 4-10 or less as the result of a medical or genetic condition, according to the Little People of America, a nonprofit group that supports people with short stature. Reich was born with Fairbanks disease, a rare congenital disorder that can stunt growth. Reich's chief Fairbanks-related complication was a bone problem that led to double hip-replacement surgery in 1992.

He speaks of his artificial hips on the campaign trail. They illustrate, of all things, the advent of globalization. They were designed in France and made in Germany, and the surgery was performed in Boston. "I have French designer hips," Reich exclaims to a roomful of high-tech workers in Peabody.

Reich's extreme shortness can work to his advantage, his strategists suggest. "When people see Bob, they see a man who has overcome obstacles," says campaign consultant Michael Goldman. "They wonder if he got a date to the prom, if he was ever picked for basketball in gym class." (Reich did attend his senior prom, and was always picked last for basketball.) Reich "might be a familiar name," Goldman continues. "But he makes a convincing outsider, largely because of the stature issue."

Reich is trying to position himself in contrast to the four Democratic "insiders" who are running in the Sept. 17 primary. Reich strives for a vintage of short identity that is tough but not dog-nippy, self-deprecating but dignified, feisty but not pugilistic.

Secretary Reich could almost live in there.

-- President Clinton,

upon seeing a Lego model

of the White House

Beneath its sugary veneer, politics is the art of civil intimidation. The image of LBJ towering over a hapless senator -- craning his neck down, asserting his supremacy -- is "the bare essence of power and authority," said Jeff Smith, a political science lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis, who wrote speeches for the shortest male current U.S. senator (Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., 5-5) and worked for the tallest presidential candidate in recent memory (Bill Bradley, 6-5).

Research on stature shows inevitable advantage for the vertically gifted, says Henry Biller, co-author of "Stature and Stigma: The Biopsychosocial Development of Short Males." A 1980 study of Fortune 500 CEOs revealed that more than half were taller than six feet, and just 3 percent were shorter than 5-7. Other surveys show that taller people tend to be richer, more likely to be hired and more attractive to prospective mates. In one academic study, just two of 79 women said they would date a man shorter than they were.

There have been popular short pols, usually give-em-hell feisty types: Mayors Fiorello La Guardia and Richard Daley, Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman, among others. Dwarfs have been elected mayor of Glassboro, N.J., and to the city council of Houston, among other places.

"It has made me more recognizable and made me more of an underdog," says Tony Soares, the 4-feet-2 city council president of Hoboken, N.J., who has become something of national spokesman against height-related injustice. In 1999, for instance, he spoke out against the "barbaric" practice of a Mexican restaurant in Milwaukee that employed a dwarf to serve nachos from atop his sombrero.

If elected, Reich would be the shortest governor in the nation, perhaps the shortest governor in U.S. history, although no records of exact measurements exist. By early indicators, Reich has a strong shot. He was preferred by 21 percent of respondents in a recent Mass Insight poll, about even with state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien and Senate President Thomas Birmingham, who each received 20 percent. (The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 7 percent.) Republican Mitt Romney, the chief organizer for the Salt Lake City Olympics, says he is also considering a run.

In last month's Democratic caucuses, Reich, who had been in the race for all of a month, surprised pundits and party activists by securing more than 550 delegates to the state party convention in June, according to his staff. That's almost enough delegates to guarantee a spot on the September primary ballot.

His Clinton association has been a cash boon. Barbra Streisand and Warren Beatty hosted a Hollywood fundraiser for Reich last month. He has added a dash of star quality to a ho-hum campaign, with a field of veteran Democratic legislators and a weak Republican incumbent, Jane Swift.

"The funny thing is," says Jon Keller, a political analyst for Boston's WLVI-TV, "here's this midget and he's adding stature to the field." (The term "midget" is considered highly offensive, says Cara Egan, spokeswoman for the Little People of America.)

This is Reich's first run for elected office after a career in government and academia. He attended Dartmouth, Oxford and Yale Law School (with Clinton and Hillary Rodham). After graduating, Reich clerked for a federal judge and then went to work for his former law school professor Robert H. Bork, who was then U.S. solicitor general in the Ford administration.

Reich is running as an avid lefty in what might be the country's most liberal state. "I am a feminist," he declares on the stump, and he has been a vocal opponent of the death penalty as well as a proponent of public funding for education that includes two years of college. "Yes, I said K-14, not K-12," he says.

It also helps that Clinton remains hugely popular here, even if Reich is apparently no longer popular with Clinton. Reich calls his relationship with the former president "cordial." They speak every once in a while, Reich says, including a conversation late last year in which Reich told the Boston Globe that Clinton "was encouraging" about his run for governor. This rankled Steve Grossman, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, a close friend of Clinton and one of Reich's rivals for the gubernatorial nomination.

Clinton was not happy, either. "In so far as the article stated that I encouraged Bob Reich to run or supported his candidacy, it is not correct," Clinton said in a statement to the Globe after Reich's quote appeared. Clinton yesterday appeared with Grossman in the city of Somerville and said that Grossman always supported his policies when he was in office and Reich did not. Clinton did not endorse Grossman, however, and said he would support whichever Democrat wins the September primary. Clinton would not comment further on the race, says his spokeswoman Julia Payne.

Reich's strained relationship with his former boss stems in part from "Locked in the Cabinet," Reich's book about his tenure as labor secretary in which Clinton is portrayed as having abandoned his progressive stands in favor of "centrist incrementalism." The book was controversial, for both its score-settling and its inaccuracies, the latter of which some critics have ascribed to Reich's bent for self-aggrandizement. Former AFL-CIO head Lane Kirkland, one of the book's aggrieved subjects, called the book Reich's "novel." Reich, for his part, blames the book's errors on his "faulty memory." He made corrections for the paperback edition, he says.

Reich says he's sick of discussing Clinton. He says he has moved on and is now fully engaged in his first run for elective office. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks depressed him deeply, he says, and spurred a life's reevaluation that led him to consider running for governor of the state where he's lived off and on for 21 years.

The job was once held by Michael S. Dukakis, whose 1988 presidential campaign proved that being of nearly average size -- 5-8 -- is no guard against diminished political standing. "No one called him short until he ran for president," says Michael Goldman, Reich's campaign consultant, who once worked for Dukakis.

Dukakis broke several rules of campaign height management, including the cardinal one of how to pick a running rate ("Thou shalt not pick someone much taller") when he tapped 6-2 Lloyd Bentsen. After the infamous photo op of Dukakis emerging from a tank like a toddler peering up from a playhouse, he seemed about 3 feet 4.

In politics, Reich has learned that stature is as much a notion of perception as a physical condition. This is especially true in a campaign, which he calls "a bizarre experience" and "an anthropological dig." He is logging long days, sleeping about five or six hours a night -- he needs seven or eight -- and has lost 10 pounds since he began his campaign. He now weighs 116 pounds, and fears that by election day he will disappear.

He is learning the essential on-message robotics of campaigning, getting accustomed to saying the same thing several times a day. But he is also prone to impolitic bouts of candor. As Reich's car pulls into a local-access cable studio in Salem, this reporter asks him what he would dread most if he became governor. "Local-access cable," he says, smirking. Goldman goes bug-eyed in the back seat and coughs slightly. The car is silent.

"Was that a serious question?" Reich asks.

Yes. Was that a serious answer?

Silence.

"I guess I should say no," Reich says in a pale attempt at recovery.

Following his cable interview, Reich is joined on the set by a small group of schoolchildren, including a 12-year-old girl who marvels that she is taller than Reich.

Reich then strolls through the studio lobby on his way out, shaking hands while an aide distributes "Do the Reich Thing" buttons. The receptionist invites Reich to return to Salem if he gets elected governor. He says that he will, shortly.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company