The Olfactory Test

Not all presidents have been subjected to the test of the five senses. Yet four of the five sensory tests to which political candidates, their candidates, their campaigns, or administrations have been subjected -- those of sight, hearing or sound taste, and touch -- have been applied to President Clinton and his administration. The fifth, that of smell, the olfactory one, has not yet been used.

The touch test usually is based on handshake techniques and general physical behavior. Estes Kefauver was judged to have a passive but not a weak handshake. President Johnson's technique was aggressive. It involved moving in close, invading the target's space, and then either by hand hold alone or with help from an elbow grasp, moving the person forward or backward. In less social meetings, in which Lyndon was trying to persuade someone to accept the President's point of view, he would lean over a shorter person, or if the quarry were taller than the President, move in close and come up from below, like a badger. The experience of this approach prompted Senator Edmund Muskie to say that he previously had never known why people had the hair in their nostrils clipped. President Clinton, it has been noted, is not so aggressive as was President Johnson. He does move in close, and then grasping his target's upper arms in firm hold, temporarily immobilizes the person, a kind of passive domination.

The sense of sight is obviously applied to decide whether the politician -- the president -- is looking well. Do his clothes fit well? Are they appropriate? Does he wear hat or cap? President Kennedy refused to wear a hat, to the dismay of Alex Rose, then president of the hat making union in New York. Eisenhower introduced the cap, at least for golf. George Bush was heavy into caps, but occasionally wore a hat. President Clinton obviously is a cap person; his haircuts and styles have received more attention than his headwear.

Through the years, the manner in which presidents and other office holders and politicians cry has been subject to careful observation. President Nixon cried, or seemed to cry, out of the inside corner of his eye or eyes, President Johnson, out of the outside corner. In the case of Senator Muskie in the New Hampshire primary of 1972, he seemed to cry out of the middle of his lower lid, a la Bette Davis. The senator denied crying, and what was reported badly was melting snow. Some politicians merely well up, or become misty eyed, without condensation. This seems to be the case with President Clinton.

The sense of taste is regularly applied in judging the eating habits of president and other office holders and candidates, especially in relation to ethnic food. President Ford was reported to have eaten tamales including the corn husks, and another presidential candidate is said to have eaten Louisiana shrimp shell and all. The test among Korean American constituents now is Kimshi, a fermented cabbage dish, rank and kind of an onion-leek; it is the ultimate test in West Virginia. President Clinton's addition to "junk food" has received more press attention than White House menus and culinary changes, quantity rather than quality having more significance for the press.

The sound test usually is applied to voice, but more particularly as more distinctive, to laughter. President Kennedy never went far beyond a silent smile. Presidents Eisenhower and Carter were judged to laugh well. President Bush's laugh never was quite right, too hearty, or too soon, or too late, or too long continued. The Clinton laugh is still to be defined although it has been noted that he sometimes opens his mouth, tentatively, as though about to laugh and then does not follow through.

The fifth sense, that of smell, is not so readily, regularly, nor directly applied in politics. The "odor of sanctity" has long been attributed to holy persons, as in the case of St. Teresa, "The Little Flower." In some cases, the odor is of roses; in others as noted by the poet, William Butler Yeats, that of violets. Football teams, anticipating playing in the Rose Bowl game, have been observed by sportswriters as "smelling the roses," as have horses anticipating running in the Kentucky Derby.

The earliest recorded application of the sense of smell in US politics goes back to John Randolph of Virginia who sometime in his political career (he died in 1833) said of a political opponent, Edward Livingston: "He's like a dead mackerel in the moonlight. He stinks and shines."

It is not unusual in presidential campaigns to have at least one report that he has sensed the "smell of death," for one candidate or another. There is no historical record of the reliability of the sense of smell as useful as a political indicator or standard for judging progress or failure. George McGovern, at the time he was nominated to be the Democratic Party candidate in Miami in 1972, reported that he had experienced "the sweet taste of victory." He did not mention any accompanying odor.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, among recent politicians, seems to have relied more on olfactory determinations than others. In February of 1980, speaking in New Hampshire in support of President Carter and himself, in the face of Senator Ted Kennedy's challenge to their renomination as the party's candidates, Walter was reported to have said, "I smell victory in this room." Again in 1984, in his own bid for the presidential nomination, after losing to Senator Gary Hart in a number of primaries in New England states, he was reported by the Washington Post as having said, "There seeped into my campaign and maybe into my mind a front runner inevitability, psychology, that the people smelled."

Distinctive odors or scents have not historically marked whole campaigns or administrations in recent decades. President Carter came close in his identifying a malaise as being present in the country during his administration, although he did not go so far as to identify any accompanying odor. No particular odor or scent has been identified as distinguishing the Clinton administration which may, like the gladiola, be without scent or perfume. The current campaign, too, seems to be odorless, although it is likely that an alpha odor or cologne may emerge in the general election.

Eugene J. McCarthy was a teacher and congressman before he became a Democratic-Farmer-Labor senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970. His latest book is No Fault Politics: Modern Presidents, The Press and Reformers (Times Books 1998).

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