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Foxed by Botox

A description of our Botoxed, tucked, lifted, and implanted times sounds Orwellian to me. Television has recently injected plastic surgery into popular culture as it never was before. To be sure actors, actresses and whatever one calls the hosts of reality TV shows have long been going under the knife, but "Extreme Makeovers", "Nip/Tuck" and the recently concluded "The Swan" placed the results of plastic surgery at the center of entertainment.

There has even been speculation about whether politicians such as the presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry have had Botox injections to smooth away his creases and wrinkles. If this spreads I suppose that campaign expert Paul Begala's observation that "politics is show business for ugly people" won't hold up for another generation, but I hope it will.

As a historian (and someone who can see the first signs of wrinkles early in the morning!) I see the growing willingness to spend treasure, develop technology, and endure pain in the ephemeral pursuit of youthful good looks or to achieve the current ideals of beauty as misguided. And it could make politics worse. Some Hollywood types have stated that expressionless masks are all the rage in the entertainment world. We don't need that fashion to become popular in Washington.

Politicians are encouraged to wear a mask enough as it is, let's not make that literal and demand that they also appeal to our fleeting sense of looks and further hide themselves from us.

Much is lost by turning to technology to make us prettier. It is good that Benjamin Franklin never had micrografting or a face lift. There is something arch and canny in the expression one sees in his portraits. Consider one of the most iconographic presidents in the history of the country, Abraham Lincoln. His wrinkles and lines are central to his image today. One wonders if there could be enough Botox in the world to have smoothed away the grooves and lines that thought, worry and literally the weight of the nation wore into him. Would we have those Botoxed away? Don't Lincoln's wrinkles mean something to us? I think they suggest his character to us: we interpret those wrinkles as signs of his care-worn life, his seriousness, his wisdom, intelligence, and integrity. It does not take a leap of imagination to think of individual creases directly resulting from his internal debate over emancipation, the thousands of men he called up to die, and the civil liberties he deliberately curtailed to suppress dissension. In short, the profound problems he faced trying to find the common ground between what was morally right and what, in a pragmatic American way, would work.

It is hardly news to point out that looks matter for politicians and pundits in the television age- Dwight Eisenhower may well be our last bald president - and I am not the first to suggest that we took a wrong turn when looks and style triumphed over substance in our politicians (though we had plenty of lousy politicians before TV). Still, politicians are encouraged to wear a mask enough as it is, let's not make that literal and demand that they also appeal to our fleeting sense of looks and further hide themselves from us. Orwell thought on this subject and we should heed him and not twist his words and his point into an advertising slogan. The final words in his notebook were "At 50, everyone has the face he deserves."

James Tuten is assistant provost and assistant professor of history at Juniata College.