I cross-posted my entry about Michelle Obama's outfits at IBA, which triggered off an interesting discussion that merits further elaboration here.
It is apparent, that Barack Obama has good taste (and either the daughters come after their father or he is the one who chooses their dresses, not sartorially-callenged Michelle). His outfit is impeccable and I went so far in the IBA comment section as to say that he appears to be, from his attitude, bearing, looks and poise, more of a gentleman than any other American president I remember in my lifetime. I later had to admit that I forgot Bush Father, who is in the same class.
Of course, and now the usual disclaimer is in order, my following assessment has nothing to do with the former presidents' politics, not even whether I like them or not. It isn't either, an assessment of those men's individual character, apart from the cases where it clearly influences the physiognomy. Some of those whom I do not consider gentlemen by looks may clearly be or have been, by their personalities. I hopes this clarification helps.
So here we go: The first American president during my lifetime, but whom I do not remember having ever seen on television (we got TV in 1956, if I remember correctly and I was hardly ever allowed to watch it), is Dwight D. Eisenhower. A gentleman? Not quite. To me he looks like the poster boy of a German non-commissioned officer of the old school.
John F. Kennedy? Too much teeth, too much of an upstart, but he was certainly not without "class".
Lyndon B. Johnson? Awmegawd! He is best described by three words: common, common and common.
Richard Nixon? Had "crook" and "horrible little man" written all over him.
Gerald Ford? Not quite. Maybe he is just "too American" for me to appreciate his appearance fairly. He resembles Eisenhower more than just a little bit, who, too, just falls short of being a gentleman in my book.
Jimmy Carter? The very epitome of a horrible little man.
Ronald Reagan? To me, he comes across as a nice man of working class origin. Not as an upstart like Kennedy, but like somebody who has worked (physically too) long and hard to acquire status and conducts himself dignifiedly, but no, not like a gentleman.
George H. W. Bush? He fits the bill. Nice, polished, well dressed and not too "aggressively American" for this European's liking.
Bill Clinton? Add a "dirty old" to the "horrible little man". Again, it's written all over his smug face.
George W. Bush? You must be joking! Not even the artist who painted his official portrait managed to quite wipe that moronic look off his face. I even don't totally dislike the man, but I haven't, not even once in eight years, seen a picture where he does NOT look like an idiot. Here is a roster of all American presidents together with their portraits.
Barack Obama? Yes, definitely. He is extraordinarily favoured by nature with his tall and slim physique and a pleasant mixture of his white and black genes, and, no doubt, he knows how to make the best of it.
After much soul-seeking, it seems that my European background influences my judgement considerably. There are certain social markers one can not understand if one hasn't been brought up within a culture. So, for explanatory purposes, there follow some European dignitaries, and I wonder whether Americans will agree:
Prince Charles? Yes, in an upper-class-twit-of-the-year-contest-winner sort of way. Prince Andrew? He has written "bully" all over his face and Prince Edward is painfully insignificant. So no and maybe.
Their father? Yes!
King Juan Carlos of Spain: Perfect, in and out of uniform:
To prove that is is not JUST a princely parentage that maketh a gentleman, here a picture of the Habsburg family, celebrating Archduke Otto's 95th birthday:
Otto would be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation or at least Emperor of Austria if the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation still existed or if Austria hadn't abolished the monarchy in 1919 and he and his family look like a bunch of trolls.
And to prove, reversely, that even a man from the humblest of origins can manage to look like a gentleman I introduce former chancellor Gerhard Schröder here.
And to finish on a nice, ghost-trainy notion, here we have Vladimir Putin and Nicholas Sarkozy:
If the term "horrible little man" wouldn't already exist, it ought to be invented for "Sarko". (Gosh, aren't those yobs BORN with a mobile phone glued to one of their ears?) Putin? Markedly better, weren't it for his choice of suits one size too small and the vulpine KGB-look on his face.
To summarize, a "good family" and education helps, as does dress-sense, a tall and slim physique and - even more - a clean-cut face and apparent intelligence. There are, however, clowns from old and "good" families, intelligent, good-looking men who do not, or not quite, make it, as there are well-dressed yobs. At the end of the day, I don't have an answer to my own question.
Oh yes, I'd like to add one thing: NEVER EVER have an obscene amount of hair if you want to look like a gentleman, specifically if you are past your first youth. Bill Clinton and John Kerry are excellent examples. My mother calls it "child molester hairdo", and although I am not quite sure what she means (neither does she), it seems to fit in an eerie, unexplainable sort of way.