The Magazine

Miss America vs. Mr. Incumbent

Not your ordinary House primary race

Aug 12, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 45 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Once upon a time, the Miss America contest was a beauty pageant. Try calling it a “beauty pageant” today and the Miss America organization will congenially rap your knuckles. Yes, the aspirants compete in categories such as “swimsuit” and “evening gown,” but the organizers no longer view the event as a “pageant” of any sort. It is, as they constantly correct laypeople, a scholarship program.

This isn’t PC window dressing. Last year the Miss America Organization handed out $45 million worth of grants across the pageant’s various national, state, and local levels, making it one of the biggest scholarship programs in the country. Harold herself entered Miss America after being admitted to Harvard Law School and reckoning the mountain of student loan debt that was coming her way.

Once you understand how Miss America sees itself, it becomes easier to understand what kind of woman tends to be named Miss America.

The best inside account of Miss America is the book Hype and Glory (1990), by screenwriting legend William Goldman, who served as a judge of the 1989 pageant. As Goldman recounts, celebrity judges like him are given strict instructions on how to grade contestants:

Leonard Horn, the head of the pageant, spoke very clearly about what he wanted and what our job was. . . . [O]ur job was absolutely clear: give them ten girls, any one of whom could be Miss America. Not just a girl with some talent, who might or might not be attractive. But one who could serve as a role model for her generation. . . .

Then Karen Aarons, administrative officer of the pageant, spoke briefly. . . . What we were doing, she explained, was just this: we were interviewing someone for a job.

And what was that job?

Well, she would have to deal with her first press conference after the pageant. And another the following morning, Sunday. And then off to New York for television and more interviews on Monday.

That was the kind of year it would be.

Miss America busts her chops during her year. It’s been estimated that the prize brings close to $200,000 in all to the lady. But it’s earned. She works every other day, several times a day, personal appearances, public-relations work for the sponsors of the program, talking at schools, hospitals, on and on. She is always, always on. The day she isn’t pressing the flesh is spent mainly in traveling from one city to the next.

Goldman observes that what the pageant prizes most in a Miss America is poise, intelligence, charisma, and unflappability. He jokes that to the organization, the platonic ideal of Miss America isn’t Marilyn Monroe. It’s Jane Pauley. Because the requirements for the job of Miss America are essentially the same as those for a big-time morning TV news anchor.

This vision is why the dispositive part of the Miss America pageant is one the audience never sees: It’s the individual seven-minute interviews with the judging panel at the beginning of Miss America week. “The interview,” Goldman writes, “is everything.” Because in that period it becomes clear to the judges who fits the job. 

To show you how dead-on Goldman’s analysis was, based on the interviews alone, he narrowed the field from 53 down to 5 girls he believed could win. One of them did. The Miss America who emerged that year was a Stanford senior from Minnesota named Gretchen Carlson. You may know her today as the co-host of Fox News Channel’s morning show Fox & Friends—or, as some conservatives like to think of her, Jane Pauley with an extra 30 IQ points.

What didn’t occur to Goldman is that the same qualities that make for a good morning TV host can also make for a formidable retail politician. This insight, however, was not lost on Erika Harold.

In addition to the charisma and poise native to good politicians, Harold has exhibited the principled toughness of the best pols. And again, to appreciate this aspect of her character, you need only go back to Miss America. 

Harold competed three times for the Miss Illinois crown, which she finally won in 2003. Each time, she ran on a platform of abstinence. But one of the arcane traditions of Miss America is that while contestants choose their own platforms when competing for the state crown, it’s the state organization that decides what platform the winner will take to Atlantic City. The year Harold was named Miss Illinois, her state committee settled on a bland platform opposing “youth violence.” (Think of it as “world peace,” for the children.) Harold agreed to oppose youth violence. 

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