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Shirley Leung

Charlie Baker’s height sets him apart

Charlie Baker knows he’s a towering presence, but a lot of people didn’t really notice until he got elected governor.

Chances are you haven’t gone toe-to-toe with someone of Baker’s 6-foot-6-inch stature, unless you play for the Celtics.

His height looms large after eight years of Deval Patrick, who at 5 foot 9 inches ranks pretty low in the standings of Massachusetts governors. In recent decades, only Michael Dukakis (5 foot 8 inches) and Jane Swift (5 foot 6 inches) are beneath him, while Republicans Bill Weld and Mitt Romney each stood over 6 feet.

Speaker of the House Bob DeLeo -- just under 5 foot 10 inches -- recently learned firsthand how life would be different under a taller administration. At Baker’s first press conference with legislative leaders at the State House, he deferred to DeLeo for opening remarks, telling him: “Mr. Speaker, this is your house … You’re the guy who starts this off.”

While Baker meant what he said, the microphone setting clearly indicated there was a new world order in place.


“The folks who apparently had set up the microphone and podium didn’t quite understand I would be first, because the microphone was six feet high,” DeLeo recounted.

That’s something everyone else will need to get used to, warns Boston lawyer Matt Henshon who served as Bill Bradley’s body man during his 2000 presidential bid.

Bradley’s advance team made sure the microphone and podium were properly set for the 6-foot-5-inch former New York Knicks player turned US senator. Henshon said speakers who go before or after the tallest guy in the room often spend some awkward moments fiddling with the microphone -- while the audience and media members watch.

And when it comes to photographs, Baker shouldn’t take it personally if other politicians don’t want to be in the same frame. Bradley, according to Henshon, likes to tell the story of how he went to the White House to meet Lyndon B. Johnson after bringing home the gold for the US basketball team in the 1964 Olympics.


But LBJ was being LBJ -- which meant he did not want to be upstaged. When it was Bradley’s turn to take a photo with the president, LBJ looked at him and said: “Move along.”

Henshon, who himself is 6 foot 5 inches tall and, like Bradley, was a college basketball star at Princeton, offers this advice to Baker: “Be yourself. You can’t run away from your height.”

Tall jokes hit a high point -- or low point, depending on who you ask -- when Baker appointed Jay Ash to oversee economic development and housing for the new administration. Ash, the city manager of Chelsea, is 6 foot 7 inches, and captained his high school and college basketball teams. Throw in attorney general-elect Maura Healey, a former captain of the Harvard basketball team and a pro point guard, and an all-star lineup starts to take shape. Perhaps this is the new Celtics team.

For days, we had to put up with Ash, a Democrat, cracking the same one-liner about joining the Republican’s team: “It’s great to be able to see eye to eye with someone.”

We all know life is good for tall people. Studies show they get paid more. That’s likely because they have more self esteem and confidence than shorter counterparts, and their height gives the perception of authority. In politics, winners grow bigger in our eyes, while losers shrink before us.


Voters like candidates with altitude because we prefer leaders with greater physical stature out of an evolutionary need for someone to protect us from the wild, said Gregg Murray, a political science professor at Texas Tech University, who has studied the subject. On the flip side, tall people tend to run for office because they think they’re more qualified to be a leader.

Murray found that the taller candidate has won the popular vote in about two-thirds of all US presidential elections. Of course, the most recent election between Barack Obama (6 foot 1 inch) and Romney (6 foot 2 inches) is one of the exceptions.

Baker reached his current height in 1976 when he was 20. He gets his tall genes from both sides of his family. His dad, Charlie, is 6 foot 3 inches, and his maternal grandfather, Ralph K. Ghormley, was 6 foot 4 inches.

“The best thing is that it’s distinguishing,” says Baker, “and that’s probably the worst thing, too.”

Being larger than life allows him to command a room. He’s easy to spot in a crowd. It’s an icebreaker.

The downsides? It’s hard to find clothes that fit. Parties can be no fun because it’s difficult to follow conversations, unless he leans against a wall and hunches down to get within earshot. It also can be painful -- Baker’s got a permanent scab on the top of his head from a lifetime of hitting light fixtures and door jambs.


On the campaign trail, he had to keep his hands and arms in check fearing he could be seen as unnecessarily aggressive, especially when in face-to-face debates with Martha Coakley, who is 5 foot 6 inches.

But the worst moments came during parades when he thrust himself into crowds to shake hands.

“I came very close to ... trampling small children who would be wandering out into the parade route,” says Baker. “I would say, ‘Oh, my God.’ Several times that translated into some pretty acrobatic spills, but I always managed to avoid hitting anybody.”

Tall is in on Beacon Hill. Get used to looking up.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.