It is a seminal chapter in American political lore, 60 minutes during which the course of history hung on the difference of a few degrees Fahrenheit. It isn’t known with certainty how hot it was under the lights in the Chicago studio where, on Sept. 26, 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon faced off with Sen. John F. Kennedy in the first televised presidential debate. But whatever the temperature, it was enough to put a sheen on Nixon’s forehead — on which, in keeping with his misplaced sense of dignity, he had refused to allow makeup. The glisten of sweat, contrasting sharply with the cool, relaxed look of JFK, legendarily sealed Nixon’s fate and established an enduring lesson for successive generations of candidates: Those who control the thermostat control the future.
Which was why, in the run-up to another political debate last week involving another candidate coincidentally named Nixon — the actress Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary on Sept. 13 — the temperature of the auditorium at Hofstra University took on tremendous urgency for both sides. Campaigns wrestle over the time, place, format and furniture in a high-stakes electoral debate, and Cuomo is well-known for insisting that the venue for his public appearances be chilled to the serving temperature of a Sauvignon Blanc. The Times reported that one audience member wore a ski parka to his first State of the State address, which was held indoors. So it was no surprise that Nixon’s campaign preemptively put in a request for the hall to be kept at what she considers a comfortable 76 degrees, the average high temperature in San Diego in August. But what was a surprise, at least to me, was that her campaign adviser, Rebecca Katz, portrayed the thermostat setting as a gender issue. Work environments, she wrote to the television station that staged the debate, are “notoriously sexist when it comes to temperature, so we just want to make sure we’re all on the same page here.”
I am aware, of course, that people’s comfort zones vary widely, but I attributed this to individual rather than gender preferences. Just the other day, a colleague marveled at the fact that I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt in my office, which was at a temperature somewhere in the serving range of a red Zinfandel. I explained that owing to the tremendous number of calories I consume each day, I can tolerate any degree of cold. I added that the person sitting across from me was wearing shorts, and that anyone who is too cold can put on a sweater, but that people who are too warm can’t take off their shirts. That the remark came from a woman and the person in shorts was a man, I took to be nothing but coincidence. Is this really a question of gender politics? Is everything?
Checking my male privilege, I discovered that I have been inadvertently oppressing the female half of the population all my life with my metabolism. That is actually a scientific fact, according to a 2015 study (“Energy consumption in buildings and female thermal demand”) in the journal Nature Climate Change. The authors concluded that the model engineers use to calculate air-conditioning requirements — dating from the 1960s, and based on the average metabolic output of a 40-year-old man weighing 154 pounds — should be revised to reflect the fact that half the people in any given office today are likely to be women. That formula, they said, “may overestimate resting heat production of women by up to 35 percent.”
The point of the study was that we could save energy, and thereby reduce carbon emissions, by adjusting building temperatures. But some women, evidently including Nixon or her aides, have seized on those findings to justify what they have been saying for a long time: It’s too damn cold in here.
I have no reason to question the study’s assertion about the average resting metabolic rate of women versus men. But all sorts of other factors enter into the equation, as a brief glance at the comments on this article show. Body composition, for one: A woman of normal weight typically has more fat than a man. Fat is less metabolically active than muscle and pound for pound generates less internal heat, which may explain why women in general might prefer warmer surroundings. But consider that fat is also an insulator — nature’s fiberglass, you might say — so obesity inclines one toward a preference for lower temperatures. Americans are fatter in general than they were 50 years ago. Does that offset the fact that the workforce comprises many more women nowadays? Who knows?
Metabolism slows with age, so older people on average prefer a warmer environment, an observation that led to the invention of the cardigan. By 2030, 23 percent of the U.S. labor force is projected to be 55 and older, compared with 13 percent in 2000, according to this study. But then again, women in their 50s usually go through menopause, which may result in hot flashes. Engineers can’t account for everything.
Since Nixon is a television (and stage) actress, I checked with a friend who works in that industry, who confirmed that getting the temperature right on a sound stage can be a tricky matter. “The guys that move stuff around on the set are usually big burly guys who want it to be colder,” she told me, “but they have to turn off the air conditioning when they’re shooting a scene, because of the noise.”
She added the obvious point that actors are usually slender, including Nixon and the rest of the leads in “Sex and the City.” I imagine the sound stage on “The Sopranos” was probably downright frigid, but that’s neither here nor there.
In case you were wondering, the consensus of observers is that Nixon held her own against her much more experienced opponent, which ought to count as a moral victory. On the other hand, she failed to score the knockout blow she needed, which probably gives Cuomo, as the better-known incumbent, what amounts to a tactical win.
The temperature in the room was 69, according to a reporter who came equipped with a thermometer — much colder than Nixon’s campaign sought but warmer than Cuomo is known to prefer.
Of course, Cuomo is a prisoner of the convention that serious men in positions of authority must wear a suit and tie, even to march in a parade — the Gay Pride parade in New York City, for example, which takes place in late June, and where Nixon has been photographed in a T-shirt.
The forecast high for New York City on Tuesday is 93 degrees. My office is likely to be at least 20 degrees cooler — quite possibly more than that — and since I am not a public figure or running for office I will wear a short-sleeved shirt, open at the collar. To all my colleagues, of both genders, I say, feel free to bring a sweater.
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