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Michael Tomasky took a break from being Michael Tomasky and asked a fun question at Daily Beast: Will we ever again have a hirsute president? As he notes, we haven’t had one since William Howard Taft left office in 1913:
Why? Any theories out there? It could just be a coincidence of course. To begin with, not that many American males wear facial hair. Hard to get a handle on this, but here’s one article reporting that 10 to 20 percent of men grow the facial grass. So maybe it’s just that.
On the other hand, I think of senators, members of the House, governors…even among this group, almost nothing but razor-faces. Why? There must be something shifty looking about moustaches. It is true that villains often have moustaches, the very phrase “moustachioed villain” having entered the lexicon some years ago, with regard to…uh, Snidely Whiplash, or someone. (Actually, probably with the silent-film baddies on whom Whiplash was based; by the way, what a great name, Snidely Whiplash!)
As for beards, I suppose they must represent either slovinliness or some anti-establish bent. As luck would have it just last night I was watching the 1969 Dick van Dyke vehicle “Some Kind of Nut” on TCM last night, which is about a bank clerk who gets fired because he grows a beard. The hippies take up his cause and he sort of becomes one. Well, I’m not sure what happened. The movie–directed, incidentally, by Garson Kanin–wasn’t very good and I turned it off.
The last major party candidate to sport facial hair was Thomas Dewey whose mustache, some thought, either made him look sneaky or too closely resembled the style of Hitler, Stalin, and Hirohito. Reporters at the time pointed out that women did not like Dewey’s mustache. One tongue-in-cheek article pointed out that Jesse Jackson’s failed 1988 bid was due to the existence of his mustache, and others have argued that Nixon’s 5 o’clock shadow helped him lose the 1960 Presidential debate against JFK. Nixon also contemplated growing a beard in 1971, and this became a topic of discussion for a short time.
Being clean-shaven is the acceptable “uniform” for anybody who wants to be a fully-integrated member of political high society. Executives of all kinds are clean shaven too. Businessmen, lawyers, and members of the military sport this uniform which signals that they are willing to submit their autonomy to the organization. This is the rule, though there are exceptions. Whereas politicians of old might rise from the populist ranks, all today either rise up through a bureaucratic/corporatist setting or the electorate has become so accustomed to having politicians fit that mold that eligible candidates have to follow that hairless pattern.
It’s not that guys like Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, etc. wouldn’t have been elected if they’d have had facial hair, it’s that they wouldn’t have reached the top of their party if they’d have been the type of guys to wear facial hair. They came up through a giant gauntlet which just slapped away any thought of rebelliousness against their political donors, kingmakers, and political advisers. All feedback they received would have told them to fall straight into line, and shaving the face is as automatic as wearing a blue suit.
A couple of years ago at Mother Jones, Nick Bauman wrote about a battle over a Senate seat in Alaska between Republican Joe Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams – both of whom wore facial hair:
Christopher Oldstone-Moore, a history professor at Wright State University in Ohio who has been called the world’s foremost beard expert, has written an (as-yet unpublished) academic article about the role of facial hair in politics. (He’s working on a book, too.) I asked him to analyze McAdams’ and Miller’s facial hair choices. “In American culture, particularly, mustaches and beards have taken on a certain kind of meaning,” Oldstone-Moore says. “They represent a kind of masculinity that’s independent and autonomous. But it has negative connotations: lack of socialbility and cooperativeness and not being a team player. Those are stereotypes, but people react to stereotypes.”
Miller’s beard, in particular, spoke to Oldstone-Moore. He notes that Miller’s background included two fields, the military and law, that are especially hostile to facial hair. (That wasn’t always the case—mustaches were a military staple for hundreds of years.) After years of working in clean-shaven cultures, growing a beard—particularly one that is, as Oldstone-Moore says, “scruffy”—is a way of sending a message that Miller is “his own man.”
“It’s a tough guy beard—almost like [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s—an aggressive, tough guy beard,” Oldstone-Moore adds. “[Miller] is a tea party kind of guy and he’s appealing to a certain type of self-reliant masculinity.” While that might not fly in the Lower 48, it probably plays well in Alaska, Oldstone-Moore says: “Alaska is always the exception. It’s the place where people, particularly men, are going to want to assert the independent, self-reliant type of masculinity.”
An article from the October issue of Discover discusses sex ratio and mentions research by Nigel Barber who found, among other things, that the prevailing sex ratio impacts the likelihood that men will grow facial hair. A high sex ratio, a surplus of men = more facial hair. Barber’s research is based on research from Dwight E. Robinson who tracked the appearance of facial hair in pictures (drawings and photos) of British men from 1842 to 1972. This association could be Drumian, but it is interesting nonetheless (the images might not be a complete representation of British men, but it probably captures the images accepted in “polite society” which is from whence politicians mostly come).
Robinson noted that cleanshaveness increased rapidly from 1915 to 1922. This was a tumultuous time for Great Britain, of course, and it was also amid the great progressive era. By 1905, Gillette had started selling its safety razors en masse, and the progressive Clean Living movement had taken hold. This was a vestige of the Victorian Era and mixed with other temperance movements. It also mapped first wave feminism and basically attempted to close the gap between traditional masculine antics and feminine behavior, mostly by bringing men into line. Prohibition, crusades against prostitution and sexually transmitted disease – if facial hair wasn’t a direct enemy of progressives here it is safe to say that it would have suffered collateral damage.
After Al Gore sprouted some lettuce in 2001, Slate addressed hairy politicians:
Since then shaving has been the norm in most Western societies. Why? Anthropologist Desmond Morris thinks that shaving brings three advantages: 1) It makes you look younger (babies are smooth faced); 2) it makes you look friendlier (it’s easier to read your expressions and see your smile); and 3) it makes you appear cleaner (this is of dubious medical value). Because beards are a gender signal and exaggerate the male’s jutting chin, “the removal of [them] on a voluntary and regular basis must indicate a desire on the part of men to damp down their primeval assertiveness,” Morris writes. (Click to learn why beards may have evolved.)
This desire to appear less assertive may not stem entirely from social pressure. Recent psychological studies suggest that women find male faces most attractive when they are masculine-looking but not hypermasculine; women look for dominant males, but ones who are still friendly enough to invest in their offspring—and they tend to see those traits in clean-shaven faces. Perhaps this is why the wife or girlfriend of a closeted gay man is often called a “beard”—she simultaneously advertises the man’s masculinity and promotes his deceit.
That would fit the pattern documented by Robinson. My quick theory is that beards became popular in American politics with the rise of the photograph. The martial spirit and Manifest Destiny fit a popular desire for overtly masculine leaders. Bearded politicians and generals became the norm. But that was when only men voted. After women gained the vote, these preferences flipped. The electorate wanted candidates that were leaders but that weren’t hypermasculine – “dangerous” or “mean” or not trustworthy.
Basically, this isn’t a story about the beard, it’s a story about how our society has interpreted the signal that the beard sends. And the signals emitted from the collective beard also change as beard norms change.