White House Whiskers: A Discussion of Facial Hair in American Politics

By A.M. Settineri.

Of the forty-four presidents of the United States of America, only five had beards. Additionally, five sported mustaches. The first president with facial hair beyond a sideburn was Abraham Lincoln, in office from 1861-1865 likely thanks to his beard, which he famously grew during the campaign at the request of eleven year old Grace Bedell. William Howard Taft ended the era of presidential whiskers when he and his mustache left the White House in 1913. Charles Evans Hughes was the last bearded candidate from a major party, and he lost the Republican bid in 1916. This means that, despite unwavering popularity among rednecks, lumberjacks, beatniks, and hipsters, facial fur has not graced a presidential portrait in a hundred years. Why? While the other bewhiskered chiefs of state may have been unremarkable during their tenures, certainly one would think that Lincoln, almost universally regarded as one of the greatest heads of any nation, would have influenced other budding politicians to cultivate their chin sweaters. Does today’s society not take the beard seriously? The lack of a mustache is understandable since, while worn without ulterior motive by the older generation of Americans, most people regard such a lip guard as an ironic accessory, some kind of post-’70s commentary on that last great mustachioed era. But the beard. Waving aside the overgrown ego beards of young guys in suspenders, or the shaggy salt and pepper of people whose beards are synonymous with un-electable conservative social views, the beard, when well-maintained and modest, is a respectful appendage to a man’s identity. The beard invokes images of the frontier, of American ingenuity, integrity, of toughness. Could that be the issue? Are these associations too far in our past, overshadowed by the abundance of images of the Duck Dynasty guys, or the Taliban, their presence in the media poisoning our minds with what a beard is, or should be?

One could maintain that presidential candidates in the past hundred years have simply been folks whose natural inclination was toward a smooth face. While that seems a plausible explanation for the first half of the century, a time when businessmen generally were of the ilk that to be professional one must be particular of his appearance, I maintain that this is not the reason so much today. In the second half of the 20th century, and especially this part of the 21st, media has played such an important role in culture that it has become a reality hyperbolized in the context of public office. Social media has made a particular impact on this reality, with so much information being regarded by so many people, we have unconsciously encouraged our instinct to judge the book by the cover. A sketch from the television show Portlandia satirized this tendency by having two people engage in a round of one-upsmanship, each asking if the other has read a particular article or blog post, when clearly both have only read the headlines. This tendency to draw emotional-based conclusions from titles, captions, or prominent photos plays heavily into the culture of poll-based research which defines very often what a politician says, how a politician acts, and what a politician looks like. Yet presidents and presidential candidates continually say moronic or uneducated things, or get photographed in compromising or silly positions, making them fodder for political commentators, bloggers, and the headline-only reading populace who use such missteps to reinforce pre-existing beliefs which no amount of legislation or research will likely change. The consistent lack of a beard in modern presidents, or the abundance of ties with “power” colors leads to the obvious conclusion that, since no one can control what another person may say or do in an emotional or spontaneous situation, and since a person’s appearance is not subject to these emotions or spontaneity, advisors and campaign managers plant their feet when it comes to how their candidates look. With those feet firmly planted, then, what could be their reasons for the padlock on beards?

According to campaign consultant Jeff Jacobs, “…most of the last 15 years of politics have been about change, and a wizened graybeard doesn’t really convey change.” The Slate.com article I’m pulling that quote from also cites Jacobs as saying that bearded politicians nowadays are associated with despair following defeat, with politicians who go from smooth-faced candidate to furry failure, referencing Al Gore after his loss to Bush in 2000.

Prior to these recent associations with the beard, the aversion lay in the beard’s association with hippies and communists. In the fifties and sixties, the counterculture, anti-Vietnam demographic were linked both physically and ideologically with people like Josef Stalin (mustache), Ché Guevara (mustache), and most especially, Fidel Castro (beard. duh.)

While those associations may not be as conscious today as they were in the mid-20th century, there is a good chance that many of the Americans who actually vote (i.e., older Americans) still make those connections subconsciously. Perhaps the new villains of the world, the Taliban, with their strict and perhaps inaccurate interpretation of Sharia Law, declaring that men must wear at least a fist-sized beard, have come to haunt the subconscious of American voters in the 2000s.

What would it take to eliminate these associations? Likely, to quote non-bearded president Warren G. Harding, the beard could only return to mainstream American politics with a “return to normalcy.” By that I don’t mean that the world needs to revert to a 19th century cultural mentality, but simply that our perception of beards needs to be heeled back towards a more contextual tolerability. We need to disassociate the beard from the communists, from the terrorists, even perhaps from the frontier, and begin to examine each beard as an individual, without relation to predecessors or contemporaries. But with the entitlement modern media offers to people to discourse emotionally on issues which they have not even begun to examine beyond the surface, the chance that a bearded politician will be regarded as unique and unconnected with current negative archetypes is very slim.

We can hope, though. We can hope that someday a politician will come along who values his appearance personally, and not politically. Who listens to the people he hopes to represent, not who he hopes to get him elected. Who will take the advice of a young constituent because he is a good man, an honest man, a man who simply wants to put a smile on a child’s face. So if there is another Grace Bedell out there in America, be patient. Perhaps another Lincoln in need of a beard will come along soon.