By David Michael Newstead.
Not long ago, I found out the U.S. Senate has its own barbershop and that it’s open to the public. I had to dig around quite a bit to get the phone number, but I was eventually able to make an appointment. So out of curiosity and my need for a haircut, I went to visit the salon to one of America’s most exclusive institutions as Election Day approaches this November.
Just for some context, the Senate Barbershop was originally established in the early 1800’s. It was free for senators until 1979 and even today prices are on the low side of reasonable, catering to elected officials, their staff members, and visitors to the capital. Although I’ve read that senators have the right to bump a regular customer’s appointment if they’re in a hurry, I didn’t experience this. Instead, what I found was a discreet side room in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building, just next to Congress. It was labelled Senate Hair Care and photography was not allowed.
On my way into the building, I saw an ordinary t-shirted American talking to an elected official. I didn’t recognize the senator offhand, but he was a basically an old, average looking white guy in a suit. And as it turns out, that’s an accurate description for the Senate for most of its history. In 225 years, almost 2,000 people have served in the United States Senate: 44 women, 35 Jews, and 9 African Americans. That very exclusive list includes numerous presidents as well as influential names like Fulbright, McCarthy, and Inouye whose votes have shaped American history for better or worse.
Then in between those momentous decisions, they also happen to get their hair cut.
Inside, Senate Hair Care looked to be an old fashioned barbershop covered in tiles and mirrors like the whole thing was straight out of a photograph of 1960. It was clean and seemingly divided between a men’s side and a women’s side. The waiting area had a selection of newspapers and CNN was playing in the background when I sat down. To the left, I noticed a shoeshine station. And running along the wall, they’d framed individual portraits of every current senator.
The barber told me that some senators come by for a trim, but they always seem to be on their way to an important meeting. I smiled and asked if Rand Paul gets his hair cut here. 3 people laughed. The barber said no. Senator Rand Paul, in case you haven’t noticed, looks like a ferret died on his head. But this prestigious legislative chamber is home to other unique hair styles as well. Democrat Jon Tester of Montana, for example, has a notoriously flattop, while Republican Ted Cruz of Texas has the hairdo of a 10 year old boy in 1950. Their photographs decorate the walls and disingenuously smile down at you. I realized that after every election someone has to change the picture frames as incumbents leave and newcomers take their place.
For awhile at least, I sat back and got a haircut worthy of a senator. It turned out pretty nice, I think. To be honest though, there were other things on my mind. When I got there, CNN was talking about the crisis in Ukraine. When I left the barbershop, CNN was talking about the crisis in the Middle East. It’s September 2014 and these are the last days of the 113th United States Congress. It’s been historically unpopular, unproductive, gridlocked, and polarized. It’s passed few pieces of legislation, instead distinguishing itself with a government shutdown, sequestration, and a general lack of action regarding all issues foreign and domestic. But after the countless articles and interviews over the last few years, I’m not sure how you editorialize a record like that. What’s left to say, you know? In a few weeks, some of the picture frames in the Senate Barbershop will get changed out for new ones. The faces will be slightly different, but still mostly old and white. All the problems facing the 113th Congress will still be there for the 114th Congress to deal with. And unfortunately for America, doing nothing is rarely a solution.
But that’s just the bad news. The good news is, I really like my new haircut.