By David Michael Newstead.
As you may have noticed, bearded politicians in America have steadily declined since their heyday in the 1800s. During that time, men like Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes occupied the Oval Office. But tragically, there hasn’t been a full beard elected to the presidency since Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and not even a single moustache in the White House since William Howard Taft left office in 1913. In this year’s primary, for instance, Ben Carson was the only bearded candidate among the 17 Republicans vying for the nomination, further illustrating how facial hair is the exception and not the rule in American politics. But could that be changing?
Recently, I spoke with one of the founders of BEARD PAC, which is an actual Super PAC in the American Midwest. Short for Bearded Entrepreneurs for the Advancement of a Responsible Democracy, BEARD PAC’s mission is to “act to independently support the candidacies of bearded candidates nationwide.” Below, I’m joined by BEARD PAC co-founder Jonathan Sessions to discuss politics, facial hair, and the 2016 election.
David Newstead: I was curious why you decided to start a Super PAC and what you’ve learned since then?
Jonathan Sessions: Well, actually, this was a comic brainchild of mine and my friend Andy’s from high school. So, over ten years ago, we were sitting around as high schoolers do and commenting on the fact that presidents were no longer elected with facial hair. You know, we went through this era where generations of presidents all had facial hair. And as we’d entered modern history, we’d stopped seeing presidents elected with facial hair. They’re very clean-cut individuals and there would be actually comments about people not getting elected because they had facial hair or not getting the nomination because they had facial hair. So, we realized that something needed to change.
So, we came up with this in high school. There wasn’t really the mechanism to do anything at that time. We thought about forming a State PAC, but that didn’t quite make a lot of sense. You know, if there’s one thing Missouri’s got it’s a lot of people with facial hair. So, we waited. And then of course, Citizens United came down and that gave us an opportunity to have a little fun.
David Newstead: And was that process difficult?
Jonathan Sessions: That process was stupidly simple.
David Newstead: I mean, I’m sure you remember Colbert Super PAC?
Jonathan Sessions: Yeah, Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. The process is comically simple. I mean, it’s truly a one-page form that you can download and fill out. I have a background in being actively involved in politics. I’m elected to my local school board and I’ve been actively involved in quite a few local and state campaigns. Ethics commission reports are pretty simple. Or I don’t know about simple. They’re complicated, but it’s like anything. Once you do it enough, you get the hang of it. So, that’s probably one of the things I’ve heard. People don’t realize Super PACs have to report, but the reporting is remarkably simple.
David Newstead: Just out of curiosity, because you’re an elected official, do you and the other co-founder have beards?
Jonathan Sessions: Andy and I both have beards. Although, Andy is not elected in any capacity, but he does work in political fundraising. I will say I’ve been giving Andy a hard time, because just this last week for summer he shaved down to a moustache. Or I call it the East Nasty ‘Stache, because he lives in east Nashville. But up until about a week ago, Andy and myself have both had beards continuously for years.
David Newstead: I mean, it would be a scandal otherwise, really.
Jonathan Sessions: Yeah, it’d be like a Feminist PAC being run by men. A beard PAC being run by clean-shaven people.
David Newstead: Like family values candidates having extramarital affairs.
Jonathan Sessions: Yeah, it’d be something hypocritical like that.
David Newstead: Do you guys have a favorite president or a favorite politician? Like who are you picturing in your mind when you think of this ideal candidate?
Jonathan Sessions: There are easy ones to go with. I mean true leaders in facial hair such as Abraham Lincoln. And the story with Abraham Lincoln is he received a letter from a young lady who said she had four brothers and two of them were very much in support of him, but the other two said they would only vote for him if he grew a beard.
David Newstead: And I mean, he was elected twice. And he grew a beard.
Jonathan Sessions: But then you look at like the juxtaposition to today where Bill de Blasio shaved his beard. He had a beard for years, but before he ran for mayor he shaved his beard. And you think like, this is an incredibly liberal man. He is the kind of person where you would assume a beard isn’t going to sway a voter.
David Newstead: That leads into my next question. Especially from the 20th century onward, bearded politicians have been most often associated with left-wing politics. Like in the case of hippies, beatniks, hipsters, and notable communist revolutionaries like Che. Because of that, is your Super PAC left-wing in its focus or are you hearkening back to the more moderate and conservative beards of the 19th century?
Jonathan Sessions: Good question. Yeah, I think there is, in current day, the stereotypical Burt’s Bees political style of bearded man. But last we looked at U.S. Congress, it was pretty equally split facial hair both to the left and to the right. You know so, we’re non-partisan. We don’t have any particular leaning. We’re looking for individuals with good policy and a full beard.
David Newstead: So along those lines, would supporting Sikh-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Orthodox Jews, or the Amish be something you’d be interested in? You know, strong beard proponents.
Jonathan Sessions: We’re not concerned with an individual’s faith or religious beliefs.
David Newstead: So, if they have a beard, however they acquired this beard whether through politics or their faith…
Jonathan Sessions: Or personal preference.
David Newstead: …personal preference, shaving sensitivities. Whatever the reason, it’s fine with you?
Jonathan Sessions: I’ll be the first to say, 95 percent of the reason I don’t shave is just sensitivity.
David Newstead: I believe last I checked, you’ve raised $53 or $52 dollars?
Jonathan Sessions: $52, I believe it is.
David Newstead: And how have you spent this money?
Jonathan Sessions: Well, right now, we’re really thinking about what our options are. Obviously, we don’t have like Karl Rove money. So, we’re looking to see what kind of options there are. One thing that has intrigued us as we get closer to the general election, we do recognize and are thankful for a recent court ruling that says Instagram videos do not count as advertisements. And so, we have a lot of flexibility there at a very low cost of entry to do videos and photos on Instagram. We do have an Instagram account. It is currently bare. But you might see us post somethings as we get closer to the general election. Obviously with limited funds, you know we have limited opportunity.
David Newstead: That’s not a bad idea.
Jonathan Sessions: BEARD PAC is all about enjoying the loopholes in American politics.
David Newstead: Just to double check, are there any powerful, shadowy corporate interests behind your Super PAC?
Jonathan Sessions: I’m not going to disclose that information.
David Newstead: Nor do you have to.
Jonathan Sessions: Nor do I have to.
David Newstead: I assume you’ve been paying attention to the election?
Jonathan Sessions: We’ve been paying attention for a while. We’re always on the lookout for a beard in politics. Paul Ryan, for instance. Paul Ryan had a great looking beard. And then the second someone said, “Hey, wanna be speaker?” Boom! Beard gone. It’s not even a real election. It’s a Congress election. Done.
David Newstead: Among the presidential candidates, what could they do to attract support from BEARD PAC?
Jonathan Sessions: They’d start by growing beards. And then, we’d humor a conversation and take a finer look at the policies that that individual is supporting. Politico did a really great piece on “What would these candidates look like with beards?” And it was a while ago, so there were a lot more monkeys in that circus
David Newstead: We did have a lot of candidates.
Jonathan Sessions: Yeah and so they put beards on all of them. And I stand by that Obama would look good with a beard.
David Newstead: You know, I feel like ideologically speaking it’s weird that Bernie Sanders doesn’t have a beard. It seems like that should have already happened decades ago.
Jonathan Sessions: Yeah. He seems like a non-grooming kind of guy. I will confess that mid-beard looks like you’re just being lazy before it gets full enough. For any candidate, I would be hesitant to suggest growing a beard mid-campaign. It may not hurt. I don’t think it would hurt. You could just say, “I’m growing a beard. Discuss.” I’m sure there are some like body people that manage style that would say, “No, you just look lazy.”
David Newstead: I mean, it wouldn’t be the strangest thing that’s happened in this election.
Jonathan Sessions: It wouldn’t be. It wouldn’t be. I mean, I would be personally interested in seeing Donald Trump do a beard comb over.
David Newstead: Oh god.
David Newstead: Going back to an actual question, are there any beard policies that you advocate for? The things that come to mind are a recent Supreme Court case about prisoners being able to grow beards and there’s been a lot of discussion over the last few years about Sikhs in the U.S. military being able to grow beards. Any comment?
Jonathan Sessions: There’s a good couple of things you’re addressing there. One, I have had a longer beard, like decently long, and I would say I could not imagine hiding a knife or a gun in my beard. I mean, that’d be impressive if someone could pull that off. So, there’s that. In regards to your second point, while I understand there may need to be some management for specific jobs. Like we’re not opposed to hairnets. But why does everything have to have such a nihilist approach? Can we find a happy medium? You know, can we make an adjustment for someone’s face? I come back around to like we shouldn’t be dictating as much into personal lives. Like that kind of thing – a personal grooming choice of someone’s.
David Newstead: So if you’ll humor me, I’m going to say the name of a U.S. president and you just say whatever facial hair style comes to mind. Like what facial hair should they have?
Jonathan Sessions: Alright.
David Newstead: JFK?
Jonathan Sessions: I have a hard time saying that like he needed anything more than like a five O’clock shadow.
David Newstead: See, I saw him with like a Tom Selleck moustache.
David Newstead: Richard Nixon?
Jonathan Sessions: Richard Nixon is Mutton Chops. I say Mutton Chops.
David Newstead: I sort of envisioned an evil turn-of-the-century handlebar moustache like an old-timey villain.
Jonathan Sessions: I could see that as well. I could. Kind of like something out of Gangs of New York.
David Newstead: Barack Obama?
Jonathan Sessions: Barack Obama. I think he’s gotta rock the James Hart like just let it kind of go, get a little long. Keep it trim up top. Just maybe a high top, but keep it pretty clean. And then, just let that beard go.
David Newstead: See, I went in the other direction with that. Cornell West style. Because he won’t be president anymore, so he can do whatever he wants. Just let himself go.
Jonathan Sessions: Oh, I see that. Yeah, just let it go. I mean, as he gets older.
David Newstead: President Ronald Reagan?
Jonathan Sessions: Ronald Reagan. I see as like a 1970s moustache guy.
David Newstead: I sort of envisioned maybe a Clark Gable, sort of a 1930s thin moustache. And I don’t even know how they achieve it is the other thing.
Jonathan Sessions: I’m sure mascara.
David Newstead: Personal favorite, FDR?
Jonathan Sessions: Young FDR or old FDR?
David Newstead: Your discretion.
Jonathan Sessions: I think just out of respect for his forefathers, I’m gonna go moustache. Like Teddy Roosevelt rocked a moustache.
David Newstead: Good association.
David Newstead: There’s no right answer to this, but maybe a goatee on FDR. I don’t know.
David Newstead: Then, honorable mention question. Vice President Joe Biden?
Jonathan Sessions: You know, I really would love to see Joe Biden with one of those chin tails like the lead singer of Anthrax.
David Newstead: See, I had said Soul Patch. So, I feel like that’s roundabout the same thing.
Jonathan Sessions: I could see Uncle Joe with a Soul Patch, starting like a White Snake cover band.
David Newstead: Alright, so two closing questions. First question. Who is your Super PAC endorsing in the 2016 presidential election?
Jonathan Sessions: We have not made a decision yet.
David Newstead: Ok. Second question. Who is your Super PAC endorsing in the 1870 presidential election?
Jonathan Sessions: 1870! Who are my candidates?
David Newstead: If I remember correctly Rutherford B. Hayes and then another old white guy?
Jonathan Sessions: 1870. Now, the last president elected with facial hair was Benjamin Harrison in 1888.
David Newstead: Wait. Full beard or facial hair?
Jonathan Sessions: Full Beard.
David Newstead: Taft had a moustache, so that’s the last facial hair of any kind.
Jonathan Sessions: There are photos of Truman when he would go to Martha’s Vineyard. He would grow a beard on vacation, but he wasn’t elected with one.
David Newstead: Alright. So, Benjamin Harrison was the last full beard.
Jonathan Sessions: So, there was an election in 1872. I was going to say 1870 sounds like an off year.
David Newstead: Yeah, I just kind of made it up really. lol.
Jonathan Sessions: I just did a quick google search like who would that have been? So, Ulysses S. Grant won in 1872. But out of all of them, Benjamin Brown was governor of Missouri and a Vice Presidential candidate and he had a legit beard.
David Newstead: It’s a shame it’s fallen out of fashion, but maybe you guys are leading the resurgence.
Jonathan Sessions: We’ll see what happens. I will say that if I could compare my beard to a president, I would say it would be a solid Ulysses S. Grant.
David Newstead: What about your co-founder, Andy?
Jonathan Sessions: You know, Andy rocks some mutton chops every so often. So, I would say he would be a Martin Van Buren. Like a really solid Martin Van Buren.
Note from the Author: Two interesting historical notes came up while I was putting this interview together. Although beards are most commonly associated with left-wing politics today, every fully bearded president in U.S. history was actually a member of the Republican Party in the 19th century: Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, and Harrison. It’s also worth pointing out that every black Republican candidate for president so far this century has had facial hair: Alan Keyes, Herman Cain, and Ben Carson. Food for thought.