Profound Questions: Should the President Grow a Beard?
Originally published October 5, 2009
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
The manse on Bloomfield Ave. in Caldwell, N.J., is a simple setup: four rooms on the bottom floor, the bed where Grover Cleveland was born (and probably conceived; kitchens were a dangerous place to do it in the 1830s) and a display case with, among other things, a slice of his wedding cake. It was a fruit cake, the wedding took place in the White House with Sousa leading the band, and at 49 he was marrying his ward, the 21-year-old daughter of his dead law partner with whom he had shared a mistress, the same mistress he might have had a child with. But that's not important right now. What is important is the delightful guides, who can relate to you the end of the Bearded Age:
As a young professional, Grover grew a beard. He had his picture taken and mailed copies to friends, along with a note requesting feedback. They shot it down. The beard was destroyed and with it the hopes of hirsute children across the land. Grover Cleveland invented Facebook.
The nation had a sloppy one-term stand with Benjamin Harrison, falling into old habits, but it crawled back to Grover. Four elections later we even gave up on the facial hair methadone of moustaches, getting into a weird hat phase, and it's been clean shaving ever since. The 50-year blip on the radar --10 of 12 leaders with facial hair, 5 with beards -- seems like it took place in a snow globe, or a dream, or a reality where Spock has a beard. Could it happen again? Should it?
Odd circumstances brought beards to fashion the first time. The knock on facial hair is that it's dishonest -- we're less inclined to trust a man behind a beard -- and so it's unsurprising that we were tricked into it. The Lincoln of 1860 posters, buttons and effigies was clean-shaven. He grew the beard at the suggestion of 11-year-old correspondent Grace Bedell, who thought his face was too thin. By Inauguration Day we were under the sway of a man who took grooming tips from 11-year-old girls, but you can't really question the commander in chief in wartime. Especially not Lincoln. He'd throw your ass in jail.
As if Lincoln the beard martyr weren't enough, by 1868 facial hair was part of war hero chic, to the point where we started electing the beard. Guess the president: Republican from Ohio; father died at a young age; close to his mother; studied law; left his family behind to lead a volunteer Union regiment, rising to the rank of general; elected to the House while in the field; compromise GOP nominee; won a close election; collected walking canes; lived in a big farmhouse in northern Ohio. If you said Rutherford Hayes, you're right! If you said James Garfield, you're also right! The only way to tell them apart is that Hayes (wounded 5 times) knew how to take a bullet.
Bearded presidents were the great gift of the Civil War (Harrison and Grant round out the roster), but the only truly lasting legacies of that conflict were institutional racism and erotic, bodice-ripping book covers. A nation ready to look forward settled on Grover, a beardless, bodice-ripping fat guy who paid his way out of the draft. Life goes on.
Modern circumstances would seem to make a comeback impossible. There is the honesty issue, but far worse is the technology. Facial hair photography of the 19th century was carefully staged, allowing all the image benefits (dignity, wisdom) with none of the potential drawbacks (looking like a sociopath). Mathew Brady did not shoot with a digital camera, nor were his photos available for Perez Hilton to draw genitalia on within the hour; he had no high-def rig revealing every straggly renegade. Consider that Chester Arthur was as close as we'll ever come to having a werewolf in office, but he still was able to swing the nickname "Elegant Arthur." Vice President Richard Nixon, in the first televised presidential debate, was crushed by stubble -- 50 years ago, before HD turned local news broadcasters into sideshow attractions. And god forbid a bearded president should have an evening press conference after White House chili night. State dinners -- international diplomacy! -- would teeter on the fulcrum of soup courses. That's a step up from the Jimmy Carter era but still troubling.
Beards are, sadly, an unwieldy variable in the age of image control. The president is a symbol of America, with a duty to project stability and dignity on a daily basis. We cannot wager that stability on a man never sleeping on his face funny, then getting captured on film looking like he just pulled an all-nighter to finish his manifesto.
And yet there is hope, an opportunity for follicular judo, in which the liabilities of bearded living become strength.
Much value is placed in words, but in September we saw a president deliver a 45-minute policy speech only to be trumped by two words from a congressman. Words dissipate as they are spoken, filling no voids, solving no problems. Beards spring eternal.
There is in hockey the tradition of the "playoff beard." When entering the playoffs, a player ceases all facial hair maintenance until his team hoists the trophy or goes home. It is an instant reminder of dedication, solidarity and manliness.
Why not a health care beard? Or an Iraqi democracy beard, or a budget beard? No more press conferences, no more talk show appearances, no forcing the nation to miss "So You Think You Can Dance." Just a memo announcing an ungroomed beard, and then no mention of the issue until a result was reached. The beard would do the talking. At three weeks it would be a joke. At six weeks it would be a sobering reminder of a tireless devotion. At a year, Congress would start sending blank checks if you'd just shave the damn thing.
This would work. Once. Send your consulting fees to Chris White, Washington, DC.