Thursday, October 28, 2010

Question Day Answers 4: Beards

Matt Lewis tweets:
how about a post on presidential facial hair? Or political facial hair in general?
Wow, Matt, great question, and I really have almost nothing to say about it.  Let's see...we're losing Dave Obey, who has (had? Haven't seen him real recently) a beard.  Corzine is gone.  I suppose I'll say that I'm a little surprised how little there is in national office at this point, but that's about it.  Sorry.

I will take the opportunity, however, to link to a NYT article on Brian Wilson -- Fear the Beard!  Sure wish I was there.  As a long distance Giants fan I do have a question, however: when you buy the fake beards at the ballpark, do you have to haggle?  Beyond that, thanks to everyone for the questions today: it was a great distraction from thinking about all the many and creative ways the Giants have fallen short in the past,  Time for Game Two.


  1. Considering that Nancy Pelosi is the representative for San Francisco, I wonder if she was ever someone's beard in times long past.

  2. Oh, no, is question time over? I wanted to know what "Sing it, Tony!" means --

  3. Quality reference on haggling on the beard.

  4. Can we all agree that Joe Miller's beard is way creepy?

  5. Well, I have read about the curious fact that there was a 50-year period in U.S. history in which nearly all the presidents had facial hair, but no president has had a beard or mustache before or since.

    The period began in 1860, with Lincoln, and ended with Taft, who left office in 1913. The last president with a beard was Benjamin Harrison, who left office in 1893. The last major-party nominee with facial hair (a mustache) was Thomas Dewey in 1948.

    I have a theory about this. I think it all has to do with Lincoln, who actually grew his beard after he was elected. All the bearded presidents after him were Republicans, so maybe there was some nostalgia at work.

    Of course beards, and facial hair in general, became much less fashionable in the 20th century. You certainly don't see too many men today with full, thick beards, apart from certain religious groups such as Orthodox Jews or Amish. (For the record, I'm an Orthodox Jew who currently sports a trimmed goatee.)

    I have noticed three examples in recent times of presidential candidates growing a beard after they lost: Al Gore, Bill Richardson, and Fred Thompson. (In Thompson's case, it was a goatee.) I don't know if there are any other examples of this, and it's too few to see a pattern.

  6. I had always read that the trend of bearded presidents in the late 19th century was a reaction to the Civil War. Soldiers on campaign grow beards because it's too troublesome to shave in the field, and later on, when you're courting veterans' votes, it doesn't hurt to style your hair like them.

    It also doesn't hurt that most of the presidents following Grant were Civil War veterans themselves, who had probably got used to wearing beards during the war.

    And no, I'm not sure why a similar trend didn't follow World War II. Better razors?

  7. There's always John Hoeven, rocking the mustache.

    Speaking of likely Senators of the 112th Congress, did you know that next year there will be more Senators named John or Mark than all of the female Senators combined?

  8. OK, you all sure know your facial hair.

    Classicist...when the Giants win a home game, they play Tony Bennett singing "I Left My Heart..."

  9. Ace K, a similar thing happened in Britain. Being clean shaving was the norm from about the time of the Restoration to the Crimea War. Then in the Crimea War, many British soldiers started growing beards and beards remained in fashion until about the 1890s or early 1900s with George V as the last bearded monarch of the UK. Mustaches were actually required by the military until WWI from at least sometime in the early 19th century. Continental European officers had traditions of mustache wearing since the mid-18th century. Its the reason Amish men don't wear mustaches with their beards.

    Facial hair as kind of become acceptable again since the mid-1960s. At least in most ordinary situations, more men can get away with mustaches and beards now. The only place you really don't see facial hair is on most politicians and on actors. Clean-shavingness still seems to be the norm.

  10. By the way, I've had a full beard and mustache for about three years at this point.

  11. I think facial hair made a comeback in the 1960s as part of the whole trend in growing one's hair long. By far the most accepted style is mustaches. A few movie stars such as Burt Reynolds or Eddie Murphy made a mustache part of their image, but it's hard for me to imagine a man with a mustache being elected president. There's this residual belief in our culture, and I have no idea where it comes from, that men with mustaches can't be trusted. It may not be fair, but you take one look at a guy like Michael Steele and get the feeling he's about to sell you a used car with rocks in the gas tank.

    But beards remain a lot less accepted. A few movie stars like Bogart and Ford used stubble to create a kind of sexy, macho image, but I can't think of a single movie star who regularly sports a fully formed beard. And I can't imagine a bearded politician rising to the presidency. (Maybe Joe Miller will prove me wrong one day.) The problem isn't trust, exactly. Beards have various associations in our culture--we think of college professors, of homeless people, of silver-haired wizards like Kenny Rogers or Wolf Blitzer. Maybe voters fear these men will cast spells on them. Or that they'll suddenly start singing like the Bee Gees.

  12. Kylopod, I'd disagree. Mustaches are a lot less respected than full beards and mustaches or goatees and mustaches. At least among younger people in their twenties or thirties full beards and goatees are more common. Mustaches are either worn ironically or associated with nerds or conservative, authoritarian types.

    From about WWI to the 1960s, facial hair with the exception of mustaches in a few instances was viewed as unkempt and bum-like unless on rather old men. Plus men with beards were seen as trying to hide something. At least with politicians, there is still a belief that they should look kempt and open and therefore, clean-shaving. Plus there seems to be a belief that no heterosexual or bisexual woman finds facial hair of any sort attractive.

    With movie stars, George Cloney, Jake Gyenhalle, and Brad Pit have been known to wear beards when not shooting movies.

  13. Just a question re Lincoln's beard. I read that he grew it beause an eleven-year old girl sent him a letter where he wrote that he should grow a beard and that more people would vote for him if he did. Has this even been established?

  14. @Lee

    I'm not sure we're disagreeing. Mustaches are considered more conservative, but that's why they're considered more respectable, and why young men generally don't grow them. Politicians, on the other hand, and especially presidential candidates, who will likely be at least in their 40s, are going to seek a more conservative appearance. Can you imagine a serious presidential contender sporting a goatee? A mustache on a candidate might be unlikely today, but a goatee would border on absurd.

    The thing about mustaches is that they're so commonplace they almost seem invisible. You often don't think of a man's mustache as something extra; you think of it simply as part of the man. That's what leads to that weird feeling when you've known a guy with a mustache for years (say, Alex Trebek), then one day he shaves it off and you look at him and it just seems like something's wrong with his face because the mustache is no longer there.

    Beards, on the other hand, look much more like appendages to a man's face, like something he's wearing, rather than something that's an intrinsic part of him.

    Any sort of facial hair on a presidential candidate would probably be the source of much ridicule by the press, but mustaches at least would not give the sense that he's some kind of poseur or show-off. You remember all the hay John Edwards got for his fancy haircuts. Any bearded candidate today wouldn't last five minutes, I suspect.

  15. Although beards may not be so popular on the East Coast or in Los Angeles, I do have to point out that beards such as the one on the Giants' pitcher are very common and popular in the SF Bay Area. Chalk it up to all the hippies.

  16. @JB: Sheepish thanks.

    @Aaron: I only know Brooklyn and a couple of college towns, but from that vantage, beards are VERY in in the Northeast. Not big messy ones, though -- either neat and well-trimmed or scruffy but maintained.

    @Kylopod: I'd never thought of moustaches as representing conservatism, but it is true that the intersection between tattoos and beards is much greater than that between tattoos an moustaches, so maybe you're on to something.

  17. I didn't mean "conservatism" in the political sense. (I'm not sure if you thought that's what I meant, but I ought to make that clear.) I meant it in the sense of, say, conservative ties.

    Probably the least conservative style of facial hair is the soul patch. The idea of a man with a soul patch running for president almost makes a tattooed candidate look reasonable.


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