Hirsute Politics

What’s with the American political phobia against facial hair?

Every since the death of my Mom, I’ve been following the Jewish tradition of not shaving for 30 days after the death — a practice known sensibly enough as the shloshim (which means “30” in Hebrew).  I’ve never grown a beard before, and although it’s still pretty itchy, I can see the advantages of them.

Which of course raises the political angle.

I’m trying to remember the last time a major US national political figure (viz., a Senator, a major-state Governor, or of course the President/VP) had any facial hair, and especially a beard.

The last I can think of was Hugh Scott, the Senate Republican leader in the 1970’s.  (Scott’s mustache and pipe seem classy to me, but would be dismissed as elitist today).  As for major Presidential candidates, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, from the 1940’s, was the last we’ve seen.

And that’s just mustaches.  Beards?  Fuggetaboudit.  The last national political figure with a beard was Henry Cabot Lodge, whom popular consciousness has unfairly maligned as an isolationist who prevented US entry into the League of Nations (actually, it was virtually all Woodrow Wilson’s fault).

It’s not clear to me why this would be.  Do people mistrust men with beards?  Do mustaches give someone a vaguely Snidely Whiplash-like sinister look?  (But doesn’t Inspector Fenwick have a mustache, too?).

Any good theories out there?  Am I missing people?

UPDATE: Quite a few reactions.  Most prominently, I missed former House Minority Leader David Bonior and former NJ Senator and Governor Jon Corzine (apparently, Corzine’s advisors told him to shave for a more popular look, he said no, and now we have Chris Christie.  Just sayin’). 

My bad: Keith wrote an illuminating post related to this in November.

Finally, you can get your very own Henry Waxman “Mustache of Justice” mug here.  Throw it at the television if you get fed up with the new Congress.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

37 thoughts on “Hirsute Politics”

  1. Facial hair comes in and out of fashion. Our current culture worships youth and facial hair makes men look a few years older. So maybe we won't see facial hair on political candidates until the current youth-at-any-cost mania passes.

  2. The last governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, had a beard. His handlers all told him to shave it; he ignored them. You might want to dismiss Bill Richardson–NM is a minor state. But Juhsey?

    You gotta a problem with it?

  3. As I documented in a trivial but factually accurate post around Thanksgiving (link below), politicians have learned the lesson of social psychology research that faces which are obscured are perceived as less honest and more dangerous by most observers. This includes faces that look away from the camera and faces that are obscured by beards. Before television, my goodness the beards presidents had –Rutherford B. Hayes wowza! (and great sideburns, President Arthur, all you are remembered for today besides being the first president to be attacked by birthers).


  4. @ Ebenezer

    If memory serves, Richardson didn't grow his goatee until after he'd been re-elected for his second term.

  5. David Obey had a beard; Tom Coburn has a goatee from time to time. Paul Wellstone used to have a beard occasionally, too.

  6. I think facial hair is quite acceptable among major African-American political figures, maybe more common than being clean-shaven. You've got the close-cropped moustache (Jesse Jackson Sr., Jim Clyburn, even Clarence Thomas), and then some more extensive facial hair among the Congressional Black Caucus (Alcee Hastings, Danny K. Davis, Charlie Rangel, John Conyers).

    Among others in Washington it seems to be associated with the most liberal liberals around. Henry Waxman, George Miller, Raul Grijalva…

  7. I realize he is a Representative (not in your list of offices), but I'd consider Congressman John Lewis a national figure; he has a moustache.

    Governor Patterson has a beard. Justice Thomas (again, not on the list and an appointed rather than elected political figure) wears a moustache. Mayor Dinkins (okay, maybe only we New Yorkers consider the Mayor a national politician)–moustache.

    Henry Waxman–again, a Representative, but a pretty prominent one–moustache.

  8. @Terence:

    New York mayors are INTERnational politicians. They are responsible for US foreign policy with regard to Ireland, Israel, and Italy. With India coming on the list.

  9. I would posit that for bald men, facial hair is more acceptable as a way to balance things out.

    "Mustachioed" is one of the funniest words ever. Let's all try to use it more.

  10. @Ebenezer Scrooge:

    Quite right.

    Come to think of it, had Rudy Giuliani been moustachioed*, he would have borne a certain resemblance (a rather apposite resemblance) to Snidely Whiplash.

    *as requested, NCG.

  11. Thanks, Terence!

    You've all heard of Movember, right? Some creative guy decided to raise funds for a cancer that men get by having people sponsor their friend's mustaches every November. I think it's a great idea. People can be silly and do something good without wasting money on a rubber chicken dinner.

  12. Kleiman would know of course since no one has actually seen him beardless – evuh, as far as I can tell. Ask him.

  13. Mr. Zasloff's bearded brother here. I grew the beard because I ran out of aftershave lotion one day. No joke.

    I have nothing particular to add to the question at hand, but here's another angle on the same issue: If we ignore JQ Adams' sideburns, the first bearded US president was none other than Abraham Lincoln. I assume we all remember the story about the young girl named Grace Bedell who wrote to Lincoln and encouraged him to grow a beard. She said that women, who did not yet have the vote, liked beards. They would encourage their husbands to vote for Lincoln if he grew one. Seems to have worked, although at first Lincoln thought that growing a beard would be a "silly affection". Maybe that's why no president had had one before – says something about the attitude toward facial hair at the time?

    There's also the fact that, after Lincoln, facial hair remained fashionable among presidents (not counting McKinley) for only about 50 years, until Wilson. Women got the vote not too long after that. Hm.

    And finally, I'm not even close to being an expert on national leaders, but if I'm not mistaken, most of them are also now clean-shaven. (And I'm not just talking about Angela Merkel, wise guy.)

    All in all, facial hair seems to have enjoyed only a brief period of popularity in modern history, at least among the leadership. For what it's worth.

  14. David Z.: If you bring in world leaders, I posit Kofi Annan. And Fidel. Though I admit they're thin on the ground. There were some in the not-so-terribly-distant past: Ho Chi Minh had a great set of whiskers. I will entirely agree with you about the aftershave–I currently have a beard, and have on and off. Until I lost my clippers, I'd found the single best solution, employment and relationship statuses permitting, was to buzz down to a long stubble every couple of weeks or so. The benefits of not shaving without the detriments–sauces, icicles in winter. That said, my current beard is a result of not shaving just long enough through general laziness to pass the point where it becomes a literal and figurative pain to shave it.

    Yoyo: Perhaps, but is that beards or any facial hair?

    DFH = or ≠ Lenin, Stalin, the Godwin example, Hirohito. Perhaps the risk is in not sufficiently balancing one's moustachioed-ness with something underneath? I, for one, have never had a moustache. Except when in the process of shaving off a beard.

  15. How 'bout Senator Philip Hart? I believe he was a liberal Republican or moderate Democrat from Michigan in the 1970s and 1980s and now has a Senate office building named in his honor.

  16. @Satan Mayo: Right. And I can't believe I forgot Grijalva!

    @Keith Humphreys: I can't remember where on the internet I saw this–and should probably fire up the search engine–but I remember someone addressed this idea of beards and trustworthiness from the opposite angle, and juxtaposed the images of Paul Krugman, bearded, and Bill Kristol, not bearded. Q.E.D.

  17. When was the last time a male politician had long hair? That fell out of fashion not long after George Washington perished. So consider yourself in that same fading part of history.

  18. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

    Also, Jimmy McMillan (NY-RITDH) has both an awesome beard and long hair. Not that it's gotten him very far. Or maybe it has.

  19. "what advantages do you see with wearing a beard?"

    When I was in college, in Northern Michigan, I had a big, bushy beard. Quite handy for carrying around pens and pencils, and kept the wind off my face. That was about it for advantages.

  20. I grew a beard in high school (early 70s), for a beard growing contest, and except for one madcap episode of shaving in my 20s, I've had a beard ever since. When I was younger and scruffier, I carried pens in it, along with other items, some unintended. My wife and son have never seen me cleanshaven, which is probably their good fortune and thus, mine. I don't know that it's warmer in winter, but it can be cooler in summer because it retains moisture — it's like walking around in your own swamp cooler!

    Now that I'm in my mid 50s, I'm enjoying (that might not be the right word, but there is some casual amazement involved) watching the beard go gray in bits and clumps here and there.

  21. What about Sen. Phil Hart of Michigan, known as the "conscience of the Senate."

    By the way, the claim that facial hair somehow makes a man look untrustworthy is just taking American culture as the world standard. There are plenty of places where a beard makes you look MORE trustworthy, e.g., Scandinavia.

  22. H: Yes, it's really weird, U.S. politicans have this obsession about how they come across to U.S. voters rather than Scandanavian voters…galloping ethnocentrism.

  23. I'm not sure it matters! I had a full beard in college for about a semester. After I shaved it off, for two or three weeks people were asking me "hey, didn't you used to wear glasses or something?" On the other hand, after decades of having a mustache, I shaved off the top half on a scuba-diving trip and then, on a dare from one of my daughters, the rest of it. Everyone approved of the change, so I had the dispiriting discovery that I had been wearing my face wrong most of my life.

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