Hair and the highest office in the land

Dr. Ben Carson was never going to be President. The American people wouldn’t allow it. No way. No how. Seventeen Republican candidates began campaigns for the highest office in the land. He was the only one with a distinguishable physical difference. Just look at him. You think we would elect someone who looks like him?

Wait, you thought I was talking about his skin color? Of course not—we have an African-American President, silly.

I’m talking about another group who has faced a reemergence in American society but still faces a glass ceiling (and not women, either). I’m talking about the bearded.

Ben Carson was the only 2016 Presidential contender who sported a beard, albeit a razor thin mustache and goatee.

And given the history of men elected to the Presidency, I’d say it had a great deal to do with his loss. We just don’t send people with facial hair to the White House. We rarely send men with facial hair to Washington, D.C. in any capacity and we’ve never elected such a woman.

The first Presidents—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—were as smooth-faced as my two-year-old. John Quincy Adams, the sixth President, maybe as a sign of a new generation of office holders, did let his sideburns grow a little long. Eight years after he left office, Martin Van Buren pushed the envelope a little farther with his unruly mutton chops.

But a real beard was something that was not seen. I imagine a few of the Presidents after Van Buren, the career Army general and frontier types (James Polk, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison come to mind) probably grew a mean beard at some point in their lives, but not even stubble was part of any Presidential portrait.

It’d take a man of real fortitude to sport a full beard in the White House. You know, the kind that would also oversee a civil war and attempt to eradicate slavery. Many of you know Abraham Lincoln for his Emancipation Proclamation, his address at Gettysburg, his assassination at Ford’s Theatre, his height, his honesty, or his stove top hat. But he was also the first President to sport a beard, in his case a chin curtain, while in office. And as leaders so often do, he created followers.

A strange series of events occurred following Lincoln’s assassination, events that can only be connected when viewed through the prism of facial hair.

Andrew Johnson, who ascended to the big seat upon Lincoln’s murder, did not follow the slain leader’s facial hair example. He was clean-shaved, but he was also impeached (though not convicted), so maybe he should have grown a beard.

The next seven presidents, if you include Grover Cleveland twice, all sported, at the very least, a mustache. Four—Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Harrison—had full beards. Chester Arthur sported some aggressive sidewhiskers connected by a mustache, which could also be classified as an overgrown friendly muttonchops look. Cleveland simply had a mustache.

William McKinley moved into the White House in 1897 as the first clean-shaven President in 28 years. He was also shot and killed in Buffalo, N.Y. four years later.

So of the two smooth-faced chief executives to take the reins in the 36 years following Lincoln’s death, one was impeached and the other was killed.

It gets weirder.

With McKinley’s death, New York Republican Theodore Roosevelt took over the big job, wearing a thick mustache. His hand-chosen successor, William Howard Taft, famous for his girth, was also the proud owner of a nice handlebar.

Woodrow Wilson followed Taft. A Princeton academic and former Governor of New Jersey, the Democratic Wilson was without facial hair. Near the middle of his second term, he suffered a debilitating stroke that was hidden from the public and that many believe left his wife, Edith, in charge of the country.

Next up was Warren Harding, a clean-shaven Ohioan. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage about two-and-a-half years into his first term, in 1923.

When Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s successor, finished his second term in 1929, he became the first clean-shaven President since James Buchanan in 1861 to finish his tenure in office relatively unscathed. No assassination, impeachment, debilitating stroke, or deadly hemorrhage.

How does one make sense of something so random, and yet seemingly so calculated? Well, blame it on the cosmos. The cosmos were probably angry about the bearded Lincoln’s death and spent the next 58 years seeking retribution on the beardless. Now you may point out that it was the mustachioed John Wilkes Booth that killed Lincoln, so why would the cosmos be angry with the beardless? My response: never let details get in the way of an interesting theory.

Given the subject of last week’s column, you may remember that it wasn’t as if the bearded were without trouble. President James Garfield, who wore a full beard, was shot while in office. But it’s interesting to note that the man who was in charge of his care was Dr. Willard Bliss. While Dr. Bliss sported a pair of bushy mutton chops, he did not have a full beard. The unsanitary medical practices that Bliss employed in his search for the bullet have been credited as the true cause of Garfield’s death, not the injuries from the bullet itself. If he had simply let the fully-bearded Garfield to his own devices, he probably had a greater chance of living. Bliss could have also granted the very hairy Alexander Graham Bell greater access in his attempts to find the bullet with Graham’s newly-developed metal detector. Either choice, both of which involved someone with more facial hair than Bliss, would have been better than what Bliss did.

Now back to the clean-shaven Presidents. One could argue that Woodrow Wilson effectively ended what I term the Bearded Age of the American Presidency. He defeated major contenders Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in 1912 and the Van Dyke-sporting Charles Evans Hughes in 1916. But I’d say the Bearded Age didn’t end until the cosmos were satisfied. And so, Calvin Coolidge, famous for his silence and conservatism, was the President that brought about the end of the Bearded Age.

Since that time, a major party has only nominated one Presidential candidate with any facial hair whatsoever. That man was Thomas Dewey, the wearer of a well-groomed mustache, and he was nominated in both 1944 and 1948. He first lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was famously defeated by Harry Truman in the latter election.

So to recap: America voted only clean-shaven men into the Presidential office from 1786-1856. In 1860 Lincoln sported the first beard in office and set a trend that would last for approximately five decades. The only people to stray from that pattern were killed or impeached. William Howard Taft was the last American President to have facial hair and the first two after him suffered deadly or significantly-impairing medical issues while in office. From 1912 to today, we have not had a President with facial hair.

I think that should change. It’s too late for 2016, but how about 2020? America is becoming more progressive and barriers are falling all over the place. Let’s give hope to all those young children who dream of becoming President of the United States of America, but whose achievement of that goal is so often derailed by their yearning to grow a beard.

This is America, where people of all races, genders, creeds, and yes, facial hair designs, should be free to chase their dreams.

You hear that sound? I think that’s the glass ceiling shattering.



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