The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Thursday, January 31, 2008

PRESIDENTIAL BEARDS: Once upon a time in America, Republican beards ruled the land, and almost all of God’s children were content, except for the usual suspects. There was only one clean-shaven man in the White House in the years between 1860 and 1896, and the House of Representatives impeached him. I do not believe that the House impeached Andrew Johnson because he shaved on a regular basis, although his lack of a proper beard may have contributed to the political establishment’s visceral dislike of him, that and his turning up drunk for his own inauguration as Vice President. Inaugurating under the influence may not be a ticketable offense in many states, but it does tend to give the tourists an unfavorable impression of the Federal government and annoys the citizenry no end. Johnson’s impeachment was wildly popular amongst all segments of the bearded population; it was even popular with women, who could not vote at the time, beards or no beards.

Subsequent candidates learned their lesson; all Republican presidential candidates after Johnson had beards, even if not all Republican presidents did. The exception was Chester Alan Arthur, who wore a Burnside—a full mustache and side-whiskers with a clean chin. It bears pointing out here, however, that Arthur was an accidental President; he was actually the Republican Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1880. James A. Garfield, the party’s presidential candidate and the eventual winner of the election itself, wore a full beard, as did Charles Guiteau, the man who shot Garfield as he waited for a train. Many of the doctors who treated Garfield also had full beards and it is still a matter of contention among many historians whether or not the doctors’ beards played any role in causing the infection that eventually killed Garfield, or whether it was just the doctors’ medical ignorance in poking around in the presidential bullet hole with dirty instruments that did Garfield in. In any case, after a reasonably fair trial, the government hanged Guiteau and his beard for shooting Garfield, while the doctors who actually killed the President found that their well-publicized incompetence actually enhanced their medical prestige and allowed them to go on and kill a good many other lesser-known and thoroughly unpresidential people as well and charge the unfortunate wretches that much more for the privilege.

The Democrats tried to make themselves tonsorially convincing, but failed, for the most part. The only Democrat elected to the presidency during the bearded period was Grover Cleveland (Johnson was a Democrat too, but he only got in because Lincoln wanted to be bipartisan in 1864), who was the proud possessor of a walrus mustache, which was about as hairy as any Democrat would allow himself to be in those days. Cleveland’s opponent in the 1884 presidential election was James G. Blaine, a Republican senator from Maine blessed with a full beard and cursed with the bad habit of annoying the voters. Beard or no beard, hanging around with people who trash the voters, as Blaine was wont to do, is not a recipe for long-term political success in the United States or anywhere else, for that matter. Voters at that time also found Blaine’s building a $50,000 mansion for himself on a senator’s $5,000 a year salary a bit off-putting as well. Cleveland lost the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison, who did have a full beard, and then won again in 1892, all the while courting and eventually marrying a woman young enough to be his daughter, which was more than a little scandalous and tended to confirm the idea that a clean-shaven Democratic face was the devil’s playground in many people’s eyes.

Why, you may ask, were beards so presidentially necessary at that time? Certainly, the Founding Fathers did not wear beards. One can no more imagine George Washington with a beard than one can imagine Fidel Castro without one. From the founding of this our Great Republic to 1860, no American president wore a beard, although James Buchanan needed one. Even Lincoln won the 1860 election without a beard. He grew one a short time later, because he would not allow Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, who wore a goatee, to outdo the President of the United States in any fashion. And so the war came.

After Lincoln, all Republican presidents wore a beard, in tonsorial homage to the great man and to pander to the bearded vote out in the Midwest, although in fairness to Ulysses S. Grant, he already had a beard when Lincoln became President and so no one can accuse him of political me-tooism. In a post-Lincoln environment, everyone wanted to emulate Lincoln’s political success without the down side of getting shot—Garfield was singularly unsuccessful in this regard—and so beards became a necessary adjunct to gaining political office for Republicans. Some politicians like Governor Hezekiah T. Fletcher of Kansas drove the trend to extremes. The good governor wanted the 1876 Republican presidential nomination and decided to grow a beard down to his knees to demonstrate what a good, stalwart champion of old-fashioned Republican virtues he was. While campaigning in Philadelphia at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, Governor Fletcher made a speech defending the high tariff on foreign manufactures against some Democratic calumny when, in an unfortunate moment meant to be dramatic, he threw his beard over his shoulder and into the maw of a newly patented industrial sausage-making machine made in Germany, which promptly pulled the governor in and reduced him to about 150 pounds of politically unviable bratwurst before anyone could figure out how to turn the machine off, the instructions on the machine being written in German. The misadventure also ruined the governor’s new suit, which he hadn’t finished paying for yet. The nomination that year went to Rutherford B. Hayes, as did the election, the latter event being the result of some heavy-handed ballot box stuffing in the South. Hayes wore a very full beard, even for the standards of the time, supported the high tariff on foreign manufactures, and would not allow the serving of alcoholic beverages at the White House, this being an edict from the First Lady, which led the newspapers to tag her with that most alliterative of spousal sobriquets, Lemonade Lucy. She was the first First Lady to graduate from college and she never wore a beard, despite her obvious Republican leanings.

Times change, however, and by 1896 there was an entire generation of voters who had never known Lincoln and who were, quite frankly, getting tired of looking at politicians resembling the Voronezher Rebbe’s first cousin on his mother’s side. They wanted something new, fresh, and exciting; what they got was William McKinley, the last Civil War veteran to occupy the White House and a man who was the epitome of small town Republican virtues. He was clean-shaven, though; in fact, McKinley could shave his entire face with just two swipes of a straight razor without so much as slicing off a piece of his nose, a rare talent in those days and in these as well. McKinley was re-elected in 1900, making him the first clean-shaven man to win re-election since Andrew Jackson did it in 1832.

Even if he didn’t have the beard, McKinley wanted to emulate Lincoln, just like every other Republican president of that age, and in many ways, he succeeded. McKinley fought a successful war just like Lincoln did, had a sick wife just like Lincoln did, and was shot just like Lincoln was. McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, also set a precedent; he was the first clean-shaven presidential assassin.

McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, had a mustache, as did William Howard Taft, who followed T.R. into the White House in 1908. This gave many old-fashioned Republican stalwarts hope that there would be many a hirsute presidency to come, but alas, this was not to be. In 1912, Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican Party, permitting the election of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, erstwhile college president, governor of New Jersey, where he tried to give that state’s traditionally gutter politics a high moral tone, and a profoundly clean-shaven man who made no attempt to pander to the bearded vote whatsoever. What’s more, he made the country like him, even if he hadn’t so much as a milk mustache, and he made the fashion stick. In 1916, Wilson ran against Charles Evans Hughes, who sported a very stylish beard, and whom the viciously partisan Democratic press immediately dubbed the Bearded Lady, setting a new low in political and personal mudslinging. Since 1916, only Thomas Dewey tried to run for President with a mustache, despite the insistence of his political advisors that the mustache had to go. Dewey insisted on keeping it; his wife like the mustache, he told his advisors, and that was good enough reason for him. He lost both times.

And so it is that a great American tradition has fallen into abeyance, the victim of tonsorial trends beyond the control of any one political party. Still, there is hope; everything old is new again, as the saying goes, and sooner or later the presidential face will bear hair once again, and all good and true Republicans will be happy, unless the President in question is a Democrat, wherein the beard is a sign of profoundly left-wing sociopolitical tendencies bordering on the near Bolshevistic in intensity. I mean, really, has anyone seen a picture of Hilary in the morning? I thought not.

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  • At 3:08 PM, Blogger Gardenbuzzy said…

    I was going to say that Hillary would have a problem producing facial hair but then...perhaps not...


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