The presidential election season is off and running, but apart from a collective yawn from the American people, you would hardly know it. The New York Times just reported that the major TV networks are planning their lowest total coverage ever of the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions. A few optimists still foster hopes that one candidate will separate himself from the horde of office hunters and speech spinners. But I'll let you in on a little secret: They are all the same. Our candidates today are merely variations on a theme: Bradley was the jock, McCain the enigmatic one, Gore the solid one, and Bush, well, a Bush. But save for these minor distinctions, three main points remain the same:
1. They are all men.
2. We sort of like them, but they don't inspire us. They're OK, and they can do the job, but it is hard to imagine we will ever be carving their faces into mountainsides.
3. They are all pathetically, pitifully clean-shaven. And that is what makes all the difference.
Ask anyone to name America's most respected and honorable president. Both scholar and Joe Public alike are sure to name Abraham Lincoln. He was honest. He was committed to freedom. He didn't have an affair with Marilyn Monroe. He was an individual, unswayed by public opinion. And he was hairy.
No joke. There is historical evidence that points to the fact that Lincoln became the man we immortalize with $5 bills and majestic memorials only after growing a beard. In the fall of 1860, Lincoln was the Republican nominee for president, and the election was approaching rapidly. His popularity among the people was spotty at best. And then, Lincoln received a letter. Eleven-year-old Grace Bedell of upstate New York wrote to the long-faced, bare-chinned presidential candidate, "All the ladies like whiskers, and they would tease their husbands to vote for you." Nowadays, advice like that would merit the title of political consultant, and Grace would have herself a lucrative career. But at the time, she was rewarded with a response penned by Mr. Lincoln himself, and with the very fruition of her advice: Lincoln won the election, and he did so with a full beard.
Coincidence? I think not. Let us not shy away from the obvious conclusion: Men without beards are incapable of leading. And don't go shaking your head in dismissal! This is a fact that can be easily demonstrated through a number of primary factors.
First, simple logic: We as a society, whether justly or unjustly, still link leadership with a degree of masculinity. A full beard is a sign of the robust mountain man. Who can argue with that? Take Russell Crowe in the film "Gladiator." Sure, his character proves him to be virtuous, committed to family, and a reluctant but stunning warrior. But the real reason that the film is selling out is the simple fact of Russell's rugged hairy face. Can you imagine an unshaven man like Richard Simmons in the role? Doesn't work, right? I mean, when since Topol in "Fiddler on the Roof" have we seen such a stunning example of facial hair on the big screen? Oy--did I just compare Russell Crowe with Topol?
In coming to my second observation, I find myself struck nearly speechless at the obviousness of it all. A beard is the only sure sign of patience and commitment in a man. Sure, dedication to family, longevity in a job--these are all minor indications of a man's sense of honor. But none of these compares to the evidence of a beard. We are in the age of the short attention span, experiencing the world in sound bites and video clips. Thus, to wait out the cultivation of a beard would seem to many of today's youth to be an unthinkable test of endurance.
And yet this endurance is precisely what we need in office. Growing a beard is not an activity with an immediate payoff. You must last through a series of stages of ugliness before reaching the final goal of manly beauty. You must wait out the peach fuzz, then deal with the wife who won't kiss you because your face is rougher than a gravel road, then you get to the straggly, dangly stuff. You must then look at your scruffy face in the mirror every morning and say "You know what? I may be ugly now, but patience will bring me that much closer to G-dliness when I reach my full-bearded glory. I can deal with 'ugly.' It will be worth it in the end." Intellectuals have long pointed out that the definition of maturity is delayed gratification. If that is so, then the bearded man is maturity incarnate.
Which brings me to my third point: confidence and individuality. A man who grows a beard is a man who is sure of himself. A man who grows a beard is not afraid to stand alone. He does not let himself be swayed by the opinions of his wife ("Oh, no, honey, not a beard?!") or of American pop culture (when Noah Wyle's character on "ER" grew a beard last season, the writers received more irate letters than in 10 seasons worth of George Clooney's womanizing antics). A bearded man knows what he wants and sets out to get it. He doesn't quit halfway through because the dental hygienist ran screaming from the scraggly stuff that she would have to come near in order to do his fluoride treatment. He knows that the ends justify the means. Just as Lincoln faced unpopularity across the entire nation--anger from the North because he was losing so many of their sons, brothers, and husbands in a war that was all about a cause, and from the South, which called him "Satan incarnate"--he held his head high and did what he was called to do. He led our nation to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and to an age of freedom that most had deemed impossible.
And let us not limit our examination to Mr. Lincoln alone. So very many trail-blazing individuals throughout history have worn beards--from literary giants like Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, and Walt Whitman, to business visionaries like Andrew Carnegie, to the entirety of the Impressionistic art movement. One can only imagine how it happened in 1874 at the Exhibition of the Revoltes in Paris. Perhaps it was Degas, perhaps Renoir, maybe Monet-- surely one of them showed up sporting facial hair, and one by one the masters followed suit. Of course, only bearded men can be artists. They have to fashion that facial hair every morning into something presentable, a challenge and a pleasure that the clean-shaven man will never know. The same thing seems to have happened in the small community of truly great film directors: Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Cameron, Kubrick--bearded, one and all. Need I go on?
And our fourth and final point: a bearded man is the perfect paradoxical relationship between raw instinct and careful cultivation. Much like our own United States of America--a land that includes the most refined and developed urban centers in the world, and at the same time claims home to wonders of nature that remain untamable--the canyons of Colorado, the redwoods of California, the Great Smoky Mountains of the South--this is a land that remains much the same as it was before man ever got his hands on it. Our country is pure and raw and passionate, and at the same time structured and ordered and cultivated. So, too, should be our leader. And only a man with a beard can combine the bohemian and the bourgeois in a manner that we can read upon his face. Literally.