There are four men in The Neo-Futurists’ 2012 cast for this play but I’m the only one of us who will be sporting facial hair. I’m going to pretend this is significant for the rest of the essay, so bear with me.
When you look back over the succession of our presidents, as any group of people performing this play are bound to do, you notice patterns and trends emerging, often the result of sheer coincidence, other times a clear cost of being president. As the bearded man of the 2012 ensemble, I got curious about the stats when it came to the POTUSes sporting their own variety of whiskers. It breaks down like this…
Presidents with facial hair (while in office): 9
First president with facial hair (while in office): Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
Last president with facial hair (while in office): William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
Mustaches: 4 (Arthur, Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft)
Beards: 5 (Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison)
Last presidential nominee (from a major party) to have facial hair: Thomas Dewey (1948)
For me, this raises larger questions about the electorate and the power of a candidate’s image on his chances for election, and there are numerous factors in play when it comes to that.
Part of this, of course, is the nature of men’s fashion at the time. In the half-century spanning Lincoln through Taft, only Andrew Johnson (who was never elected) and William McKinley went clean-shaven; but losing candidates also included mutton-chopped Horatio Seymour and bearded men such as Winfield Hancock Scott. After Wilson defeated the bearded Charles Edward Hughes it became virtually impossible to get elected to the Oval Office if you didn’t shave. And Lincoln, it should be noted, didn’t grow the beard until after he took office and the Civil War began.
It’s arguable that the final nail in the coffin was Nixon’s infamous five o’clock shadow during the televised 1960 debate between him and JFK. Viewers found Kennedy’s appearance in makeup more appealing than Nixon’s decision to go without, and considered Kennedy to be the clear winner of the debate (notably, those listening to the debate on the radio believed Nixon was the victor). As it is, it’s hard even to observe any time in the last 50 years that a whiskered presidential hopeful has mounted even a serious challenge for the party nomination, although the three who have even been part of the conversation–Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Herman Cain–were African-American men (although note again that the first African-American to achieve the nomination and afterwards the presidency was the clean-shaven Obama).
I’m not saying any of this is fair or unfair, it’s simply the way things are now. For the American male, your political ambitions can be directly tied to your fastidiousness with a razor.
I have no such designs on the White House (and full disclosure, unlike our current President I was not in fact born here) and during the course of our production I’ll be playing several presidents that didn’t have beards of their own.
But I’m not shaving mine off.