Abe Lincoln used his transition to grow his famous whiskers. Just what Obama needs to project gravitas in these troubled times. Plus, a gallery of his options (think Col. Sanders).
“I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln,” President-elect Barack Obama told 60 Minutes recently. “There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful.’’
Well, of course he would. Obama and Lincoln have much in common. Both men come from Illinois, though both men spent many years living in other states. Both are stylish writers and eloquent speakers. Both have a background in law. Both have as his principal rival a senator from New York, and both selected that rival to be secretary of state. Both come to the presidency under most difficult of circumstances.
But only one, so far, has spent his transition growing a beard.
Click image to view Gallery of Obama Beards
Most histories and biographies repeat the story that Lincoln grew his beard at the suggestion of an 11-year-old girl from Westfield, N.Y., named Grace Bedell, who wrote Lincoln in October 1860, a month before the election. “I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try to get the rest of them to vote for you. You would look a great deal better, for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husband’s to vote for you and then you would be president."
The 51-year-old Lincoln did not reply to Grace’s letter with enthusiasm. “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a silly piece of affectation if I were to begin now?" But Grace wasn’t the only one who had offered the suggestion. As historian Harold Holzer reports in his new book, Lincoln President-Elect, a group of backers who called themselves True Republicans had offered their “candid determination’’ that Lincoln “cultivate whiskers and wear standing collars," which would make him “the best-looking as well as the best of the rival candidates." Lincoln did not respond to this letter, but perhaps it encouraged him to accept young Grace’s advice. After the election he began growing his beard, and by the time he left Illinois for the March 4 inauguration, he had a chinful of hair. Holzer says that the people liked the new look. “With the nation facing a graver crisis than Lincoln was so far willing to admit, his whiskers gave him…gravitas.”
So far as we know, no Grace Bedells or True Anythings have been suggesting that Obama grow a beard. At 47, he’s younger than Lincoln was when he took office, and while various critics have with little effect noted his lack of experience, no one has said he lacks gravitas. Not that a beard would signify great seriousness anyway. In the mid-19th century, facial hair was the sort of thing worn by parliamentarians, clergymen, professors, generals, and royalty. Today, facial hair shows up mostly on actors, rock musicians, and other who aim to signify an artistic temperament, or on certain people who understand economics (Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman, Jon Corzine.) Politicians with facial hair are very rare. Indeed, if the Obama-Biden administration completes its term still clean-shaven, an entire century will have passed since we had a president with facial hair (William Howard Taft). Only the bearded Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 and the mustachioed Thomas Dewey in 1948 so much as managed to be a major party’s nominee.
But there just might be a good reason for Obama to grow a beard: foreign policy. Consider that in the almost 100 years from Wilson to Bush that America has had clean-shaven presidents, the following individuals have been prominent among its enemies: Pancho Villa, Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler, Emperor Hirohito, Hideki Tojo, Josef Stalin, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Hafez al-Assad, Daniel Ortega, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden, and right now we’re not exactly sweet on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
A bearded Obama would show the world that everyone will start with a clean slate, if not a clean lip.
Anybody see a pattern here? Surely it can’t be so simple that America just hates guys who don’t shave. And yet…look how George W. Bush was never quite as friendly with Vicente Fox as we first thought he would be. Look how quickly Ike tossed over Anthony Eden and de Gaulle at Suez. Think he would have done that to Churchill?
Who knows? But the evidence points to a trend—and an opportunity. A bearded Obama would show the world that America bears no one ill will. Everyone starts with a clean slate, if not a clean lip.
At his press conference to announce Bill Richardson as his commerce secretary, Obama reacted to Richardson’s new clean-shavenness: “For some reason, maybe because it was scratchy when he kissed his wife, he was forced to get rid of it—but we're deeply disappointed with the loss of the beard."
Are there any 11-year-old girls out there who would like to send the president-elect an email?
Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Spy, Time, and Playboy, and is the author of the satirical novel The Coup.