Among the centenaries few are likely to celebrate in 2008, one of the most unlikely is that of facial hair and the US Presidency. Yet it is now exactly 100 years since America last voted for a leader with any kind of facial hair. That honour falls to the Republican William Howard Taft, who—along with his luxuriant moustache—was in 1908 elected as the 27th President. It was not to last: in 1912, he was crushed by the clean-shaven Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, so far and fast had the ‘tache fallen from fashion that Taft also became the last President to be beaten into third place by a third party candidate, winning only two out of 48 states.
Incidentally, Taft is also the heaviest man ever to have been president (at over 300 pounds), as well as the last president to keep a cow on the White House lawn. He’s also the only person in US history to have been both president and chief justice, but the electorate were evidently unimpressed by this second time around.
The American hate-affair with facial foliage had reached such a pitch by the mid-twentieth-century that Richard Nixon’s five-o’clock shadow during his first televised debate with Kennedy in 1960 is believed to have been instrumental in his perception as “untrustworthy” by the electorate. And we Brits have been little kinder. In 1959, we were prepared to endorse Harold MacMillan and his elegant “English” moustache, but since then it’s been the same story as the States. And neither we nor they have dared elect a fully-bearded leader for over 100 years (the Marquess of Salisbury was our last, in 1895; Benjamin Harrison theirs, in 1888).
Look across 2008’s presidential hopefuls and not a hair will be found out of place. Thanks to middle-eastern mores, however, there is one part of public service where hairiness has started to come back into fashion—the military. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, beards are signs of status and maturity; something western forces have begun to cotton on to, to the extent that soldiers are being required to start growing theirs weeks before their deployment. As RAF Lossiemouth helpfully put it in their recent “facial hair order for servicemen,”
Beards are considered to be a sign of status in the country and the air force hopes the move will boost relations… Corporal Toby Box, 27, from London, said the gunners were told three weeks ago to try and grow a beard. A parade was then held and the commanding officer selected 14 with the best growth. He said: “We’ve been told that the Afghans pay attention to someone with a beard.”
I suspect it’s more than a coincidence that facial hair has declined in politics in inverse proportion to the growth of women’s rights (and votes) in the west. As Obama has recently found out, anything that pushes the better-looking half of humanity towards an opponent’s cause can be deadly. Just as well for Hilary that she’s not relying on the Afghan vote…