Facial hair among the political power players

When President-elect Barack Obama named New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as his pick for commerce secretary this month, his former Democratic rival appeared beside him, cleanshaven -- another devastating blow to facial hair in the long-running battle of beard versus Beltway.

The change apparently was shocking enough that a reporter felt compelled to quiz the future leader of the free world about it. Obama's response was unusually wistful: "We're deeply disappointed with the loss of the beard," the president-elect said. After a pause he added: "I think it was a mistake for him to get rid of it. I thought that whole Western, rugged look was really working for him."

Richardson began to grow his beard after dropping out of the Democratic primary in January,following the same tonsorial trajectory as Al Gore, who grew a full-on exile beard after his razor-thin loss in the 2000 election. In an Esquire interview posted at the magazine's website recently, Richardson said that going for the post-campaign chin fuzz was an act of rebellion "against those consultants who told me I had to comb my hair, shave, lose weight."

But with all due respect, there was only so much rebel in those whiskers. When the governor took the stage at Invesco Field during this summer's Democratic Convention, he hardly looked like Saddam fresh out of a spider hole, or Tom Hanks in the last third of "Cast Away." His beard was always well-groomed, shaved down to frame his cheeks and up to follow the jawline, and his mustache was always trimmed just so.

As a seasonal beard-grower, I can tell you (and the former energy secretary should agree): It actually takes more care and attention to meticulously manage the facial forest than it does to clear-cut.

In the days since the Barack-Bill beard-banter, many pundits have been quick to point out that there has been no bearded commander-in-chief since William Howard Taft and that Abraham Lincoln was elected cleanshaven and grew his famous beard between election and inauguration; some have suggested that bearded men are patently untrustworthy (to which I give you two words: Santa Claus).

What may be at work here is the misperception that bearded folk are somehow operating outside the system. Not to split hairs, but the real renegades are those with laissez-faire facial hair.

Just look at Wilford Brimley's walrus-mop mustache versus Colonel Sanders' Vandyke. No wonder it's oatmeal versus fried chicken. And Kenny Loggins' neatly trimmed beard made him seem warm and fuzzy, while two-thirds of ZZ Top look like they'd make ashtrays out of your kneecaps just for giggles.

If you need proof that facial hair can go the distance in the incoming administration, look no further than Obama's pick for attorney general. Eric Holder sports a mustache, sure enough, but it's as sharp and defined as a brand new Batarang. If you think Holder steps out of the house without trimming that hedgerow, you've got another think coming.

Of course one inside-the-Beltway beard that's been in the spotlight is a bit less carefully cropped. It's the full-blown salt-and-pepper Socrates-style neck creeper that belongs to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Most days it looks like it's about to escape down the collar of his shirt.

Our advice? If you want to be taken seriously, trim it back at least as often as you trim interest rates.

Tschorn is a Times staff writer.


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