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The Emperors' New Shaves

Beards once conveyed wisdom, then became dirty. Will a western male leader ever sport one again?

By Iain W. Reeve 9 Aug 2006 |

Iain W. Reeve is a political science student at Simon Fraser University. He is an editor and regular contributor to several student publications in the Lower Mainland.

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The incredible shrinking of political facial hair.

So you're one more guy wanting to make it in Canadian politics, and you're wondering about hanging on to your facial hair. Forget about it. Consider the case of Ken Dryden, Liberal Leader aspirant. It wasn't enough for him to be a brainy former NHL star. Before he announced his candidacy, his full beard, sported this time last year, had to go.

A quick glance at the B.C. legislature, Canadian House of Commons or U.S. Congress shows uniformly clean-shaven chins. The New York Times has announced beards are "back," and shaving underachievers are once again becoming trendsters, which raises the question: How did facial hair get so political?

After all, the early political days of Canada and the United States were dominated by impressively whiskered men. In B.C., our first premier, John Foster McCreight, as well as his eccentric successor, Amor de Cosmos, who oversaw our province's entry into Confederation, were bearded.

Beardless in Victoria

Richard McBride, who became premier in 1903, had the dual distinction of being the first B.C. premier to be aligned with a particular political party and the first to be free of facial hair. His reign spelled the beginning of the end for facial hair in B.C. In time with the rest of North America, beards were acquiring a bad rap. The next appearance of facial hair was with John Duncan MacLean and Simon Fraser Tolmie who sported moustaches in the 1920s. But their terms were followed by 58 facially hairless years.

Moustaches sprouted again in the early 1990s. Back-to-back NDP premiers Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark sported 'staches. Likely riding the resurgence of the moustache thanks to Magnum P.I., the two were rebels in a baby-faced world. But while Harcourt's term was a prosperous one for the NDP and B.C., scandal-plagued Clark drove his party to the most humiliating defeat in B.C. history in 2001. With that came the death of the moustached politician. It will likely be some time before we see another moustache in the B.C. premier's office.

While the House of Commons featured a largely bearded population in the early days, soon after Confederation, the positions of power, namely prime ministers and leaders of the opposition, have typically been a smooth-faced bunch: of 21 male prime ministers, only four had facial hair for significant periods during their terms. This includes our second PM, Alexander Mackenzie, and the Santa-esque Mackenzie Bowell, who each had beards. Mr. $100 bill himself, Robert Borden, carried a proud white moustache. The most recent prime ministerial facial hair was the almost negligible moustache of Louis St. Laurent. Since then, there have been nearly 50 facially hairless years in our fair country. Political consultants are making the beard extinct. Or, at the very least, branding the beard as a mark of evil.

Trends for our neighbour to the south are similar. While the first 15 presidents were beardless, the trend toward the beard was started by one of the most famous bearded politicians ever: Abraham Lincoln. Yes, Lincoln was such a powerful force that only two of the next 10 presidents lacked facial hair.

That was until baby-faced idealist Woodrow Wilson defeated the bearded Charles Evans Hughes. The American people had clearly chosen a beardless future. Wilson was in his late 50s when he took office, but still had a youthful appearance, which was well met by his idealistic policies. The youthful image, immortalized by baby-faced presidents such as Kennedy and Clinton, has been essential in American electioneering ever since. There has never been another president with facial hair. In fact, the only such candidate was Thomas Dewey, who was defeated by both FDR and Harry Truman, entrenching America's rejection of beards.

Trudeau shaved for Canada

Beards create one of two styles: the intellectual or the hippie. On the one hand, the very word summons up images of intellectual giants: Freud, Marx, Aristotle, Hemingway, DaVinci, Dickens, Darwin. And it suggests fatherliness and experience: think Gandalf the Wizard, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Papa Smurf, Fagin from Oliver Twist, and, of course, Santa Claus. On the other hand, they make men look like social dropouts: think the short-lived hobo beards of "men about town" George Clooney and Brad Pitt -- which may be why we don't trust bearded politicians.

Just ask Pierre Trudeau. In his memoirs, Trudeau reflected on a trip he took to Tibet after he resigned as Liberal party leader following defeat by Joe Clark's PCs in 1980. When Trudeau returned from Tibet and the Clark government was defeated, Trudeau was pressured by many in his party to resume the helm. His principal secretary, Jim Coutts, gave him the following advice: "Look, if you want to give the signal you are out for good, keep the beard. But if you think you might like to stay on, you damn well better shave it." Trudeau shaved, and won another four years in Parliament.

One of the suggested reasons beards have fallen out of favour with western men is that the WWI generation needed to shave them to stay clean in the trenches. This trend came home and beards soon became associated with filth and dirtiness. In politics, the beard has also widely come to be associated with distrustful liars, wealthy elitists and other undesirable persons. A far cry from the symbol of experience and wisdom they once were. Thus, the attempts by image specialists to curb their presence in candidates.

In the current parliament, B.C. is represented by only three bearded folk out of 27 male MPs. Only one U.S. governor out of 42 males, New Jersey's Ron Corzine, has a beard, and it is said he was told to shave it by campaign advisors. He was able to win his election quite handily despite his crippling beardliness. NDP leader Jack Layton was rumoured to have considered shaving his trademark moustache for charity, though this has thankfully not happened. Jack obviously takes his facial hair seriously.

The 'stach: the new black?

Beards have recently resurged in popularity among youth, a trend not seen since the hippie generation. The New York Times remarked on this trend in March. It notes the appearance of beards on popular actors, runway models and amongst the staff members of popular magazines such as Vice and Spin. Here in Canada, it is becoming hard to find a Canadian indie-rock band that does not have at least one member basking in bohemian, bearded glory. "This is some sort of reaction to men who look scrubbed, shaved, plucked and waxed," designer Bryan Bradley says in the Times article, noting that the new revolution may be a reaction to the metrosexual trend of recent years.

As beards once again become pop-culture trendy, and as people become just as suspicious of clean-shaven politicians, beards may well make a return to politics. And while, with the continued rise of women in political bodies, we will never see the same numbers we once did, I envision a day when the bearded man may proudly hold his head aloft in the halls of government without fear of persecution. A dream maybe, but a noble one if you ask me.

Iain W. Reeve is a political science student at Simon Fraser University. He is an editor and regular contributor to several student publications in the Lower Mainland.  [Tyee]

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