Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The beards bursting in air.

A friend of mine popped up at church Sunday with not one hair on his face. This was astonishing, as I had never seen him without some kind of whisker -- full beard, goatee, handlebar, lump of fuzz on his chin, something. As it turned out, having rediscovered his bald face, he decided he didn't like it, didn't think it had aged well, and was planning to cover it up again as soon as possible.

It got me to thinking about our hirsute age, where so much facial hair is about, where it's never been easier for men to shave and yet so little shaving is being done. And yet, with Independence Day upon us, it dazzled me that we've had so few U.S. presidents with facial hair. Other fashions have come and gone with presidents as with the general population, politicians following rather than setting the fashions -- presidents didn't make powdered wigs take a powder, and Kennedy did not actually kill the male hat. But despite the fact that respectable men have been growing facial hair since the 1970s, we have not had a serious candidate for the office with a mustache or beard since Thomas Dewey, who ran in 1944 and 1948.

Maybe the 'stache is why he lost.

Have a look at these portraits of the presidents. Lincoln is, as in so many things, a pioneer, our first chief of the executive with facial hair beyond some comical sideburns. After the break with Johnson, we get quite the run -- Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, (McKinley abstains), Roosevelt -- until Taft finishes the chain of hair in 1912. Since then, 18 presidents in a row with no hair on their mugs at all, our longest unbroken streak.

It's an out-of-date collection, but I hear that Trump fellow also has no beard.
The post-Civil War era when all these presidents had all that foliage was one of great industry and optimism in America, and I have to wonder if our longstanding malaise could be combated by leaders with big ol' beards. Not the female leaders, of course; that would be weird. The men would just have to beard up enough to cover all of them.

I'm not sure if that would do the trick, though, as the biggest beards I'm seeing since Duck Dynasty went off the air tend to belong to hipsters, who produce no hope or optimism and for a very large part no industry. In fact, one sees all too little of our old can-do attitude these days; more of our where's-my-friggin'-entitlement attitude. Rather than the unity of E pluribus unum we have the splintering of Unum de multis.

But it's hard to ignore the argument put forth by P. G. Wodehouse, himself no bearer of beards. In his 1956 book America, I Like You (in the UK published as Over Seventy), Wodehouse wrote an ode to the American beard and the American spirit. I hope his estate will not come down on me too hard if I reprint it on my humble, advertising- and profit-free page, in the interest of encouraging my fellow citizens to pull up our socks, tuck in our shirts, grow some fuzz, and get out there and do something big:

The world is in a mess today,
Damn sight worse than yesterday,
And getting a whole lot worser right along. 
It’s time that some clear-thinking guy
Got up and told the reason why
America has started going wrong. 
If laws are broke and homes are wrecked,
It’s only what you might expect
With all the fellows shaving all the time. 
Yes, sir, the moment you begin
To crop the fungus from the chin,
You’re headed for a life of sin
And crime. 

What this country needs is whiskers
Like the men of an earlier date.
They were never heels and loafers
And they looked like busted sofas
Or excelsior in a crate. 
Don’t forget it was men with whiskers
Who founded our New Yorks, Detroits and San Franciskers.
What this country needs is men with whiskers
Like the men who made her great. 

The pioneers were hairy men,
Reckless devil-may-care-y men,
Who wouldn’t have used a razor on a bet.
For each had sworn a solemn oath
He’d never prune the undergrowth;
Their motto was “To hell with King Gillette!”
And when they met on country walks
Wild Cherokees with tomahawks,
I’ll say those boys were glad they hadn’t shaved. 
When cornered by a redskin band,
With things not going quite as planned,
They hid inside their whiskers and
Were saved. 

What this country needs is men with whiskers,
For the whisker always wins.
Be it war or golf or tennis
We shall fear no foeman’s menace
With alfalfa on our chins. 
Whitman’s verse, there is none to match it,
But you couldn’t see his face unless you used a hatchet. 
What this country needs is men with whiskers
Out where the best begins.

What this country needs is men with whiskers
Like the men of Lincoln’s day.
At the Wilderness and Shiloh
They laid many a doughty guy low,
They were heroes in the fray. 
Theirs is a fame that can never die out,
And if you touched their beards, a couple of birds would fly out,
So let’s raise the slogan of “Back to whiskers!”
And three cheers for the U.S.A.

Happy birthday, America.
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