How Obama Can Make History Again: Grow a Beard

The president tells Red Sox fans that he once tried to grow a beard — but why not try again?

Mike Napoli of the Boston Red Sox celebrates in the clubhouse after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the 2013 World Series at Fenway Park on Wednesday, October 30, 2013 in Boston.
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Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Oct. 30, 2013, 1:43 p.m.

Be­fore Pres­id­ent Obama’s elec­tion five years ago, there were plenty of people who would tell you the coun­try wasn’t ready for a black pres­id­ent. Obama proved them wrong, and now he can do it again by ig­nor­ing the naysay­ers (in­clud­ing his own wife) by prov­ing that this coun­try is ready for an­oth­er kind of pres­id­ent again: a bearded one.

“I tried to grow a beard, but Michelle, she wasn’t hav­ing it,” the pres­id­ent said in Bo­ston on Wed­nes­day, re­mark­ing on the Red Sox’ il­lus­tri­ous and feared World Series beards. On Twit­ter, the com­ment drew ap­plause and re­quests that Obama ac­tu­ally grow whiskers.

It’s been 120 years since our last bearded pres­id­ent, Ben­jamin Har­ris­on, left of­fice, and there are now just a small hand­ful of beards in Con­gress. Ben Bernanke and Grover Nor­quist have had to go it al­most alone among power­ful Wash­ing­to­ni­ans for most of the 21st cen­tury. Mus­taches have fared a bit bet­ter, with sev­er­al dozen mem­bers of Con­gress and one Cab­in­et mem­ber (At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er) sport­ing the look. Wil­li­am Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt both spor­ted ro­bust handle­bars, but our last pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate with a full beard lost in 1916.

Beards are in­creas­ingly vis­ible on TV and in cit­ies and work­places across the coun­try, so why not the marble cor­ridors of Wash­ing­ton?

The late 1800s were the golden era for fa­cial hair in Amer­ic­an polit­ics, when dur­ing one stretch, four out of five pres­id­ents — Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln, Ulysses S. Grant, Ruther­ford B. Hayes, and James Gar­field—all proudly car­ried out their du­ties with full beards.

Harry Tru­man, in a heady mo­ment of post­war, post-reelec­tion ex­ulta­tion, flir­ted with — and seemed to quite en­joy — the first full pres­id­en­tial beard since daguerreotypes went out of fash­ion. Days after he won the elec­tion in Novem­ber 1948, the pres­id­ent re­treated to Key West. “Pres­id­ent re­laxes and grows a beard,” ran the head­line in LIFE Magazine:

“Then, out at the Navy base along the cool blue sea, he took his ease. He got in­to a lin­en sport shirt…and let his sil­ver whiskers be­gin to sprout. When [Vice Pres­id­ent] Al­ben Barkley dropped in for a vis­it…the Pres­id­ent look so re­laxed as to be mo­ment­ar­ily un­re­cog­niz­able to his run­ning mate. By the next day, [Tru­man] had had enough beard to be­gin spec­u­lat­ing on how it would look when full grown. But the Pres­id­ent of the U.S. is sub­ject to some very hu­man re­straints — Mrs. Tru­man joined him and the whiskers dis­ap­peared.”

His beard nev­er quite made it to fruition, but it re­sembled Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Tom Coburn’s come-and-mostly-go beard.

One group today is at least try­ing to get more beards in polit­ics. The Bearded En­tre­pren­eurs for the Ad­vance­ment of a Re­spons­ible Demo­cracy, or BEARD PAC, which formed this year, hopes to help elect full-bearded can­did­ates in the 2014 elec­tion (so far, it’s only raised $52 as of its latest FEC re­port).

But the PAC’s Andy Shapero is with­hold­ing judg­ment on Obama’s fa­cial-hair pro­spects, since BEARD PAC is “firmly fo­cused on its mis­sion to elect bearded in­di­vidu­als, and as Pres­id­ent Obama is cur­rently term lim­ited.” Shapero did en­cour­age Na­tion­al Journ­al to fo­cus on can­did­ates “who sport both a full beard and a savvy mind full of growth-ori­ented policy po­s­i­tions that will move our great na­tion to­wards a more lush and mag­ni­fi­cent fu­ture.”

Will Obama be a part of that fu­ture? Prob­ably not any­time soon. But we’ll check back on Jan. 21, 2017, some­where on a golf course in Hawaii.

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