MAXWELL:  A bearded man gets a reaction

9/2/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In the theater of current popular culture, few things interest me more than media paroxysms and average people’s reactions following each sighting of Al Gore. I am not speaking of the wooden Gore of old _ the second fiddler.

We have met the new Gore, the relaxed former vice president recently returned from Rome, who has become his “own man,” the alpha male (whatever that is) sporting primal stubble.

In Pulitzer mode, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd bristles at Gore’s new bristles: “The beard is magnifique. So continental. . . . In all those pictures from Europe, the newly hirsute Al Gore, looking like Orson Welles, strolls contentedly after a repast in Rome with Tipper. He has a sly, freshly liberated expression that you usually see only on guys of 18, when they’re finally old enough to escape their parents, principals and guidance counselors, go off on a trek to Europe and grow a goofy-looking beard.”

Word has it that Salvatore Fodera, a New York hairstylist and vice president of the Paris-based World Hair Organization, first publicly suggested that Gore don a beard and nurture it at least until the next presidential campaign heats up. Apparently, Fodera figures that Gore will go after the office he believes he won the first time out.

What is the big deal with Gore’s beard anyway? Is it Gore the man, the politician who always, until his doomed campaign, painted himself as the insider, the policy wonk who never rocked the boat? Or is the concept of the beard itself _ hair on the face _ the problem? Do average Americans have a natural aversion to beards, especially when our leaders wear them?

I have not seen a poll about beards, nor have I conducted one. But as a man who has worn one since age 19 (I am 55 now), I have some knowledge based on experience and simple observations.

I suspect that contemporary Americans do not like beards on certain men _ elected officials, CEOs, cops, firefighters, high school principals and teachers, doctors, newspaper editors. By the way, would you buy a used car from a bearded salesman?

Although we have had five bearded presidents in the distant past (Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison), I do not believe a bushy-faced man could win the White House now.

Certain men can wear a beard without attracting suspicion: They include many college professors, psychoanalysts, clergymen, librarians, artists of all stripes and, thankfully, newspaper columnists.

The beard has an inherent quality that, for better or for worse, sums up the man. Here is a Random House Webster’s College Dictionary definition of the beard as a transitive verb: “to oppose boldly; defy.”

Is this the image the new Al Gore wants to project _ the reconstituted, independent public servant who is boldly opposing and defying the popular portrayal of him as an automaton?

I think so.

Besides trying out his new independence, Gore may have listened to Fodora, who gave this insight to John Balz of the Los Angeles Times: “A beard gives a man character, makes him attractive. People pay attention. It’s not any different than Mr. Gore wearing a blue suit and a red tie. . . . Politically, that’s a power look, so why shouldn’t he have a power beard?”

Again, I know a few things about the beard. Believe it or not, people (read that women) often have told me I look “distinguished” and “intelligent” with a beard.

Before my hair began to turn gray in swaths, I wore a full beard. As the graying spread like weed, however, I trimmed my beard short, and I keep it short. Hell, I do not want to look like ole Uncle Remus chatting with Brer Rabbit.

Speaking of beards and intelligence. One of the funniest episodes in television is Andy Griffith’s “Goober Makes History.” In this segment, the lovable mechanic takes an adult history course with other Mayberry residents. After making a fool of himself answering a few questions, Goober leaves town for a weeklong fishing trip. During the outing, he grows a full beard.

When he comes back, Aunt Bee is first to see him and tells him the new beard makes him look like a philosopher. Well, Goober starts reading, returns to the class and hogs most of the time. He becomes so obnoxious that everyone, including the patient Aunt Bee, runs in the opposite direction he appears. After Andy informs Goober that the beard has turned him into a smug jerk, he shaves and becomes his lovable old self. Mayberry also returns to normal.

If I know nothing else about the beard, I know that, for a teacher, it can be a powerful instruction tool. When I taught college English in DeKalb, Ill., several years ago, I told my academically weakest class that if 95 percent of the students passed the departmental proficiency examination, I would shave off my beard. For two months before the test, wisecracking students stuffed my mailbox with crude portraits of my beardless image.

To my surprise, 98 percent of the class passed. They out-performed my brightest section. I shaved off my beard and offered my weakest groups the same deal each term. More often than not, the challenge garnered good results.

Anyway, how will Al Gore conduct himself with his beard?

Will he shave before the next presidential election? Or will he risk jumping into the fray with the new look? Let us hope, meanwhile, that he does not emulate Goober and become an insufferable pest.