- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

Nothing says “I’ve been away” like facial hair.

When former Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson returned to the national spotlight to endorse Barack Obama last week, he showed up with a new accessory: a beard. The new look prompted ABC’s Diane Sawyer to comment the New Mexico governor looked like Justin Timberlake.

Late-night hosts David Letterman and Conan O’Brien were among the many in Hollywood growing “strike beards” the last few months. A few days on the air, though, and out came the razors. After the 2000 election, Al Gore reappeared with a full beard and a few extra pounds, trying out the professorial look as he eased into the lecture circuit.

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Are beards the male equivalent of a pair of oversize sunglasses and a tan? Is it a vacation for — or from — your face? Or is it a hairy sign of surrender when you are not seeking votes?

A little of each, says Toronto psychiatrist Allan Peterkin, author of the book “1000 Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair.”

“A beard represents time off and transition,” says Dr. Peterkin. “Al Gore lost the election and changed his public face. Beards are also grown during a period of mourning, so he probably was expressing all those things at once. It is really about changing your public face.”

Mr. Richardson has gotten more attention for his visage then he did for his now-defunct campaign. “Inside Edition” did a story on it, and several editorial cartoons remarked on the change. Media outlets compared him to Wolfman Jack, Rod Steiger and a Klingon. Of course, Mr. Richardson was only “away” in the sense of the national presidential campaign. He still was governing New Mexico.

Caitlin Kelleher, spokesman for Mr. Richardson, says the new look started in January, soon after he dropped out of the presidential race. Mr. Richardson told Time Magazine that the beard was a revolt against his campaign consultants.

“For an entire year, every day was programmed,” Mr. Richardson said. “Now that I am wearing a beard, I can finally reflect and decompress.” Meanwhile, Mr. Richardson told a New Mexico newspaper this week that he will probably shave in a month or two.

Dr. Peterkin points out that growing a beard can be construed as an anti-military, anti-establishment move, as beards are generally against regulations in the U.S. military and many police forces. Another place you won’t find beards in recent history is the White House. Dr. Peterkin calls facial hair “the kiss of death” in national politics.

“The last full beard in the White House was William Howard Taft,” he says. “People think the candidate must be hiding something because they can’t fully read their face.”

There also is a negative connotation with other bearded yet notorious world figures. What comes to mind when you think of Osama bin Laden or Fidel Castro? Besides tyranny and terror, beards.

“You’re either Satan or Santa if you have a beard,” says Dr. Peterkin. “In North American culture, the negative associations have sort of won over the positive ones.”

The usually clean-shaven A.J. Jacobs, author of the book “The Year of Living Biblically,” did not shave for an entire year as he lived his life by biblical rules for 365 days.

“People absolutely looked at me differently,” he says. “I felt different. I felt older. I felt wiser. But I heard every bearded joke about Moses, Gandalf, Abe Lincoln and Ted Kaczynski. It was not something that is socially acceptable unless you are a 19th-century vice president.”

That is partly because here in America we take our shaving seriously. Shaving products are a multibillion-dollar industry. The more blades the better, and with shaving cream as frothy as a cafe latte.

Pirooz Sarshar, co-founder of the Grooming Lounge, tony men’s salons in the District and at Tyson’s Galleria, says beards in Washington are usually only found on those trying to make a statement.

“There are men who have a full beard because they are religious, of course, but really D.C. is more of a clean-cut city,” he says. More often than not, a Washington man will have a close-cropped goatee than a full-on Grizzly Adams look.

Mr. Sarshar says some of his customers like to experiment with growing a beard — then are shocked when their facial hair comes in gray. “It’s just not as cool,” says Mr. Sarshar. “They just look older.”

Also not cool is letting the neck grow wild “like a Civil War soldier,” says Mr. Sarshar.

For most guys in the political world, I would say clean up the neck,” he says. “Shaving oil can help you shave around the beard without cutting into the beard.” The Grooming Lounge sells its own Beard Master, a $25 shaving oil made for just such close shaving.

Still, in some circles, some facial hair will always be in style. Dr. Peterkin points out that the 1950s had beatniks and the 1960s had hippies. The 1970s had Burt Reynolds, and the 1980s had “Miami Vice.” The 1990s had the post-grunge goatee. These days, a five-day stubble may look great on a Calvin Klein model, not so much on a lobbyist.

Phil Olsen, a Nevada lawyer and judge and self-appointed captain of Beard Team USA, a competitive beard-growing team, doesn’t care. His nine years of growth reaches a foot and a half, and he has the international beard-growing trophies to show for it.

“We’re trying to make beards more respectable so people won’t have negative connotations with them,” Mr. Olsen explains. He says it bothers him when men say they can’t have a beard because of their job.

“That reflects the irrational notion that something is wrong with having a beard, or that people wouldn’t vote for someone with a beard,” he says. “I don’t think that is valid anymore, but it seems no one wants to take the risk.”

If Mr. Richardson emerges as Mr. Obama’s running mate — and keeps the beard — he may have Mr. Olsen’s support.

“Would he keep the beard?” Mr. Olsen wonders. “That would be a major milestone for beards, the U.S.A., and Beard Team USA.

It would be another milestone in this historic election campaign — the first bearded candidate from a major party in at least a century.”

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