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Presidential Follicles (Nov. 5, 2003)

Voters don’t insist that presidential hair be life-like. It needn’t boast colors found in nature, but is expected to behave obediently, even opposing gale-force winds. Here in California, the archetype — the iconic coiffure — remains that rigid, pumpkin-toned pompadour sported by Ronald Reagan during his gubernatorial starring role and its sequel.

He stuck with those fossilized, orange, witch-hazeled waves, throughout a subsequent pair of presidential terms, while lesser pols flirted with blow-dryers, razor-cuts, comb-overs, and scalp-plugs. There were major fluctuations, over eight years, in Reagan’s approval ratings, but his ’do never budged an inch.

I recall wondering, as a toddler, why the most powerful dudes on Earth (Eisenhower and Khrushchev) had no hair at all. They were like Superman’s nemesis, arch-villain Lex Luthor. Then, hatless, impeccably-snipped JFK showed up, to brush cue-ball dominance away.

Such a dense crop would not reappear until the Clinton administration (no coincidence, perhaps). Bill once generated derisive headlines for delaying take-offs at LAX — allegedly on account of an overlong, $200 runway trim.

Presidents, early on, were secure enough to prance about in powdered wigs, and tights, and flashy vests, and wooden teeth.

Shoulder-length locks, pony-tails, even bizarre bouffants were not uncommon, from colonial independence until the mid-19th century«

Find a portrait of untamed Franklin “Handsome Frank” Pierce, or lament the woefully failed blonde lacquer and plaster efforts of his predecessor, the often-mocked Millard Fillmore. Party leaders of the Know-Nothings and Whigs might as well have been exiting a Grateful Dead show.

Chief executive facial hair enjoyed a brief heyday, of around four decades, debuting with Abe’s moustacheless beard. Lincoln’s beleaguered, clean-shaven, post-assassination successor, Andrew Johnson, was impeached (unconvicted) in an unrelated imbroglio.

There ensued the most hirsute period in Oval Office whiskerdom. Ulysses Simpson Grant, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, James Abram Garfield. These cats cultivated bodacious beards you’ll find today only among the Amish or the Taliban.

Garfield, mere months after his 1881 inauguration, was gunned down by Charles Julius Guiteau (must celebrity killers always be given all three names?), invariably described as a “disappointed office-seeker.”

Impossible to know what, if anything, had been promised, but branding Guiteau “disappointed” seems a trifle tame, like speaking of “chagrined” homicidal postal employees. Guiteau completed his vengeful mission, and the eccentrically mutton-chopped Chester Alan Arthur assumed the reins of power.

Up next was Grover Cleveland (facial finery limited to lips, no chin), who set standards for future Pennsylvania Avenue tenants with his extracurricular pursuits.

Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock, and a campaign chant composed by his opponents featured the chorus:

“Maw, Maw, where’s my Paw? Gone to the White House. Haw. Haw. Haw.” He won anyway.

Completing his first term, Cleveland found himself unseated by Benjamin Harrison, grandson of the ninth President, William Henry Harrison, an ex-general and now footnote, because he delivered a ponderous, interminable inaugural address, outdoors in wintry Washington, fell ill, and croaked, serving for a month.

Benjamin was the last of our fully-bearded leaders. Grover came storming back next election, his interrupted reigns screwing up the numbering system for history majors ever since.

Smooth-cheeked William McKinley followed, but on a glad-handing visit to Buffalo, he had the misfortune to encounter a reputed anarchist with an unpronounceable name — Czolgosz — and a loaded, bandage-wrapped pistol.

It’s amazing to consider that, in slightly over 35 years — 1865 to 1901 — three Presidents had been murdered. Worse yet, they tended to linger after the attacks, testament to unreliable low-caliber firearms and primitive medical attention (Garfield took two and a half months to die).

A century ago, manic, blustery, belligerent Teddy Roosevelt charged in, after briefly mourning his boss. He’s still the youngest lad (42) to hold the office, JFK the youngest elected to it.

T.R., already legendary for his Rough Riders’ charge in Puerto Rico, was a gift to political cartoonists, with his crisp, bushy cookie-duster and patented grimace, squinting behind pince-nez.

Teddy tutored, then tormented, the elephantine William Howard Taft, whose baroque, topiary handlebar, 90 years and counting, stands as the last tonsorial accessory affected by a US. President.

Taft would have carried weight in the trivia annals, anyway, as our most corpulent chieftain. He was well over 300 pounds, necessitating installation of broader bathtubs in the executive mansion. Plus, extricating himself from a constricting stadium seat, it’s said he inadvertently invented baseball’s seventh-inning stretch.

Give Big Bill credit, though, for a distinguished secondary career (something Slick Willie may look a long while for), sitting as Chief Justice on the Supreme Court.

Post-Taft, we get nothing but shiny, fresh-scraped faces. In fact, only one major-party candidate during that time has dared facial decoration. This might win you a bar bet: it was Thomas E. Dewey, the dapper, hard-assed ex-New York Governor and former federal prosecutor, likened by one scribe to “the man on the wedding cake.” Dewey challenged Truman in 1948 and lost by a whisker.

He allowed himself the narrowest of pencil-thins, but it came across sinister as those of the mobsters he rounded up and jailed.

In the 50-plus years afterward, we’ve witnessed LBJ, redneck oil-slick; Nixon, frightening, receding homage to Bela Lugosi; Carter’s prescient impersonation of the even-now unretired Peter Frampton; and some of the related train-wrecks noted above.

Scholars concur you’ve got to be nuts to crave the presidency. Well, then, contenders ought to look the part.

Enough with the rep-ties and the MBA suits. Grab an illustrated history book and examine lunatic fashion decisions made by the likes of Martin Van Buren and Zachary Taylor. Pull out a twenty and admire Jackson’s artfully-tousled, luxuriant mane.

Presidents are clearly going to perform in a manner as mercenary and corrupt as corporate CEOs. That doesn’t mean they have to be so buttoned-down.

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