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Should #BeardedButtigieg Really Let It Grow?


All the buzz about Pete's fuzz.

I can pinpoint the exact time when I realized that beards were personally unattractive.

As I've written before, I had an obsession with the presidency as a child, and none were more beloved than John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. Most likely it was because Lincoln freed the slaves and Kennedy was known for civil rights. I was a conscientious kid. I was also fascinated by the fact that they were both assassinated -- don't ask me why the same rules didn't apply to James Garfield and William McKinley.

I had an outsized affection for Lincoln because, among the trove of political paraphernalia my great-grandmother gave me, was a first-print edition of Lincoln's Own Yarns and Stories. The book's battered cover and fragile, yellowed pages made me treat it more solemnly. I read what I could, and in the process got to know Abe quite well. But as a growing boy, one of the things that bothered me about Lincoln was his beard. A beard without a mustache was just so odd and unbecoming. Why did he have a beard that looked so weird?

Whether it was in the book, or from something else I read, or hearsay, I always remembered that Lincoln grew the beard at the suggestion of a little girl who told him it would help his appearance and political career. I guess Abe was a pushover. If he had been alive when I was young, he would have probably received a letter from a 10-year old me telling him to shave if off.

The recent social craze of #Beardedbuttigieg recalled my fixation with Lincoln. Just in case you've been living under a rock -- or behind a thick beard -- social channels were lighting up after Jim Fall, director of the 1999 gay rom-com Trick, posted photoshopped pictures of Mayor Pete with a beard that seemed almost Lincoln-esque. The overwhelming majority who weighed in with comments, posts and shares were advocating like the little girl to Lincoln -- Pete's political career and appearance would be boosted by a beard.

Lincoln and Buttigieg do have a few things in common. They're both from small towns in the Midwest. Their political careers were less than high-profile, from a national perspective, before they ran for president, and they're both good debaters. The Lincoln/Douglas debates were classic, and Pete has been flexing his chops through the primary skirmishes, routinely drawing great reviews.

Then there's the beard business. One could argue that based on fevered speculation, Lincoln's beard may have been grown in the emblematic sense? Was the beard hiding something that has been rumored about for generations? Was Mary Todd not his only beard before beard meant beard in the factious sense? Pete doesn't need to grow a beard in that capering way since he's not hiding his sexuality, but perhaps he needs one to gain dramatic attention, and thus jump-start his campaign and break out of the crowded moderate pack?

We have not had a president with a beard since Benjamin Harrison, known to me as the man who got between Grover Cleveland's two terms (elected twice, though not consecutively). And we have not had a president with facial hair since William Howard Taft, who was also our heaviest president, though that's currently being heftily challenged.

After all this time, all these years, and with so many stern facades, Lincoln and his beard stand out as the most recognizable and most consequential of any of the presidents' visages, including those with facial hair (with apologies to Chester Arthur's brave effort of sage brush side burns).

Lincoln kept that beard for the rest of his life. It must have worked for him since he was reelected.

And what does all the gaga over Buttigieg's beard say about us? What if someone were to drop photoshopped images of Bernie or Biden with beards on social? And juxtaposition them with pictures of David Letterman? Or Colonel Sanders? Or Santa Claus? Oh, the horror of it all! We would be clamoring for them not to grow those unwieldy gray and white whiskers -- or pleading for the crafty culprit to take those dowdy pictures down. Unfortunately, the Buttigieg brouhaha is all about sex appeal and appearance, cornerstones of a culture impressed by beauty. But have things changed so much since Lincoln?

In her letter, 11-year-old Grace Bedell said the following: "I have yet got four brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President."

So Lincoln grew that beard, partly perhaps out of vanity, because the ladies like the whiskers, and in Pete's case, seems the boys like the whiskers too. Lincoln didn't need social media to cajole him to grow the graze. All it took was a heartfelt letter from an ego-appeasing child.

Now a revelation. I thought Pete looked pretty hot with that beard. I haven't had a chance to comb through why I've shaved off my brusque bristle of beards. But I do know this. #Beardedbuttigieg has made me rethink Lincoln's growth without the stash. Had he foregone Gracie's counsel, would he be as memorably etched into our psyche? Had he remained clean-cut would he have achieved verifiable facial fame? Lost his venerable place on the five-dollar bill?

I'm sure Lincoln is smiling down at all the buzz about Pete's fuzz and how all the fuss is rekindling love for a presidential beard. Lincoln no doubt is rubbing his chin proclaiming, "this feels nice."

JohnCasey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.