The beardless White House: Part I

Something’s been bothering me about this election. No, it’s not the silence from both major parties on climate change. It’s the fact that neither Obama nor Romney (I accidentally just typed “RMoney”… accidentally?) sports facial hair. A friend and I were talking about this the other day, and a quick google search showed us there hasn’t been an appreciable furface sleeping at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. since the mustachioed WH Taft (of butter and bathtub fame), 100 years ago. That is, unless any of these recent presidents was a closet homosexual (different meaning of “beard”).

This is hairy dearth is deplorable. Just look at this pic of portraits of past presidents:

You’re probably thinking, “Where’s all the virile scruff?” Well, no, you’re probably thinking, “There’s a lot of dudes / white ppl there.” But your next thought is probably, “Where’s all the virile scruff?” However, from Abe Lincoln through Bill Taft there’s a fairly flagrant concentration of beards, mustaches and whatever you call the thing hiding Chester A. Arthur’s charming smile (squared off in red); only W McKinley and A Johnson dared rain on this badass parade. Yes, there are some audacious sideburns on John Q. Adams and Martin Van Buren, but otherwise all Executive facial hair is concentrated between 1860 and 1913. What gives?

It looks like there’s a fairly clear pattern: voters loathed and distrusted facial hair for the first nearly 100 years of American history, followed by a brief period in which facial hair was loved and trusted, which may then have been ruined by Taft and after which there’s been nary a stache nor goat sitting in the oval office to the present day. Is this a real pattern, or could some other random process produce this same distribution of scruff? (for simplicity’s sake, we’ll pretend no president served more than 1 term…) Could random sampling of 43 (mostly white) men give us a clump of 9/13 with facial hair? (side burns don’t count) If there’s a 50/50 chance of a man growing facial hair, is 9/43 Prezes unusually high or low? I’ll let you know after I write and run some tests!


I know that this website is predominantly authored by biological anthropologists. But seeing as how I am the oddball, I could not resist a little bit of election-inspired ethnography. If you take a look at this blog: you can see a preview of the reaction that happened at our house (and at all of the houses people at our house called, emailed, texted, shouted to across the rooftops…). It was truly an overwhelming response, and I have never felt such a connection with a political event as I did on November 4th. I would argue that almost everyone in our place got teary eyed (or cried outright) when President-Elect Obama gave his speech following Senator McCain’s concession. And I would also argue that for the first time in a long time, or perhaps ever, people of my generation felt connections to the candidates and the electoral process. Why?

I think it’s the result of a lot of things. First of all, whether you are happy or not about Obama’s win, you probably would admit that our country is in a bad place. I am not just referring to the economy – we are involved in wars abroad, climate change is becoming more and more part of everyone’s lives (although arguably it should have always been), and we are seeing the effects of some high tension conflicts in the world at large. Not only that, but there are so many other problems in the world (poverty, agricultural problems, political changes, health problems), and if you put that together with our access to 24 hour news coverage and overexposure to media…well, I’d be scared out of my mind if I were Obama right now. How do you take charge of a sinking ship? How do you steer it back on course? These are the types of staggering questions we had to ask of our candidates this time around. We are in trouble. And while there’s always trouble in the world and in the United States, I think the problems we are seeing now are in some ways, unprecedented. With people losing their jobs, food prices rising, and our international conflicts reaching a climax…there was a hope and a fear so thick in the air you could probably have cut it with a knife on election day. I don’t mean to single out one day (because there have been almost 2 years leading up to this election, and countless years leading up to all of the problems I have listed), but honestly…it was the day that made the decision. People cast their votes, polls closed, ballots were counted, and in pretty high numbers, this country spoke its mind.
I know that, of course, race is an issue that could not be overlooked in this election.  But in light of the insanely challenging and complex task that lies before him and our whole country, I wonder how this issue factored into the election and how it will play a role in his presidency. What does it mean? And what does it mean to different groups of people in our country and around the world? I have no idea what the answer is to that question, but I can only hope it’s positive. Yes we can. Yes we can see past the color of a person’s skin. Biological anthropologists these days deny that there is any biological foundation to race. But I don’t think this means that “race” does not exist, at least in the minds of most people. For instance, the word is still used in biological anthropology textbooks, it’s still on the pages of Newsweek and Time, the New York Times, and it’s still something people identify with. What will happen to concepts of race now? Will they change? 
The United States prides itself on being a place where anyone can achieve her/his dreams. Will Barack Obama’s presidency give hope to people in this country, something that we need so badly? There is so much riding on the next four years. So much of ourselves that have now been invested in the hopes of change. But Obama reminded us of something in his acceptance speech,  – “This victory does not belong to me, it belongs to you.” Even his slogan – Yes we can – reminds us that it is WE who have to make change happen. Yes, we need to have someone in office who is intelligent, visionary, and not just competent, but BEYOND competent. But we also need to take this election as a time to reflect on ourselves. It takes two to tango and a nation of people to make things happen. We cannot blindly rely on someone else to do the work for us. Yes, Obama will have to do things that we simply cannot do – make decisions about really important things. But if we remember the president our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) dreamt of, it was not a king. Not someone who made all the decisions, and certainly not someone who is, on his (or her, one day) own, going to fix cure all the diseases of an ailing nation. 
Regardless of who you voted for, it is time to now stand together as one, with common goals of fixing the real problems in our country.  But I think we have to also remember we are not “one nation,” we are members of a global community that is screaming out for justice. We can no longer live in a bubble and leave the problems for someone else to solve, someone older or wiser, or simply put – someone else. Our generation is going to be running this country one day, and we have to realize that it is WE who can change the world. WE who can take action. Because one day, President Obama will be a memory. But we’ll still be here. What then?