Is America Ready for a Bald President?

Hillary Rodham Clinton aspires to become the United States’ first female president, Barack Obama the first African-American to win the office, and one has only to throw a cyber-stick to find the latest ruminations on whether we Americans are truly “ready” for such a revolutionary moment.

Yet for all the attention paid to the ostensibly irrelevant criteria of sex and race, few have focused on the related question of another potential “first” that threatens to raise its (ugly? you decide) head during this presidential cycle: namely, whether we are ready for our first bald president — or at least the first in the age of what historians call “the television presidency.”

The sudden prominence in national and local polling of G.O.P. contenders Rudy Giuliani and the as-yet-unannounced Fred Thompson suggest we may soon, for the first time in almost half a century, hail a follically challenged chief executive.

In Giuliani’s case, what was, for about a decade, an unpardonable comb-over was suddenly transformed, shortly after the death of the former mayor’s mother, into a more accepting and natural-looking sweep-back. Seldom do professional politicians behave in more overtly Freudian fashion, especially when it comes to matters of fashion.

That so little has been made of this subject should strike political observers as a curious thing. For all the squeamishness that surrounds the subject, baldness (to employ a favorite journalistic cliché of mine) is big business. Some estimates place the over-the-counter traffic in hair-loss treatment and restoration products at $7 billion per year, with untold additional sums spent on research and development, lobbying and litigation, not to mention hat sales and insurance payouts stemming from botched surgical procedures.

Dollar figures do not even begin to convey the extent to which this subject pervades our society at large. The Beatles made long hair acceptable for American men, and baldness a liability of sorts in the post-1960s culture. In "Don’t You Just Hate That: 738 Annoying Things," a wry and amusing catalog of life’s bummers and irritations published by (full disclosure: my close friend) Scott Cohen in 2004, the author, who is losing his hair, laments both how “we judge men by the choices they make in how they deal with their baldness.”

There’s really no competition between the Andre Agassi and Bruce Willis approach, or David Lee Roth’s, is there? And Simon and Garfunkel “both went bald.”

A visitor to the Web site further laments how many men equate hair loss with “a life destroying illness.” The site maintains a “Bald Hall of Fame” with such gleaming, and presumably involuntary, inductees as Agassi, Sean Connery, G. Gordon Liddy, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and actor Ving Rhames — but not, curiously, Mike Tyson or Michael Jordan.

In most journalistic treatments of this issue, this would be about the time for a pun, but I’ll abstain in the interests of (Mr.) clean prose. See? I couldn’t help myself. And I should know better. The chairman and CEO of the very company that employs me is bald, and he may not find any of this particularly amusing. He’s a very smart man and I know for a fact none of this humor will go ... over his head.

But is it an issue in presidential politics, you ask? Consider that we’ve not voted into office a bald commander-in-chief since that most commanding of figures, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Gerald R. Ford was by all accounts a good and decent man, but he was never elected president and was only partially bald.

Lyndon B. Johnson carried all but six states in the 1964 election as well as a rather prominent forehead; but even the most cursory review of his official portraits and contemporaneous photographs reveals how his hairline was, like his elusive Vietcong adversaries, prone to retreat but never to full surrender. Even Richard Nixon’s famous widow’s peak, while it did little to detract from public perceptions of villainy during Watergate, hardly bespoke baldness, per se.

The real turning point came with the Nixon-Kennedy debates, suggests presidential historian Richard Shenkman, professor at George Mason University and author of, among other books, Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History and Presidential Ambition: How the Presidents Gained Power, Kept Power and Got Things Done."

“It wasn't until John F. Kennedy's election in 1960 that we really start talking about the television presidency,” Shenkman remarked in a recent interview on FOX News' “Weekend Live.” “There was television during Eisenhower's era, but still people were making their decisions at that time based more on the traditional criteria that Americans had always based their decisions on: party loyalty, whether or not they agreed with the party's particular agenda. ... But all that changed once we got television in.

“(John F. Kennedy) himself said that he owed his election to ‘that little gadget,’ referring to television. Presidents just had to completely reinvent themselves once we had television. The appearance, the image just counts for so much more when you can see a person on television that that really did change our politics. And with JFK, he understood that. He used to study the tapes of himself on television after his appearances at press conferences, on 'Meet the Press,’ and on other venues to see: How did he come across? Was his timing good? Was his hair combed properly? He was fanatical about making sure his hair was combed properly. Because elections can turn on something as superficial as that. ... [I]t is a problem in a mass democracy where the people have the ability to decide who's going to be running the government if they are making their decisions on superficial criteria.”

By the time of the Senate Watergate hearings, which saw damning testimony from numerous bald men — two of whom, Nixon aides Bob Mardian and Fred LaRue, looked so much like each other that Fred Thompson himself, then the committee’s minority chief counsel, remarked on how “LaRue is seldom mentioned without mentioning Mardian, Mardian is seldom mentioned without mentioning LaRue.” Mardian himself felt compelled to reply that “Mr. LaRue and I look somewhat alike to some people, because of our build and lack of hair.” Fully 97 percent of American homes contained a television set, and one in three boasted two or more.

After that, the American electorate never looked back, and never went bald, at least in terms of presidential balloting. In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned famously about the dangers of ceding too much power to the “military-industrial complex.” He might also have warned about the dangers of developing a national complex over hairlines that are receding.

James Rosen covers the State Department for FOX News and is the author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate, forthcoming from Doubleday (and focused entirely on Richard Nixon’s underrated and undeniably bald attorney general).