Standing out in a crowded field

April 13, 2013

Tom Wolf is running for governor of Pennsylvania.

What?! The dapper literary deity who has brought us “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and “A Man in Full” wants to participate in the rough-and-tumble of Harrisburg for the next four years?

No, you’re thinking of Tom Wolfe. With an “e” on the end of his last name. And he, of course, should not be confused with Thomas Wolfe, the early 20th century novelist who penned “Look Homeward Angel” and “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

This Tom Wolf, a York businessman and former state revenue secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell, is gearing up to spend at least $10 million of his own cash to try to stand out in a crowded Democratic field that will also include U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord and, possibly, Joe Sestak, the former congressman who narrowly lost to Pat Toomey in a bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 2010.

Wolf’s well-upholstered bank account is sure to buy a good bit of exposure. Whether it will bring success is another question altogether – just ask Tom Smith, the Armstrong County Republican who ponied up $16 million from his own pocket in a fruitless effort to oust U.S. Sen. Bob Casey last year.

But there is one thing about Wolf that will definitely make him stand out, whether he has $10 million to spend or $10.

Wolf has a beard.

Of course, a 64-year-old man in possession of facial hair is hardly unusual. But it’s rare among the CEO set and extraordinarily exceptional among men with their sights on the loftier reaches of American politics. Gone are the days when you could be Gerald Ford, occupy the Oval Office and wear a plaid leisure suit. Now, most men in politics sport identical blue ensembles with white shirts, blue or red ties and flag pins in the lapels. And their upper lips or chins display nary a trace of stubble.

Dial back a little more than a century, however, and the opposite was the case. The men who once occupied the White House and wandered the hallways of statehouses and Capitol Hill – and they, of course, were all men back in those days – were generously endowed with facial hair. Massive mutton chop whiskers. Walrus mustaches. Thick, billowing beards that surely needed to be regularly cleansed of tobacco juice and breakfast crumbs. Abraham Lincoln was the first bearded president, and Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison followed in the quarter-century after. A batch of mustachioed commanders in chief came in quick succession, creating an almost unbroken string from Grover Cleveland to William Howard Taft. Only with the ascendance of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 did the clean-shaven start their century-long residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Wilson’s 1916 opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, was the last major-party candidate with a beard.

It’s easy to understand why men with political ambitions have been investing in shaving cream. Even the teeny bit of 5 o’clock shadow Richard Nixon displayed in his first televised debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960 might well have been sufficient to doom him in that, pardon the pun, razor-thin presidential race. And when Al Gore emerged a couple of months after the razor-thin presidential race in 2000 with a beard, the hullabaloo was such that you’d think he had started sporting a tutu in public. This despite some studies that show men with beards are considered more trustworthy than their clean-shaven counterparts.

There is some hope, though, for men who pine for higher office but don’t want to abandon their hirsute ways. Earlier this month, a political action committee was launched by a Columbia, Mo., school board member to promote bearded candidates. It’s called the Bearded Entrepreneurs for the Advancement of Responsible Democracy. BEARD for short.

In Pennsylvania, at least, it looks like BEARD has its man.



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