THE PRESIDENCY WHAT THE BARBER KNEW

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Milton Pitts, barber to the past four Republican Presidents, died last week at 84 and left unanswered a titillating question he himself raised. Would U.S. history have been different if Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had not haughtily tossed him out of his tiny White House shop and turned to politically naive hair stylists? Pitts, who believed hair had become a crucial image factor, thought so. A few students of presidential esoterica have had sympathy for the ideas of this jolly tradesman, who through skill and nerve climbed higher in the power circle than any other barber in history outside of Seville.

When Carter in 1979 changed his hair part from right to left and added a little tint, Pitts was aghast, confiding to friends, "That guy is not going to last." One Pitts theory was that untested leaders could, with seemingly % innocent things, set off a slide into oblivion. In Pitts' view, Carter's hair change was too dramatic, suggesting self-adulation. And when Clinton had his $200 haircut from Beverly Hills' Christophe aboard Air Force One, Pitts predicted an image implosion because the new President would be viewed as indulgent and undignified.

Pitts was a purveyor of subtlety. He got Richard Nixon to forgo the dollop of "greasy kid stuff," giving him a more natural appearance. Jerry Ford was still trying to comb a few wispy strands of hair over his nearly bald pate when Milt got his clippers on him. He shortened the top and lengthened the sides, playing to nature's own honest impulses.

Pitts' challenge with Ronald Reagan was to bring Hollywood into the aura of Thomas Jefferson without losing individuality. He sculpted the Reagan pompadour to more modest dimensions but kept the slightly unruly wave up front, suggesting a man of flair, but disciplined. George Bush needed less attention than the others, but Pitts found that a slightly rounder cut helped soften Bush's lean face. When Bush lost the l992 election, Milt was chagrined. There had to be some other factor, he reckoned, worrying that Clinton's mod, over-the-ears hair had turned the tide, though Pitts was convinced Clinton's hair was not short enough and was too pointed on the top. He would have helped Clinton, claiming that "my scissors are neither Republican nor Democrat," but by then he was hopelessly pegged as a Republican journeyman. He gathered up his tools and returned full time to his shop in the nearby Sheraton-Carlton Hotel, where other famous clients, including former Secretaries of State William Rogers and James Baker, came in for their $25 trims along with free advice on world and national affairs.

Some things, however, Pitts never talked about. A surprising number of his power clients came quietly to him to experiment with the new hair-growing potions. Pitts would say none of them really worked satisfactorily. But that was about all this wonderfully open and hearty man kept secret. When people suggested Reagan was dyeing his hair, Milt, who adored the actor turned President, gathered up a few of his White House clippings, brought them out and showed them to the skeptics. The hair Pitts displayed had one silver strand for every 50 deep-brown hairs, not something that could be arranged in a tint. The fact was that Pitts had a fascination with Reagan's enduring and abundant turf. One day, while standing at the back of a crowd listening to Reagan speak, Milt leaned over and, with an affectionate chortle, said, "Look at him. Without that head of hair and that smile, he still might be selling Wheaties in Iowa."