Al Gore, and Other Famous Bearded Men

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It's mid-August, and therefore time to bring scholarship, experience, and psychobabble to bear upon the question of why Al Gore has grown a beard.

Begin with simple explanations: Some men grow a beard because they have the good grace to get sick of their own faces in the mirror. I've done that once or twice. I wanted a vacation from my face. Imagine how sick of your face you would be if, like Gore, you had to see it on every television screen and newspaper every day for years.

Men grow whiskers on vacation because they want a break not only from the face but also from the routine of shaving. Shaving belongs to the world of What You Normally Have to Do, like putting on a tie, and being on time for stupefying meetings, and keeping up with the e-mail, and crisscrossing the United States trying to sell yourself, month after month, year after year, to a blur of American voters.

The impulse to escape, to vanish: Imagine what paroxysms of weariness and twitchingly muscle-bound identity must overcome a man when eight years of self-abnegation as vice president, playing woodenhead second banana and stunt double to a character like Bill Clinton, are followed by a grinding presidential campaign, itself traumatically prolonged, in which the real Gore (whoever that may be — the core Gore) is forced to play the protean part of Boy Scout/statesman/policy wonker/philosopher king/Alpha Male/dynamite Tipper-kisser, and so on.

Hardball's Chris Matthews, who has become a leading political cartoonist, says the whiskered Gore looks "like a Bolshevik labor organizer."

Maybe he does. Or a gentile jockstrap masquerading as a Freudian analyst (and fooling no one). Or Howard Hughes. But the motive for Gore's beard is not ideological. The beard is not a badge — not a party uniform.

It's true that we instinctively consider that a beard is something a Democrat does, not a Republican. If you saw two men standing side by side, one bearded and one clean-shaven, would you not, if asked which man belonged to which party, assume that the Democrat was the guy with whiskers? But surely these are stereotypes. Think of Robert Bork's ridiculous chin-strap.

Here we enter upon advanced beard studies — the consideration of differentiated beard styles. Bork's neat, even prissy clip bespeaks something of a law-and-order personality deriving from the Ice People, even as it gestures a little confusingly in an Amish direction — not the full rectitudinous C. Everett Koop model, but a thinner version thereof.

The world's most famous lefty beard is Fidel Castro's moth-eaten, air-conditioned number, a brilliant and durable trademark that has never been sufficiently backed up by the man's hormones. Rule One: A wispy, unpersuasive beard, through which the facial skin is clearly visible, tends to subvert a "strongman's" machismo.

The nineteenth century doesn't figure in our current discussion, although there would doubtless be much to be learned if we were to compare and contrast the whiskers of John Brown, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, and Abraham Lincoln.

Stick to current sociology and psychology.

Why did Al Gore grow the beard?

Camouflage. Disguise. Respite from recognition, and from the necessity always to be onstage, the focus of a million eyes. Jackie O would have worn a beard if she could have managed it.

But maybe a deeper and shrewder process is involved — purification and renewal.

Consider: The 2000 election ends. Gore concedes with great grace (nothing became him like the leaving); vanishes abruptly. Buzz, buzz — where's Al?…Gore's gone, Gore's finished!, buzzz, buzzzz..... zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Blank months pass, entirely Gore-free. Then Gore is sighted in far-off lands, with beard. How weird. Never mind: It is time in the desert of obscurity, sackcloth, mere tourist raiment, monkish hirsutism.

But after the dark night comes...what? How much more powerful then will be the effect — next week? next month? soon enough — when Gore, resplendent, clean-shaven, glabrous in his glory, returns from the dead! Radiant! Reborn! (He hopes).

You can't come back if you've never been away. The beard — a penitential withdrawal — represents sound theology and shrewd public relations.