When Paul Ryan succeeded John Boehner as speaker of the house in October, the new guy took bold action immediately.
Ryan grew a beard.
Not since Frederick Huntington Gillett, a bristly Republican from Massachusetts, held the speakership from 1919 to 1925 was the nation treated to such a spectacle.
Washington buzzed with speculation.
What did it mean, the Ryan beard?
Was the speaker, a hard worker inclined to spend whole nights in his office, trying to compress the morning routine by skipping blade and shaving cream? Perhaps Ryan was focusing on a younger constituent base — making a calculated effort to demonstrate his dude-ness?
Others argued raw vanity was the explanation while some insisted Ryan was only distancing himself from Boehner, a low-keyed fellow known widely for an all-season tan and penchant for weeping in public.
Early in the New Year, Ryan reassessed, shaved the scruff and said via tweet that he sought a “fresh start.” Whether the move was political or the speaker tired of the attention, we don’t know. Doesn’t matter. The beard was gone. The trend remains.
Surely, you’ve noticed: Beards are as abundant these days as shoulder-length hair back in the hippie-dippy Age of Aquarius.
I am not talking about those adopted for religious or cultural reasons, or even in deference to regional imperatives. On a recent trip to the Northwest, for instance, I was struck by the number of amply bewhiskered men but guessed the bushiness was a mix of frontier heritage and a touch of contemporary survivalist chic.
The beards I really have in mind are the snazzy variety often sported by Hollywood dreamboats (Zac Efron, Jake Gyllenhaal, George Clooney) and local-level wannabes — the five o’clock shadow types you see heading into restaurants on Saturday nights with their snug, square-bottom shirttails hanging out.
Also to be considered are my two elder grandsons, ages 18 and 23. Both boys favor jawbone enhancement, a look that makes them appear to me more like the late U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop than the Brad Pitt they most likely would prefer.
Asked why he was suddenly bearded, Patrick, the younger boy, said in the expansive style of many his age: “I don’t know, it just grew and I didn’t clean it up.”
This is the equivalent of Speaker Ryan claiming his beard was inspired by a weekend in the woods with live ammunition. Further investigation revealed that Patrick does rather like the nickname he has acquired since becoming scruffy. To some associates, Patrick said, he is now known only as “Wolverine.” Isn’t it wonderful what young people consider approval?
People who study trends are all over the beard phenomenon.
The Atlantic magazine reports that, like other primates, male human beings likely feel pressure when competing for suitable mates. Accordingly, the story noted, we see “cheek flanges on orangutans, long noses on proboscis monkeys, and beards on humans” — in other words, anything to give a guy an edge. One expert cited by the magazine noted that in the Renaissance period, beards spoke of “virility and sexual potency, since it indicated the fires burning below.”
Beards are not just male plumage, in other words, but a sort of X-rated promise of hot times ahead. Is there something my grandsons are not telling me?
Of course, all this has to do with self-image, doesn’t it — with deciding how to present ourselves to the world? Young people no doubt worry about this more than their elders. But, except for espionage agents and hired guns, no one wants to go entirely unnoticed.
For some of us, it happens anyway.
Years ago, I hailed a cab in the city and was greeted by a woman driver. After a moment or two, our eyes met in her rearview mirror.
“I bet people tell you this all the time,” she said.
“Tell me what?”
“You look like a movie star.”
How splendid, I thought. Redford? Newman? Omar Sharif?
“Come on, you know.”
“I don’t — who?”
The cabbie checked me again as if to make sure.
“Woody Allen,” she said triumphantly.
Even that revealing episode did not occasion plastic surgery or paste-on goatee. Despite a drooping chin that might best have been hidden by a bit of ground cover, and no matter the risks of anonymity, or worse, I remain clean shaven. Underneath it all, we are what we are — right?
Anyway, late word in some quarters is that the woolly epoch nears its end. “Sorry, guys, beards are over,” said one recent website post. “Time to shave,” declared another. So, barefaced boys of a certain age, take heart. Keep razors sharp and bravely lather up. Converts are heading our way. Speaker Ryan may be just the first.