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Jewish World Review August 17, 2001 / 28 Menachem-Av, 5761

Sam Anderson

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Consumer Reports

AlGore finds scruffy refuge in beard therapy -- IN normal times, I might have been just another smooth-cheeked man who, through a lapse of judgment, grew a horrid experimental beard. But these are far from normal times. By pure chance, my heinous crime of facial aesthetics sprouted in coincidence with an equally horrid beard --- on the cheeks of Al Gore.

By now, everyone has seen Gore's mangy little fuzz of a beard. The scruff, or at least those parts of it dense enough to show up on camera, has been paraded through newspapers and broadcast on television. Columnists have mocked it. Democrats have denied its existence. Republicans have hired photographers.

My beard, though ignored on such a national scale, has been energetically reviled on a local level. My wife refuses to kiss me, saying I look like I ate a lollipop and rolled my face in coffee grounds. A friend accuses my beard of ruining an entire roll of her film. For weeks I suffered this persecution. Then I saw Gore's picture on the evening news, and it was as if my TV screen had turned into a mirror. My attempt at a beard was an exact replica of the former vice president's: a loose batch of fuzzy tufts stained weakly in a rainbow of grays and browns. This man, I saw, was my soul mate.

Given the coincidence, I feel uniquely qualified to act as a liaison between Gore's beard and its confused public.

Pundits insist that Gore's beard is the first aggressive move in his campaign for the next presidency. They see it as a campaign slogan written in stubble: "Brand new Gore in 2004!" To pump up his image, they claim, Gore intends to tap into a long tradition of illustrious political beards: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Vladimir Lenin. The problem is that Gore's beard doesn't come anywhere near such high standards. Next to Lincoln, he looks like a delinquent 12-year-old. So the terrible beard only emphasizes his inferiority in the ranks of the gloriously furred.

Gore is probably flattered that the pundits consider him crafty enough to grow a tactical beard. To one who has grown a similarly disastrous beard, however, Gore's deeper motive is obvious. In fact, this is a touchingly blatant case of emotional beardage. After suffering the most demoralizing and ambiguous electoral defeat in U.S. history (and here I silently exempt several thousands of hormone-driven races for senior class president), Gore is seeking refuge in beard therapy. He's trying to reassure himself that, though his political stratagems do not work, his basic biological functions still do. Some will recognize this strategy as the one high school boys adopt (though, it must be admitted, with often superior results) after painful breakups.

Many wonder what we, as a nation trying desperately to maintain our dignity in front of the world, should do about Al Gore's beard. An angry wave of media criticism is exactly the wrong strategy. A terrible beard -- however firmly its suit-wearing grower might object -- is at root a social protest. Criticizing Gore will only strengthen his beatnik vigilantism. Remember: The word beard, as a verb, means "to defy."

Again, if I may reference my little life: It won't be my wife's constant criticism that erases my beard in the end. I predict that, after the initial emotional trauma passes (I think it has something to do with excessive library fines), the beard experiment will collapse under its own mawkish weight, and I will run to the razor on my own.

Of course Gore's emotional trauma seems more persistent. If he is somehow able to withstand the shame of his beard until 2004 -- which would be a strong statement of his independence, if not of his aesthetic judgment -- there's no telling if it will have filled in densely enough to dethrone George W., whose whole being seems to promise that he, too, will grow a beard, or at least a scruffy little goatee, the moment he's old enough. With this ahead of us, I fear that the next few years of American government might redefine the term dirty politics. I bristle at the thought.

JWR contributor Sam Anderson lives and writes in Baton Rouge, La. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Sam Anderson