In 1919, German essayist, social theorist and political economist Max Weber wrote a now-classic essay on the nature of politics and the role of vanity in the political animal. His “Politics as Vocation” describes how grasping for power creates in politicians a unique vanity that few ever escape or even fully understand.
Of course, even Weber couldn’t have predicted the rise of Donald Trump, our first reality TV president. Or rather, the “TV Reality” president, a vainglorious narcissistic politician writ large. He maintains a peculiar hue of orange that stems from spray tanning, tanning booths or both, whitens his teeth and takes a variety of measures to hide and halt his decades-long slog into baldness through ample Propecia prescriptions.
Nevertheless, is it fair to single out our short-fingered commander-in-chief as a new breed of image-conscious politician without precedent? Because for every politician who eschews cosmetic alterations to trademark physical attributes (which tend to become the centerpiece of ad hominem attacks a la Mitch McConnell’s much-lampooned turkey wattle), plenty undergo various degrees of maintenance and upkeep on the sly.
With that in mind, and in the spirit of President’s Day, here’s a cross-section of political vanity, stretching across age, ideologies and dubious claims in service of the one topical concern that most easily moves between the aisles of democracy: Lookin’ good.
Two words: John Edwards. Two more:consummate asshole. His other claim to fame, beyond cheating on his cancer-stricken wife? $400 haircuts. (Oh, and serving as John Kerry’s running mate in the 2004 presidential election.) After all, who could forget the hair GIF seen ‘round the world?
Gerald Ford was also concerned about his hair — in his case, that it was thinning. The issue so troubled him that Ford’s advisers reportedly asked for neutral backdrops to camouflage his thinning hair.
To fight back the balding of his own dome, conservative icon and noted racist Strom Thurmond got what was referred to as “semi-successful” hair transplants. Even as a nonagenarian he sported a truly unnatural dye job, which didn’t help.
And it became a running joke about Ronald Reagan that he maintained his coif by way of dye jobs. His minders denied it, but the topic became, to some, a metaphor for the 1980s. “Mr. Reagan is legendary for his ability to insist with seeming sincerity that black is white (or, in this case, that white is black),” The Baltimore Sun wrote in 1991.
Eventually, Kitty Kelley reportedly got to the bottom of the matter while writing an unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan—Kelley claimed Nancy’s hairdresser, Julius, had been dyeing Reagan’s gray roots since the late ‘60s.
Considering the reaction Hubert Humphrey received after attempting to appeal to voters by going from all-white in January 1968 to oil-spill black by August (his clumsy attempt at appearing younger), it was probably wise for Reagan to keep any Just For Men moves under wraps.
Of course, no lineup of hair-related barbs would be complete without a mention of former Vice President Joe Biden. His plugs are as recognizable as his mouthful of pricey veneers. Most would agree he’s no stranger to the occasional Botox once-over either.
Nips and Tucks
Speaking of doctor-aided de-wrinkling, for politicians to go under the knife in various ways and for a litany of reasons is nothing new. Neither is the fact that they will rarely publicly admit it. Nancy Pelosi, like Biden, has long been seen as someone who’s “refreshed” on occasion. Another facelift suspect? Former Democratic presidential nominee and youthful kitesurfer John Kerry, whose basset-hound visage came under the spotlight in 2013 — courtesy of the Washington Post no less. Previously — around the time of his 2004 run for the presidency with Edwards — Botox injections were the suspect.
Vladimir Putin has gotten plenty of scrutiny as well, with plenty of side-by-side headshots to suggest that his appearance has undergone a number of changes—especially when his previously baggy eyes started looking spiffy and taught.
Naturally, when a report came out claiming Kim Jong-un had chin-reduction surgery to appear more like a dead family member, it didn’t go over so well. The Supreme Leader even had the official Korean Central News Agency release a statement: “The false report … released by enemies is a hideous criminal act which the party, state, army and people can never tolerate.”
In 2014, a K Street husband-and-wife dermatology/cosmetic surgery team revealed to the Washington Post a few details about the politicians and diplomats who sought the fountain of youth at the end of a series of laser treatments, dermal fillers, Botox injections and the like. “I have a back entrance, which has come in very handy,” the wife said. “The Secret Service definitely knows that back entrance.”
A decade earlier, The New York Times spoke with a plastic surgeon who said he’d been seeing politicians for 10 years, and even claimed to personally know of six senators that had quietly gone under the knife.
A fun bit of trivia buried at the end of that story involved Abraham Lincoln, who apparently was moved to grow out his beard for cosmetic reasons due to a letter from an 11-year-old girl. “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be president,” she wrote. Lincoln, in pure Lincoln form, responded promptly: “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now?”
Honest Abe indeed.